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Civil War artists enjoys brush with loyal fans

July 31, 1999|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Mark Baker admired Mort Knstler's artwork on the walls of relatives for some time before he took the plunge and bought two prints of his own, including a newly released print depicting an event in Martinsburg, W.Va., during the Civil War.

"I guess the Martinsburg print finally pushed me over the edge," said Baker, 46, who waited nearly three hours with his son and brother to have his prints signed by the renowned Civil War artist on Saturday.

It was "absolutely worth the wait," both for the value it will add to the prints and the personal value, said the Martinsburg resident, who describes himself as a Civil War buff.

More than 200 people came to Antietam Gallery in Martinsburg Mall for the signing.

Like Baker, they took a number and waited.

The high turnout wasn't unusual, said Knstler, who said his Civil War subjects have been extremely well-received by the public.

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People started lining up early in the morning Saturday, he said.

Knstler said he started the signing about an hour before he was supposed to begin and expected to stay an hour or more late in order to get to everyone.

By early afternoon, he was hearing a lot of tired hand jokes from people asking him to sign his prints, calendars and picture books.

Many asked him to sign "Jackson Commandeers the Railroad," his latest print, which depicts the Gen. Stonewall Jackson overseeing the overland transport of railroad trains out of Martinsburg in June 1861.

"Sharpsburg War Council," a fairly recent print depicting General Robert E. Lee's war council the night before the Battle of Antietam, also turned up a lot.

While Knstler has done a couple of paintings on the Battle of Antietam, one on Lee marching near Hagerstown and one set at Harpers Ferry, W.Va., he said "Jackson Commandeers the Railroad" is the first one he has set in Martinsburg.

In the next year, Knstler said he plans to paint a related scene, showing one of the engines being brought through Winchester, Va.

Knstler said he painted the "history of America," from pre-Columbian scenes to a space shuttle takeoff, until he painted one depicting a Civil War scene in 1988.

He's concentrated on the era for the past decade, he said.

"It's an opportunity to paint subject matter that has never been painted before. And it's also very exciting to people," he said.

There's wonderful material available to draw from to accurately set the scene, Knstler said.

Those with specialized knowledge - in the case of the Martinsburg print, Berkeley County historian Don Wood and folks at B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore - have been very willing to share it, he said.

Serious collectors Kent and Debbie McBee, of Martinsburg, say they appreciate the extent Knstler goes to with his work.

"Especially the detail and the realism," said Debbie McBee, who shares a zeal for Civil War history with her husband.

"He has a unique eye for light and color that's hard to find in some of the other Civil War artists," Kent McBee said.

The couple, who have been collecting Knstler's work for about five or six years, brought six of their prints to be signed on Saturday.

In the past, they've always had to travel out of state to get his coveted signature on their pieces, they said. But it's important to them for personal reasons.

"We have them dedicated to us because it's something we collect as a couple," Kent McBee said.

Teddy Goff, herself a lover of Knstler's work, said she waited more than three hours to have the four prints she bought for her two sons signed and personalized.

"They're almost as excited about this thing as if they were little boys and I got them their first Tonka dump truck," said Goff, of Kearneysville.

The long wait was worth it for her sake as well, she said.

"I'd never been interested in art until I saw his prints. It changed me," Goff said.

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