Drawing on the Susquehanna :
Four Centuries of Artistic Inspiration and Commerce
Lore Degenstein Gallery, Susquehanna University
(an online exhibition in lieu of the exhibit planned for
April 18 - May 13, 2020 - cancelled due to Covid 19)
Curated by Rob Evans
As this quotation from 1853 so eloquently states, the Susquehanna River possesses a certain sublime quality and intangible mystique that sets it apart from all other American rivers, inspiring and attracting artists, writers and poets for centuries. So, too, have I been drawn to this magical river, my life inextricably tied to it in so many ways, a common thread running through the fabric of my family's history for generations, with both my parents having grown up along the shores of the Susquehanna.
My father was born and raised in the Susquehanna rivertown of Plymouth, PA in the Wyoming Valley near Wilkes Barre. His parents came from Welsh coal mining stock who had settled there in the 19th century to take advantage of the rich coal veins in the river valley. The mining operations were still ongoing when I visited there as a child, the entire mountainside behind the town laid bare from strip mining (I would later learn that environmental devastation was nothing new to the Susquehanna Valley - timbering, mining and other industries had ravaged it for much of the previous century). I recall sneaking up into this dangerous landscape with my brothers, climbing up giant slag heaps in search of ancient fern fossils embedded in the waste fragments of slate (later inspiring my painting, Fossil, pictured below). The town of Plymouth had seen its share of dark times, having overcome several tragic events each a century apart. Just miles north, the infamous 1778 Wyoming Massacre of colonial settlers by the Indians had taken place, and in 1869 it was the scene of the tragic Avondale mining disaster - one of the worst in the nation's history. In 1972 Plymouth was at the epicenter of the devastating floods caused by Hurricane Agnes - I remember well my father traveling to my grandparents' home for a week to assist in digging out mud and salvaging family mementos from the flood-ravaged house.
"The Susquehanna will compare with any river in America, the world of rivers. It has not the grandeur of the Hudson, the volume of the Ohio, or the length and variety of scenery which mark the Mississippi and the Oregon, but it possesses something which these lack: a summer-like quiet; a dreamy pastoral air; a feeling of serene and deathless beauty; 'deep self-possession, and intense repose.'
Poets have made it their Helicon, and sung its praises. Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth dreamed of it in their youth, when they planned ideal republics; and Campbell made it the scene of his loveliest poem, 'Gertrude of Wyoming'…
…Around are lofty hills, rich with verdure, and belts of primeval forests, in whose deep recesses the deer are still to be found, and scattered over all, on the skirts of the forest, the sides of the hills, and in the green plains and valleys between, are towns and villages, nestling away in the lap of quiet and 'bathed in atmospheres of sleep.'”
Richard Henry Stoddard
From “Myer’s Universum,” edited by Charles A. Dana,
Pubished by Herrmann J. Meyer, New York, 1853
Rob Evans, Plymouth, mixed media on paper, 1983
Rob Evans, Fossil, mixed media on paper, 1997
Further down river, in the 1930’s, my maternal grandparents purchased a decaying old three-story stone inn that sat perched on a wooded ridge in York County, PA. This once stately structure was situated atop a rocky promontory commanding a panoramic view of the Susquehanna River as it bends ninety degrees past a large outcropping known as “Chickies Rock” before heading south under the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge toward the Chesapeake bay. It was a historic location - the river was exceptionally shallow there, allowing ferries to transport militias across during the Revolutionary War (including George Washington at some point); the massive covered bridge spanning the river there was burned during the Civil War, blocking Confederate troops from advancing to Harrisburg - a turning point in that great conflict; and, in more recent times, the near meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, within view just upstream, made international headlines. Looking down over this historic nexus, the stone house, known as "Roundtop," had its own fascinating history.
Roundtop Inn circa the 1890's
Roundtop as my grandparents' residence circa the 1940's
Built in the late 1800s by Robert Zanker, an ambitious individual (known as "the old man on the mountain") who rowed across the river and climbed the mountain each day to work on its construction, Roundtop was first operated as an inn and hiking/picnic destination (there was no paved road up to it at that point). My grandmother recalled journeying up there in 1905 as a young child with her family, while Zanker was still caretaker there, and then returning a decade later for her senior high school picnic, finding the house boarded up. Later it served as a veterans home for World War I vets, before being occupied briefly in the 1920’s by pulp fiction novelist T. Everett Harre, whose stories, often inspired by Roundtop, were made into silent films – prompting legends of “Hollywood” parties at the house with silent movie stars such as Theda Barrow. My grandfather, a young newspaper correspondent for a local paper at the time, recalled interviewing Harre several times in the house and being served a gourmet dinner there on one occasion. Eventually the house fell into ruin before my grandparents, in their early courting days, hiked up to the house together, their mutual admiration of the property planting the seeds of dreams of one day living up there. A decade later they made it so, purchased the house and surrounding acreage, renovated it and moved their young family (which included my mother) from Washington, D.C. to live in this extraordinary home.
