Another addition to my long since temporarily abandoned 2013 reading list (I do have two more books, one a group of Dickens’ Christmas Tales and Jane Austen’s Emma, from that original list which I will review in December per my original plan) this time. This is another work by a North Carolinian – an artist with an admirable regional (and developing national) reputation, Stephen Shoemaker, who has, in conjunction with writer/ friend Janet Pittard (who manages the challenging task of conveying Shoemaker’s folksy volubility into readable prose pretty well), developed a work that might best be described in their own words: “It is a story book illustrated with pictures, or it is a picture book illustrated with stories.”
The book, Stephen Shoemaker: The Paintings and Their Stories, contains over 40 of Shoemaker’s paintings and sketches as well as a few details from the paintings to help the reader appreciate the artist’s wit, his deeply pondered artistic process, and his use of symbolic elements to convey messages to viewers about himself and those he cares about.
The major focus of the book is Shoemaker’s series of paintings exploring the history of The Virginia Creeper – a now long since removed from service train that served people of the northwestern NC/southwestern VA area. Shoemaker is a talented artist of the American realist school – his avowed “hero” is Andrew Wyeth – and his paintings have those same qualities that make his role model an American master: realistically depicted characters and scenes with a soulful wistfulness that draws the viewer in and makes considering his works an engrossing exercise in pondering the psychology of the paintings as one admires the artist’s technique. My favorites among the works depicted, Tuckerdale Church, Halfway Rock, and The New Beginning carry within them that same haunted quality that one finds in Thomas Wolfe’s prose:
A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door… O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again….
For Shoemaker, in a real sense, the Virginia Creeper, both as a part of his memories and as an inspiration for his work, is his “found door” into his personal – and his region’s – history. With Pittard’s help, he is able to convey how his art helps him to coax his own “lost, and by the wind grieved” ghosts to come back again. The stories told both about the composition of these works and the memories that inspire them will draw any reader into reflections about what – and why – we remember.
Thomas Wolfe said, “The reason a writer writes a book to forget the book, and the reason a reader reads one is to remember it.” Stephen Shoemaker is an acquaintance of mine; I plan to ask him the next time I see him if Wolfe’s dictum holds true for artists and their paintings. No matter what his response, I can assure him that readers of this work will remember it.