state of the art

On canvas or in clay our paintings or sculpture are created from a block of time, consumed in the present, purchased from the future, earned by the sum of our experiences lived. Displayed with earlier works we appreciate what “earlier works” means because while some pieces will vary because of an evolution in the products used to create them, most of their differences are evidence of the artist’s personal growth. Looking back on their work they see their progression as a creative person through the chronology of their work–a timeline where each painting, each sculpture, is a bookmark in their life representing what they learned, what they were trying to say then, and their ability to employ external media as their voice to express an idea from within to share with someone to hear. How far into the story they’ve got so far. We do the same in the individual models we create but when we collect those individual works into the collage of the model railway layout what we form is an interesting tapestry of difference and change.

Scenery textures like “zip texturing”, dyed sawdust, ground foam, and static grass are eras in layout construction almost like archeological eras identifying a model railroad as being from the Sawdust Era, the Ground Foam Era, the Post-Ground Foam Pre-Static Grass Transitional Era. Scenery is not alone in leaving behind changes in media as being the markers placing our work into distinct eras. It’s easy to look at our approaches to weathering models or what we define as being “realistic operation” of a model railroad and come up with similar time bands like: the ‘wash of Grimy Black makes it weathered’ era, the ‘central control panel from which Mr Model Railroader conducts the operations of an entire miniature railroad empire’ era, or the ‘I start by sorting the different cars based on the type of corn syrup loaded in each’ era.

An examination of certain classic paintings reveals canvases reused so that the painting we value is itself only a skin of today’s self stretched over yesterday’s todays, recorded as previous works stored in that same space. Why this is so is as much a decision of the artist to repaint over old work because of limited resources (if canvas is costly) as it is to replace or mask the evidence of previous work so that the current catalogue is only evident of their current life. Model railroaders like Eric Brooman did similar things by first kitbashing diesels for his Utah Belt, first to acquire models not otherwise available, but then re-kitbashing those same models into subsequent ones needed as the story of the UB evolved into its own future. Setting aside those model railroaders whose work is to create only models to focus on those whose definition of the hobby is represented in building model railroads a thing that makes our work interesting is how the scale and complexity of the model railroad makes it into an evolving recording of our personal growth. The larger, the more complex, the longer we live with it the more layers of growth we record in this model railroad. When presenting the model railroad we present it as a current work as our current layout, obviously, but the time invested into it is so great that who we were when we started working on it is no longer who we are now. Each foot of track ballasted makes us better at the skill of ballasting our track and if approach each subsequent foot of track with the same effort that latest foot of track we ballast is simply going to be some kind of better than the first we tried even though we use the same ballast in the same colours and stick it down with the same adhesive.

My model railways often live under the broad branding of “Victoria” though none represent that as a geographical place, time, or thing. The aesthetic measure of their completion varies but as studies they reached an equal level of completion. I realise that in their current or then current state they were a reflection of who I was at that point in my life. The wildness of their design might suggest the fire of my creativity or curiousity being fueled to white hot levels or their pink foam prairie appearance a stark reminder that the tank of resources to fuel work was dryer than the gauge on the dash indicated. What’s unique is how each was, like other forms of art work created, a reflection of me in that time.

As I look forward to a great change in our lives we’ve been working on over the last year I take time to contemplate the design of a new layout. Measured in complexity of track design or trains it’s a small layout. Measured in length of run it’s a large layout. Measured in modelling scale it’s a coy “big models of small things” project. We tend to default to quantitative measures like that to introduce our work and I’m starting to think we’re doing that wrong; possibly sacrificing who we are as the person doing the work for the sake of the work we’re doing.

How can we create something for who we are now?

How can we use this as an opportunity to evolve the language of our work so we can present this with a sense of who we are and what we have learned because of it?

Doing this work isn’t always about processing a dream into a material form.

The answer we have practiced is always expressed by factors of how much stuff we need to buy. We say things like: “build a small shelf layout” or “buy a kit and build it” and while those are also ways of being where we are is this an opportunity to expand the complexity of our language? A chance to go beyond simply getting more trains and instead growing who we are as people who like model trains and whose imagination is fired by the way that “model trains” helps us to feel whole as people inside. If this work we do is an art form it’s not because it’s pretty to look at but because it concentrates on an energy we feel inside that feels good when we engage with it.

Not what we can create from our means but maybe how it helps us evolve as those who create with it?

Maybe not state of the art but state of the artist?

Categories: How I think

3 replies

  1. Change in our lives….and coy…and big models of small things…all intriguing, Chris!

    Staying tuned for the journey. And yes, someone posted thousands of dollars of HO equipment for sale this week because ‘I guess I’m not ever going to build my dream layout’. It’s a chicken and egg question. I went for breakfast and I ordered both chicken and eggs because I wanted to see which would come first.

    I’m still waiting to see what it is in your state of the art. Omelette myself out now.
    Thanks for sharing,

    • Reading this over first coffees here and my mind wanders to:

      I’m a lifelong dedicated Sausage’n’Egg McMuffin fan. That with a cup of their coffee and I’m a happy me. That’s probably my favourite take out food. Chicken and egg makes me wonder however about this new chicken breakfast sandwich on offer. I know I see the ad’s and I know, my palette knows, just how darn delicious that should be too but every time I think “today’s the day” I (forgive me) chicken out. What’s worse than that pun is knowing that ordering one may finally help me gauge my interest in it compared to my long standing love affair but it won’t do a darn thing for that ‘chicken or egg came first’ question because they’ll settle into a tie in their little wax paper presentation.

      But still that constant: sipping on one of their coffees, enjoying one of their breakfast sandwiches, waiting on a train, is paradise by trackside.


  2. I like the analogy to a painter repainting over a previous painting. Many modelers will rip up sections of completed layouts to “do it better”, to take advantage of new materials, new techniques, higher skill levels. It’s a good thing I can’t reuse film or digital images or I would have done so already with some of my early photographic efforts.

    One of the many wonderful things about our hobby is that everyone has the option to approach it their own way. Someone like me may think, “good enough” and never redo a scene or the weathering on a locomotive, while others may return to a scene or a rail car and “touch it up” just a bit, move it that one small step closer to the vision that they have for it.

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