Monday, September 29, 2008

Clyde from Ohio

There is a Clyde, Ohio, which is the actual town on which Sherwood Anderson based "Winesberg, Ohio." 
The Clyde in the above title has nothing to do with either Anderson or Clyde, Ohio. Clyde Singer's paintings are currently being displayed in two area museums, the Butler in Youngstown, and the Canton Museum of Art. He was an Ohio native from a very small town south of Canton.  As soon as he could, he got out of Ohio and went to New York and studied at the Art Students League with Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry. The reason for the double exhibitions is that this is the centenary year of his birth. He ended up coming back to Ohio and was the director at the Butler for a very long time. 

I don't know if he's known much outside of Ohio. He was a contemporary of some of my favorite American painters of the 30s and 40s, like Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper. His work would be considered very old fashioned now. He was a realist and a lot of his work is narrative. He did some fine paintings of street life in New York, McSorley's Saloon and its habitues, baseball players, parades, and small town shops and shoppers, and street  crowds.  He did paintings of steel workers, men in line for soup kitchens during the depression, and factory towns full of grimy buildings and smoke stacks pouring smoke and ash over roof tops of dreary looking houses.  Almost all of his paintings are full of people with the exception of a few landscapes.  

Over two weeks I went to both shows and could go back. There is so much to see in his work. I can get lost in the images of what life used to be like in towns when the sidewalks were full of people, some looking straight ahead, some looking in windows, some chatting and gesturing with friends. That's pretty much gone  around here. Small towns have been replaced with malls and shopping strips with no character and no sense of place. I wonder if anyone under 50 will even "get" Singer's work. As I said, it's pretty old fashioned. It's far from sentimental, though, because much of his early work coincided with the Depression and he didn't make it pretty. There's a strong emotional content in those paintings. 

I decided to drive  home from Youngstown along what used to be the major steel producing valley road, Rte. 422.  It seemed only appropriate. It's like that road in "The Great Gatsby", only without the giant spectacles of Dr. Eckleburg. On one side are the giant remains of abandoned steel mills, which look like dinosaurs looming up. On the other side are dusty shops of indeterminate businesses (auto parts, cell phones), many bars, a few churches (mainly Catholic). an abandoned 4 story steel company office building, more bars, and side streets leading to neighborhoods of wooden houses that you don't want to think about. This time I noticed a huge parking lot, empty, containing a tiny wooden structure that looked about 16 feet square. There is a huge sign, almost as big as the building, that reads "LAW OFFCE. It goes on for miles like this. 

I don't know why I like to drive this way, but it is thought-provoking and not really depressing. I mean, I don't have to live there, just pass through it. I try to imagine what it must have been like when the steel mills were producing. It probably looked a lot like a Clyde Singer painting, with smog so thick you probably couldn't see all the people walking, shopping and chatting. Even like that, it was preferable to what it is like now. At least there was life there.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

1 comment:

Nancy Near Philadelphia said...

I do like the sample of his work that you provided. The lady in the white dress is clearly my Aunt Helen; I wonder how he got her to pose and why I never heard about it.