It turns out I have an “ancestor” who was a painter of some renown. In fact, she is considered “one of the greatest painters of the Old West.” I discovered this by chance. My father recently moved to Seattle from Maryland and has unearthed a lot of stuff that had been stuck away in the basement of my parents’ old house. Today, we uncovered a painting wrapped in a plastic garbage bag, marked “Stagecoach.” I peeked in and liked what I saw. My father said it was painted by a woman his mother referred to as her “aunt.” I’ve done some poking around and am unable to find any proof that this woman was related to my grandmother, so for now this remains a mystery. I am intrigued. (There is sufficient literature about her life and work, and I’d like to get my hands on Gary Filmore’s All Aboard: The Life and Work of Marjorie Reed.) While I’d love to know if we’re distantly related, it really doesn’t matter. She’s fascinating regardless.
This mysterious Marjorie is Marjorie Reed. According to an article about her work in the San Diego Union-Tribune, she was born in Springfield, Illinois in 1915, moved to California as a young girl, and spent most of the rest of her life in the American West. She is famous for her landscapes, many of which feature stagecoaches. This was apparently inspired by her own travels over the Butterfield Overland Mail Trail in the 1930s, where she painted the landscapes she saw along the way. A couple of decades later she painted a whole series of these landscapes with by-then anachronistic stagecoaches picturesquely inserted into the scenes.
I’m not sure if the painting my dad has was made as a part of that series, but it certainly fits the bill. A stagecoach thunders across a dry landscape, clouds of dust flying up under its wheels. There is no sign of civilization; the hardy travelers seem entirely alone in a desolate landscape. But it isn’t an unfriendly landscape. It is light and bright and full of promise. Ready for the taking. It is a perfect example of the narrative of the heroic pioneer that mythologizes the American West.
I find the people inside of the stagecoach most intriguing. It looks crowded in there and I can imagine the stifling, claustrophobic air, as well as the relief the roof provides from the heat of the sun. Mostly, I am entranced by the figure closest to the window looking out toward the viewer. I can imagine what he’s seeing–the ground rocking as the coach lurches over the dirt road, the haze of dust, the glare of the sun–as well as what he might be thinking. Is he returning home, eager to reunite with his family? Is he heading into the unknown? Leaving behind everything he’s known in search of a promising future? Somehow I get the sense it’s the latter. He’s diving headfirst into a new life.
I can imagine the weariness of this anonymous traveler and can’t help but see him as a metaphor of sorts. As his coach rushes forward, seemingly unstoppable, he stares out at the world around him, uncertain but resolute. Wary but determined. Whatever lays ahead, this man will embrace it and make the best of it. He’s traveled so far, and there’s no turning back now. As he hurtles toward his fate I hope he is able to appreciate the awesome beauty flashing past his window.