I remember my grandfather boasting that you could see seven counties from the widow’s walk on the roof of the house. My mother grew up in this house, its stone walls giving a sense of permanence and sanctuary away from the world and its troubles. Looking out over the expansive vista below, its model railroad-like rivertowns bustling with activity, the patchwork of chameleon-like farm fields and stands of woods endlessly changing colors and textures with the seasons, all gave one the feeling of distance and perspective, of being the observer rather than a participant in what was transpiring down in the river valley and in the rest of the world beyond. There was almost a sense of time standing still on the hilltop while history forged ahead in the valley beneath, its real-time story moving ever forward like the river’s timeless flow. Perhaps this led to my mother’s appreciation of history and later studies in archaeology, enabling her to lead a field school that would uncover the ruins of the Henry Clay Furnace, a 19th century iron furnace located along the river beneath Chickies Rock. It was at this archaeological dig, by the Susquehanna, that I would ultimately meet and fall in love with my wife, artist Renee Patton.
During summer vacations from school I would escape into this paradise at Roundtop, leaving behind the boredom of my Washington D.C. suburban home, spending the hours roaming the wooded hills collecting insects, rocks, animal bones, or antique soda-pop bottles discarded by turn-of-the-century picnickers on the hill. The river was an ever-present fixture of the surrounding backdrop, its glint shining through the trees or its distant form framed by the windows of the house. Watching thunderstorms move through the valley, witnessing the great floods inundate the rivertowns below, the massive ice jams, seasonal bird migrations, and spectacular sunsets reflected in the river (Roundtop has one of the few vistas overlooking the brief stretch where the river runs east/west) – all of these things left an imprint.
Rob Evans, West From Roundtop, manipulated pigment print, 2012
The Susquehanna permeated into my psyche - the rich and varied pageant of human history and economic expansion which unfolded along its shores, its natural quietude and sublime beauty, all soaking in and formulating the artistic persona that would later define who I was. This sense of time and history, the cycles of life and death, growth and decay, permanence and impermanence - all of this would eventually inform my work as an artist and lure me to purchase the farmhouse property adjoining Roundtop. For the last 40 years I have lived there, raised a family and maintained a studio there. From my studio window each day I can see the Susquehanna flowing ever onward, a continual reminder of my past, present and future connections to this river valley, as well as a metaphorical reminder of the passage of time, and the transience of our journey here. Much of my artistic work incorporates or connects to the river in some form, and eventually I became curious about the impact of this river on previous generations of artists.
In 2005 I embarked on a curatorial project to explore my artistic roots as a Susquehanna painter. After some extensive research I was amazed to discover that not only did the Susquehanna have a local artistic appeal, but at one time it was in the national and global spotlight, attracting some of the most important internationally celebrated artists of the day to work and paint along its shores. The resulting traveling exhibit, Visions of the Susquehanna: 250 Years of Paintings by American Masters, featured a broad range of 18th, 19th and 20th century works by such renowned American landscape painters as Benjamin West, Joshua Shaw, Thomas Doughty, Sanford Gifford, Thomas Moran, Jasper Cropsey, George Inness, and Charles Demuth among others. The exhibit also included a selection of paintings by prominent contemporary artists.
While Visions of the Susquehanna focused primarily on major studio paintings intended for exhibit in expositions and which eventually disappeared into the homes of wealthy private collectors, the current exhibit, Drawing on the Susquehanna, takes a slightly different angle, exploring the artists' direct engagement with their public through the dissemination of their work via commercial partnerships with various industries and businesses, utilizing the most current printing technologies available to them. Through mass publication in maps, books, portfolios, journals, magazines, newspapers and decorated china they not only self-promoted, but they helped sell the Susquehanna, making it one of the most popular and well known rivers worldwide along with its sister east coast river, the Hudson. Even before the Hudson River School of landscape painting took shape, the Susquehanna played a role in influencing and inspiring some of the first truly American artists, writers and poets. Although no formal "Susquehanna School" of painters has ever been delineated, it is my hope that this exhibit argues that such an influential school has taken shape over the last several centuries and continues to this day.
Pulling together this exhibit has been a two year journey and labor of love: researching, tracking down and purchasing prints, books, magazines, maps, ceramics and other works of art by scouring Ebay, obscure book and print shops, and various online marketplaces around the globe. Not only has this exploration been a treasure hunt of sorts, but it has deepened my sense of connection to this valley, and to my roots as an artist following in the footsteps of those who have lived and worked here before me, and who, like me, have been taken in and transformed by the sublime beauty and rich human history this river embodies. My dream is that one day this collection will form the nucleus of a Susquehanna River Art Museum in some form, celebrating the remarkable artistic legacy of this magnificent river, while at the same time emphasizing the need to protect and preserve the threatened fragile ecosystem of its watershed for future generations.
The following web catalog documents Drawing on the Susquehanna, providing historical narrative alongside images of all the works included. In order to provide context, it also includes images of a number of other Susquehanna works not in the exhibition, some from my original Visions of the Susquehanna exhibit, and others from various sources.
Visions of the Susquehanna on view at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in 2006