The River Valley's Other Working Landscape
In a series of watercolors, artist Tom Leytham documents the industrial ruins of this working-class community.
This series of watercolors explores the remnants of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century industrial landscape of the River Valley, including ruined, repurposed, and abandoned buildings and structures designed to support work and the economy. Some were monumental, others were modest, and many now hide in plain sight. The process of documenting components of what I call “the other working landscape”—in contrast to my previously completed studies of Vermont farms and forests, places sometimes referred to as the “working landscape”—has afforded me the opportunity to study and appreciate the resourcefulness of their designs and constructions, the labor that was embedded in their materiality and textures, and the histories that they represent.
These watercolors are a product of a good stare: The eye produces a hierarchy of image that begins to tell a story about the past and the present. The hand then follows the eye from a ground or “human” view, repeating the visual journey through the site. In one sense, these are structures of entropic beauty—changing from a state of order to disorder and sometimes back—while on the other hand they are representations of labor, exploitation, loss, and resilience. The focus of these pieces is on the object and its meaning; enough context is included to place the piece, but the parts left out create a puzzle to be sorted by the viewer.
In studying a region such as the River Valley, where attention to paper texture and finish have provided livelihoods for more than a century, the focus on surface, color, and light is paramount. The colors mix while they are wet, and they produce a sense of movement through color and light that mimics the movement of the eye. The result is a use of color that defines the subject and the sparing use of line that defines texture rather than mass. Just as these images in their incompleteness invite visual exploration, through the use of partial views, negative space, dramatic perspectives, and rich detail, these pieces create environments that engage a viewer’s imagination about how they once were occupied.1John Stilgoe’s call to explore the past through ordinary things serves as a useful reference. See his Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places (London: Walker Books, 1998).
The use of negative space, the white of the paper, sets the compositions in motion, and many have a pivot point that moves the eye through the subject. Dramatic, low points of view hint at the monumentality of the objects that are hiding in plain sight (site). Once the center of the community, these aging and disappearing buildings and installations have come to symbolize the decline of an industrial economy, resource depletion, and environmental degradation. Yet they are also important cultural artifacts that demonstrate enterprise, bold engineering, and often craftsmanship. In the words of poet William Butler Yeats, “Things reveal themselves passing away.”