When Rob Akey looks at a passing train, he sees art.
The Whitefish landscape artist doesn’t consider himself a train enthusiast — “more of an admirer,” he says — but it’s not unusual for him to put a train or two in his oil paintings. He’s not alone either.
Another Whitefish artist, Jack Dykstra, says railroads have been inspiring painters and poets for centuries. For example, the French impressionist painter Claude Monet, who lived from 1840 until 1926 — during the height of railroad development in Europe and North America — liked to put trains in his pieces.
The relationship between railroads and fine art will be on display this fall at Kalispell’s Hockaday Museum of Art. “Hear the Whistle Blow! Art of the Railway” is called a “one-of-a-kind exhibition” featuring the work of more than 40 noted artists from Montana and across the country. The exhibit runs from Sept. 27 until Dec. 7, with an opening reception on Thursday, Sept. 26 from 5 to 7 p.m. The event is free for members and $10 for the general public.
The exhibit is co-curated by Dykstra and Akey, the latter of whom is currently on the Hockaday’s board of directors.
“We want to tell the story of how railroads have captivated artists for more than a century,” Dykstra says.
Dykstra has been a lifelong railroad enthusiast and remembers seeing old steam trains when he was growing up in southern California. He worked in graphic design and advertising management and for a time lived in Great Falls before ending up in Whitefish. Akey is a Whitefish native who worked in commercial art in Minnesota and Colorado before coming home in the 1990s to open an embroidery company. He finally realized his dream of painting full-time in 2007.
Dykstra came up with the idea of a railroad-themed art show about two years ago and took it to Akey, who brought it to the Hockaday’s board. The board loved the idea and told the two men to start working on it. In the two years since, Dykstra and Akey have been combing the country for artists and art to include in the show.
Among the highlights for fans of train-themed art will be the inclusion of two well-known railroad artists, Howard Fogg and Ted Rose. Historic Montana artists like Joseph Henry Sharp and R.E. DeCamp will be represented with pieces on loan from museums and private collections. And living railroad artists, including Gil Bennett from Utah and J. Craig Thorpe of Washington, will also have their work on display. Thorpe will give a talk on the gallery’s opening day, Sept. 27, from 11 a.m. to noon. The talk is free and open to the public.
Dykstra says the curators wanted to include a wide array of work representing different eras, styles and perspectives. Simply having a train does not qualify a piece, he says.
“One of my criteria is if you can put your thumb over the train, is it still a good painting?” he says.
Dykstra says the Hockaday is the perfect home for a railroad-themed art show because its mission is to preserve the art of Glacier National Park. During the early 20th century, the Great Northern Railway commissioned artists to paint scenes of Glacier to promote the park and its passenger trains. Some of those paintings are in the Hockaday’s collection.
In addition to putting finishing touches on the exhibit, Akey and Dykstra have been working on their own pieces to be included in the show. Akey is painting a steam locomotive in Whitefish preparing to lead a World War II troop train in the 1940s.
“I always knew I wanted to paint something about Whitefish for this show because that’s my home,” he says, adding that the railroad is an important part of the Montana landscape. “You can’t go out and observe the landscape around Whitefish or Northwest Montana or up through Marias Pass without observing a train rolling through it once in awhile.”
For more information, visit hockadaymuseum.org.