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Visions of the Susquehanna

November 13, 2007|By DAVE THOMPSON

Artist and independent curator Rob Evans searched for a phrase to describe the process involved in putting together "Visions of the Susquehanna: 250 Years of Paintings by American Masters."

A visual feast of 34 paintings, the exhibition has been on display at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts since early September.

"Well, it really seemed at times like grabbing a tiger by the tail," Evans said. He added that his interest in the 444-mile-long river, which originates in upstate New York, winds through Pennsylvania and ends at the Chesapeake Bay, "came about from a number of angles."

"My parents both grew up along the river," he said. "My dad was from Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) up in the coal region. My mom grew up on a farm that overlooks the Susquehanna near York."

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Born in 1959, Evans grew up in Kensington, Md., but often spent time at his grandparents' farm during summers.

"After being around the city, the river was almost like a paradise," he said.

Evans enjoyed his childhood on the farm so much that after graduating from Syracuse University (with a bachelor of fine arts degree) he returned there to live. He and his wife, Renee, were married on the farm and are raising two children there.

"We've been here a good, long time," he said. "We planted a tree when we got married, and it's 40 feet high now."

Evans's early interest in the river helped sow the seeds that germinated into "Visions of the Susquehanna."

"The river has permeated much of my work in one way or another," he said. "Over time, I began to get interested in seeing what other artists had done with it."

Opportunity knocked early last year when the York County Heritage Trust and Lancaster County Historical Society decided an event to celebrate the Susquehanna, which divides the two counties, was in order.

"They basically put out a call for anyone who wanted to do something for it, and I thought about an exhibition. I was thinking small-scale at first," Evans said. "But as I began to explore, I was dumbfounded how many great painters had painted the Susquehanna. I started digging up more information about the paintings and inquiring how to borrow them.

"As I got better and better paintings, I was able to get even better ones. What really nailed (doing) the show was getting a significant grant from the Richard C. von Hess Foundation that pretty much covered the whole exhibition, including a nice booklet. When we could do the book, that meant we were able to get more paintings, as the museums were happy to get works from their collections published."

One of Evans's objectives was to get a variety of works that spanned a long period of time. As he obtained classic historical paintings by well-known American artists, he decided to invite contemporary artists to create paintings especially for the exhibition.

"I was amazed that just about everyone I asked agreed to do something," he said. "Most of the contemporary paintings that are being shown were done for this exhibition.

"When you put it out there, you don't know what you'll get. I was a little worried that we might get a lot of things that were alike, but it was incredible how everybody came up with a different aspect of the Susquehanna."

The oldest painting in the exhibition is "A View on the Susquehanna," completed in 1767 by the famous Anglo-American painter Benjamin West. Born in Springfield, Pa., in 1738, West moved to England in 1763. He eventually was appointed historical painter to the court by King George III and co-founded the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768.

West painted his idealized view of the Wright's Ferry site at Columbia, Pa., from memory as it had been 11 years since he visited the site as a member of the Pennsylvania militia.

Most of the early works in the exhibition offer a romantic view of untouched natural beauty and wide vistas.

Toward the mid-19th century, the inroads of early industrial society start to make their inroads against the backdrop of river, forests and mountains.

"The Susquehanna didn't have big, scenic bluffs like the Hudson," Evans said. "It was a very different river, quiet and meandering. There were settlements along its shores. The transformation into an industrial society in a pastoral setting was appealing to artists."

William McIlvaine's 1851 painting, "Viaduct of Starrucca," depicts the huge stone viaduct built for the New York and Erie Railroad in 1848 to cross The Starrucca Creek valley near Lanesboro, Pa. At the time, the $320,000, 1040-foot viaduct was thought to be the most expensive railway bridge in the world. It is still used today.

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