About a year ago I came across some abandoned train cars from the Katy M-K-T rail line that once ran through Smithville, Texas on up to Kansas City.
The train cars were luscious shades of yellow and red with green moss and rust patina running throughout. Back in town I stumbled across a few discarded copies of the M-K-T Railroad Co. System Timetable (circa 1970) in the local antique store. The booklets were worn with smudges of dirt or possibly coffee stains and crumpled along the edges as if they had been stuffed into and pulled out of the train engineer’s back pocket on a daily, if not hourly, basis. The combination of these booklets and the color palettes from my photos of the old train cars became the inspiration for two pieces of artwork: Timetable No. 11 and Be Safe All Ways.
Something about trains seems to make a lot of us conjure up thoughts of adventure. Maybe it is the rush of speed, the ubiquitous rocking motion, the elongated landscape viewed from the windows. Well, I am sorry to report that from the look of these Timetables, for a train engineer, life on the rails was dictated by bunch of rules and regulations!
The timetable and train order operation system is now largely obsolete, replaced by more advanced technology and centralized traffic control. Back in the day, however, the engineer had the responsibility for following the printed operating plan (i.e, the Timetable) and knowing all of the rules regarding handling hazardous materials, how to deal with intervening complications, but most importantly, how time is to be followed and kept.
In the days of Timetables, the train engineer had some very specific rules about keeping track of time. For example:
Rule No. 1 of the Timetable specifies the only places where “Standard Time” may be obtained (Radio Station WWV in Fort Collins, Colorado or the Travis Dispatchers Office in Dennison, Texas).
The Timetable dictates the “Official Watch Inspectors”—Tic-O-Time Jewelry on 712 Main Street, Joplin, Missouri or Green’s Jewelry Company on 122 West Broadway in Altus, Oklahoma, among a few others.
Rule No. 3 regulates the “time when watches are compared…and must be registered on the prescribed forms.” I have this vision of train engineers standing around, Dick Clark Rockin’ New Years Eve style count down, until Compare-Your-Watches time. If that isn’t adventure, then I don’t know what is!
These days I, like everyone else, defer to Steve Jobs to tell me what time it is. If I have forgotten my Genius Phone –horrors– I simply ask someone else to check their phone so that Mr. Jobs can solve the time mystery. Apple has become the de facto keeper of the Official Time, kicking the Royal Greenwich Observatory to the curb.
Time is such an elusive commodity. People ask me how long does it take you to finish a piece of art? How long will it take to do a commission piece? The former lawyer in me really wants to give a specific response: 52. 3 billable hours. But of course it doesn’t work that way. Some parts of my process go quickly. The beginning phase is carefree and fast and bold. Then there is usually a really messy, sometimes tedious phase of adding the found materials. Then some more bold marks and color blocking. The final phase is the most elusive to quantify with time. Sometimes it is a simple mark or two clarifying color values or movement that is finished in seconds. Other times it is a massive addition of color to highlight very small tidbits of the prior layers, a process that may take several days or weeks to complete. Often, I just need to sit with the piece, giving Time the chance to help the colors and shapes settle, deciding what they want to be. Eventually one day I will walk into the studio and the last art move will announce itself and the artwork will finally be done. Unless…
I decide that all of this is just the first layer, in which case the whole process starts over again. I’m sure the train engineer would just shake his head. That is not following the Timetable operating procedures!