The End of Country- Reflections on the Urban/Rural ideals
Updated: May 25
The title of this essay is taken from a book I am reading now by Seamus McGraw, with the subtitle of “Dispatches from the Frack Zone.” McGraw is a compelling writer with a knack for storytelling. Here he takes the potentially dull account of technology and industry and makes it human, exciting, engaging and with a very personal narrative that flows like a well-crafted historical novel. I am definitely not a fan of fracking but with McGraw at the helm, I felt myself to be part of a fast-paced exploration. Going back to biblical themes, the author speculates that Moses at the burning bush could have been early evidence of natural gas flowing through the cracks of dry desert earth. His book is also a thorough overview of the early discoveries of oil and gas in places like Warren, PA or Fredonia, NY in the 19th century. He also involves his family history, his Irish roots and stories of neighbors, some of whom I know.
This story told by McGraw is one that has touched many in our region with a variety of results, some that rupture relations, some that offer great wealth, and ones that connect the local with the global in profound ways. As I am early into this book, I am eager to see how the author comes to terms or to an appraisal of loss and compromise.
The other aspect of this essay is derived from painting directly from observation in both rural and urban areas. They may seem disparate but I will attempt to connect them. I will start with this art-related aspect.
While painting in a plein air event just a few weeks ago in the Philadelphia area I was traveling back and forth between the gritty inner city and the suburbs- some of the much older suburbs of Philly that are visually compelling for a variety of reasons. This plein air event, The Wayne Plein Air Fest is a week-long painting completion sponsored by the Wayne Arts Center in Wayne, PA- a suburb west of Philadelphia- part of the group of towns called the Main Line. The week has painters coming from all over the country to compete for substantial amounts of money. The participants are juried in, so it is regarded as good fortune to be selected.
For myself, this event is an intense week. All week I was arising early, usually before dawn so I could be ready to paint the sunrise. This is quite unusual for me, however when I am on painting excursions the exhilaration of the locale can inspire and compel one to new levels of production- if not a fervor of production.
This is my second time at this event and both times I have taken in the landscapes around the Brandywine River near Chads Ford, PA. This is near the museum that features the works of the Wyeths, so I usually make a stop there too. The landscape has changed a lot in someways since the days that N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle and Andrew Wyeth portrayed it in their iconic paintings of the early to mid-20th century. This is where the “End of Country” idea was pressed home with great insistence.
As I drove around this area west of Philadelphia it was impossible not to notice the overwhelming sprawl. The traffic was almost always intense and the roads I was on were very similar to the roads in Ireland- narrow with no berm and often with unforgiving hedgerows or rock walls close to the road. There was usually someone tailgating too on their commute into the city or returning. So there was not much leisure to scope out vistas.
Speaking of vistas, they were in short supply for the most part. McMansions were the order of the day followed by development of various kinds, strip malls and the like. The behemoth McMansions were clustered everywhere. I did find a few farms that were picturesque and somewhat reminiscent of the landscapes of Bradford County, PA or of central New York. These beautiful and stately farms with their accompanying homes of the 19th century and some going back to revolutionary times were islands however in the ever encroaching abundance of prosperity that was taking expression in humongous houses that must cost several million each.
What does this do to the tax base and how does it affect the viability of working farms? Are these farms now mere museum pieces run by gentleman farmers?
So, taking Seamus McGraw’s concern for industrialized sprawl in the northern tier of Pennsylvania- and by turns reflecting on the situation here in the southeast section of Pennsylvania there is a different kind of disappearance of country.
In the interior neighborhoods of Philadelphia I found a different type of dynamic of the old and new. I painted a district that I had never visited prior to this visit, West Philadelphia. One section included block after block of urban blight with Victorian row houses in varying states of decay and store fronts that had lots of security protections with an appearance of war zone in some ways. Not far away however, the optimism and community spirit seemed to flourish.
In this area I painted on a corner on Warrington Street that included a wonderful 19th century house that was just repainted with a wonderful periwinkle and maroon color scheme. The experience was incredibly positive. There must have been 50 or so people stopping, turning their cars around to make a special time to come look and praise what I was doing. A woman who resided next to where my easel was set up was growing vegetables on the corner. A former Pennsylvania Academy student, now in his 40’s bent my ear for a half an hour with animated theories of art and history. This ex-pat Brit, named John Paul said his efforts now were of writing an illustrated book. When he brought his sketch pad back it was filled with non-objective scribblings done with toilet paper. Hmm, I thought of encouraging him to be more positive and less scatological in his prose. Still, he was an animated fellow willing to share and converse.
The comparisons of rich juxtapositions in old suburbs like Manayunk, Roxborough and West Philly were compelling in many ways. To see former old glories like stately buildings maintained and neighborhoods revivified was clearly reassuring. The lack of anything resembling racial tensions was noteworthy too on this brief foray into the inner city. I felt I was embraced and welcomed by all while there.
" Morning Light Geometry- Schuylkill" A 14" x 18" oil painted along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.
To see a video of this work nearing completion- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1_wh-V2aWRM&t=2s
Sadly, I reflect now upon returning home to right wing hate crimes where a man from the Binghamton area traveled 200 miles to assault a community for extreme racists motivations. The optimism and connection that I experienced has run into the grim reality of gun violence and racism run amok.
The contrary and seemingly unrelated flux between rampant industrialization in northern Pennsylvania, hence a loss of country and contrasted with the proliferation of urban sprawl in the southeast have some kind of relation. With the latter, I doubt if there will be much value in their preservation a century and half from now as there is with brave little parks and Victorians elsewhere in Pennsylvania. Could one imagine going on an appreciative excursion to even a Levittown? Or as they say, on your deathbed, would one wish for one more visit to the strip mall?
Plein air painting has picked up the mantle of the Ashcan School in a good way. This is earmarked by the ability of the practicing artists to find beauty in the unpicturesque. The artists at the Wayne Plein air event were some of the best exponents of this aesthetic. I was amazed at many of the other painters’ works. Taking back alleyways, common street corners, innocuous little areas and making wonderful creations.
There is a sense of altruism that I am finding in this work and in the work of my fellow painters that may offer some respite or maybe an avenue to appreciation. As we see our sacred lands gobbled by fracking- related industries or even prosperity bursting the seams of urban boundaries -perhaps there can be moments where there is some type of balance observed, if ever so briefly and fleetingly. The urban sprawl and industrialization of once pristine areas brings to mind many global issues, like population growth- how many billions can the earth sustain? Warring nations, global warming, limited resource, refugees fleeing and pandemics are all part of the mix.
Upon my return home from the Wayne Plein Air event I missed my exit off of Route 81. I went past Whitney Point and instead got off at Marathon, NY. The road that traverses the hills between Marathon and Slaterville, NY was a pure delight. It was a rolling rural and beauteous bounty of compelling landscapes on a dynamic-cloud day. I appreciated the new route and homecoming.