Painter Michael Paxton was tidying up his Ravenswood studio a few years ago when his efforts were derailed–as the best cleaning efforts often are–by a couple of boxes. They were filled with articles his grandmother had scissored from two years’ worth of the Clay County Free Press, a weekly newspaper from the mountainous area of central West Virginia that the family calls home. Paxton, now 43, had happily emigrated from the region as a young man two decades ago, but enjoyed keeping up with the comings and goings of his numerous relations in a column called “From the Pen of J.C. Legg,” which covered turkey hunts, recent funerals, church picnics, and the like. He’d sifted through these columns before, but this time it was the flip side of the clippings that caught his eye.
After studying art at Marshall University in Huntington and at the University of Georgia in Athens, Paxton did a stint as a visiting artist at the School of the Art Institute, and in 1983 he moved here for good. Shortly thereafter he set to work on a series of huge panoramas of Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. (“I guess that was sort of me finding a place in Chicago to catch my breath,” he says.) For about ten years he worked in local theater, designing sets for the Organic and occasionally performing or directing, and as a freelance video editor.
But on the day he was cleaning his studio, Paxton was looking for a new project. He’d been thinking about the mountains back home, and when he sat down to rummage through the boxes he found himself drawn to the figures of people in the newspaper photographs. The Paxton clan goes back six generations in West Virginia, to the 1820s, “and that’s about where the [family] Bible stops,” he says. In the mining town where he grew up, he used to walk home from school as the soot-caked workers left their shifts. He knew the stories of his grandfather, the railroad engineer who later became a Baptist circuit preacher; his uncle, the mule trader; and his great-grandmother, midwife to an entire community. The photographs brought it all rushing back.
Thumbing through history and photography books on coal mining and railroads, Paxton became further intrigued by images of people at work: pushing and leaning into their tools, their backs strained, their torsos twisted, their limbs outstretched. He recalled the contortions he’d put his own body through laying railroad track as a teenager. Capturing the rhythm and stances of workers became the object of his own endeavors. “It’s not a nostalgia for a simpler time so much, but more of the beauty of just catching the body in motion,” Paxton says. “You know, it’s hard work, it’s back-breaking work.”
Paxton started with a series of drawings in charcoal, chalk, and ink that he calls “West Virginia Wood Hicks,” a colloquialism for timber workers; he showed them at Wood Street Gallery a little over a year ago. More recently he’s been exploring the same themes in large oil paintings, some of them nearly life size.
His workers emerge from moody, empty backgrounds; everything but the figures themselves seems eroded. Mindful of the way old cultures and folkways are disappearing, Paxton says he’s tried to give his subjects the look of fossils, like he’s “digging figures out and polishing them off.” Tools and faces are obscured; Paxton focuses instead on the wrinkles and folds of clothing, which define the forms almost exoskeletally.
“I wanted to take the tools out of their hands,” says Paxton. “I didn’t want it to be about what they were doing. It was more about how they were doing it. It could be a big shovel, it could be a big crowbar, it could be a rake. It’s more about the figure and the space around the figure.”
Paxton’s colors are more personal: The reds and yellows of Mt. Ovis Slag Picker, a miner separating coal from debris, come from the interior of the tiny Mt. Ovis Primitive Baptist Church in his grandmother’s hometown. Zona’s Pin Boiler echoes the colors of a portrait of Jesus that belonged to his grandmother; the painting depicts the back of a worker preparing the wooden pins used in constructing the telephone poles that his father worked on. The rich greens of Elk River Hand Loader are the hues of woods reflected in the Elk River, where Paxton swam and fished in the summer. That piece took second prize in “Union Images,” a juried exhibit of labor-related works by Illinois artists that the Chicago Federation of Labor organized in November to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
Paxton has an undeniable admiration for his subjects: “You can tell somebody who’s never dug a hole,” he says. “An old hand can work half as much and get twice as much done as somebody who’s just out there flailing around. There’s a system about it. And it’s honest. You’ve got a hole, and you’ve got dirt and a shovel. There’s something just real about that.”
But first and foremost he paints to go home again. “It just makes me feel like grandma and my dad and everybody is closer to me. I can feel them,” Paxton says. “They’d really like [the paintings] if they could see them. My grandma, she was old school, and her highest praise was always, ‘It’s just so nice and plain.’ That was her biggest compliment…that’s what I’m after.”
Several of Paxton’s paintings can be seen at Byron Roche gallery, which has just reopened at 750 N. Franklin; call 312-654-0144. On Saturday, March 15, Paxton’s studio building, at 1801 W. Byron, hosts an open house from 1 to 6; call 773-388-0873. –Todd Savage
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Enoch/Dog Run Spiker,” “Elk River Hand Loader,” and photo of Michael Paxton by Nathan Mandell.