I begin my artist's statement talking about traditional American music because it is the inspiration for this body of work. Old-time is a title given to traditional American music played on the fiddle, banjo, guitar, and dulcimer. It is a lively and informal music that is learned by ear and that has been passed down faithfully through the generations from the earliest days of the Republic to our own time. It weaves together the musical legacy of immigrants from Europe and slaves from Africa. My husband and I are both old-time musicians and late one evening at a festival we were sitting in a circle in the middle of a field playing the old tunes with friends. We played Red-Haired Boy and the Arkansas Traveler; Elzic’s Farewell and the Forked Deer, the notes like bright sparks from a fire swirling upward into the dark sky to set the stars dancing. Suddenly my mind was filled with vivid images from an earlier time that touched my soul. These are the paintings drawn from that inspiration
“It has been my experience that a fiddle tune has its beginning unnamed, and is first played accidentally as the fiddler ‘noodles around’ on his instrument. Something emerges from under his fingers, and he listens and likes it. Or perhaps someone in the room asks him what he is playing. As he remembers and develops the tune and begins to play it around the community it takes its name from a chance remark, or from something that reminds them of a favorite dance spot, or a person, a happening in the community, or an historical event.”
~Marion Thede, Author The Fiddle Book
With these ideas in mind I begin to create my compositions. One piece, that illustrates my process, is called Chadwell Station. It is a rambling fiddle tune and I often get lost playing it not remembering if I am in the A part or the B part. All the old-time players I asked assumed Chadwell was a train station of some sort, a story did not follow this tune, as many do. So by doing some internet research I learned that “Chadwell Station” was actually a fort along the Cumberland Gap during the early 1800s and the westward expansion into Western Virginia, Tennesee and Kentucky. With this knowledge I decided to portray an apprehensive mother and child gazing into the distance upon a simple windowless log-hewn fort, in the middle of the American wilderness. A safe haven from the many twists and turns of their journey to their new unknown home in the West. My compositions portray the dynamic force of memory, of people and places that have blazed the trails for us.
I started this series in watercolor, egg tempera but most recently I have turned to oils for the richness and depth they offer. My horizon lines and landscapes are mostly rounded and undulating to engender the spontanaity of the music I portray. I am inspired from the photography of the early 20th century for my characters. When I look deep into the faces of these individuals, long deceased, I am reminded of the power of inviting our ancestors to enter our own times so we can again feel the “long story” often missing in our fractured modern lives. We as a nation are a larger family and these Americans are our ancestors, even if we have immigrated here recently. I believe we can draw strength, wisdom, hope, and even a sense of humor by claiming them as our own.
Born in 1959 in the largest city of the Midwest I have fond memories as a child, traveling to our cottage in Northern Wisconsin. I can still remember gazing out the car window at the barns, farms, and rolling fields along the way. I did not grow up in a family that played old-time music but my father bought my mother a banjo that she never played, and it was always leaning against the fireplace. After college I settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and started a stained glass studio, designing and building custom stained glass windows. There I met my husband and a group of friends who shared this “old-time” American tradition with me and thus began my musical artistic journey.
Artist: Paula McHugh
Media: Oil / Egg Tempera / Watercolor