Arriving at his Artistic Station

J. Craig Thorpe signs copies of the 2013 White Pass & Yukon Route wall calendar, which features his rotary snow plow painting. Kile Brewer

WP&YR’s J. Craig Thorpe loves the work ride


 Artist J. Craig Thorpe said railroads have a unique relationship with land that differs from any other mode of transportation.
In paintings of airplanes and boats, Thorpe said, land is in the backdrop, if it is seen at all. It is tangential and does not interact with the transportation. In paintings of cars, the roadway and automobile is usually surrounded by sprawl, and the car treads lightly on the land.
In paintings of trains, however, the railroad is immersed in the terrain of the land and mimics its turns and curves.
“The railroad doesn’t overwhelm the land – it contributes to it,” said Thorpe “Right away, railroad colors tie in with the land.”
On June 28 at the White Pass and Yukon Route depot, Thorpe, the railway’s calendar artist, discussed the evolution of the railroad in American art and how the mode of transportation went from being viewed as destructive to the land, then harmonious with the land, and finally as a way for Americans’ to experience their land.
Thorpe said his love of trains is not recent.
“When I was a kiddo, my grandfather, who lived in our house, used to take us on the commuter trains in Pittsburgh,” he said.
As a child, Thorpe was also interested in drawing and architecture.
“I would embarrass my parents by asking their friends if I could go around and look at their house and draw up a floor plan of their homes,” he said.
Since his youth, his path took him through several professions before arriving at his dream job – transportation painter.
According to his website, Thorpe studied at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University with a BFA in Industrial Design.
He then worked for the U.S. Army Transportation Corps and for architects and landscape architects in Virginia before attending graduate school in New England, where he earned a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Thorpe then moved to Seattle where he served as a Presbyterian pastor but left the parish in 1985 to work on his architectural illustrations full time.
In 1991, he was asked to do an architectural rendering of a train station in Olympia Washington.
The following year, Amtrak spotted it and paid Thorpe to use it for its 1993 corporate calendar.
By the mid-1990s Thorpe was receiving requests from Amtrak and Alaska Marine Lines, among others, for calendar commissions.
On one of his trips to Southeast for an Alaska Marine Lines calendar, Thorpe called White Pass’s then marketing coordinator Tina Cyr to ask if he could come to Skagway to ride the train. In 1997 he completed his first painting for White Pass of Rocky Point.
On his recent trip north in late June, Thorpe took the Carcross train to scout scenes for future calendars.
While on the train, Thorpe scoped out the Canadian side of the train tracks and was able to come up with scene ideas for the next three White Pass calendars.
The 2013 White Pass and Yukon Route calendar features Thorpe’s first non-summer train scene,“WP&YR Steam and Snow Heritage,” of which White Pass rotary snow plow is the star.
“It’s really quite exciting,” Thorpe said of painting a winter setting. “I’ve wanted to do a winter scene with the rotary snow plow for quite some time.”
Because the Washington-based artist had previously visited Skagway only in July, he relied mostly on photographs of the 2011 rotary snowplow fleet in Teepee Valley for his inspiration.
Thorpe said painting a winter scene was a little more difficult than usual, because he is used to working with greens and browns in his paintings, not snowy tones of blues and whites.
But his hard work paid off, he said, because the reception to the rotary snowplow scene has been great.
Thorpe said he includes wildlife in each of the paintings he does for the White Pass Calendar, and the 2013 painting was no exception.
Placed in the painting somewhere is a large snowy ptarmigan that he encourages White Pass calendar patrons to seek out.

Meet the Chilkoot Trail artist July 31

Jay White from Bowen Island, British Columbia will be showing animated short films at the National Park Service auditorium on Tuesday, July 31 at 6 p.m.
White is participating in the Chilkoot Trail Artist Residency program sponsored by Parks Canada, the National Park Service, the Yukon Arts Centre and the Skagway Arts Council.
The program is free to the public and everyone is invited to join White before he departs on his Chilkoot Trail adventure.
Corrie Francis Parks from Big Sky, Montana also participated in the Artist Residency and completed her two-week trail experience from June 25 to July 7. Parks is maintaining a blog and website for this project called “The Klondike Letters Project” at Parks offered hikers an opportunity to record their impressions of the monumental crossing of the Chilkoot summit.
Personal triumphs and hardships were shared on postcards in the form of stories, poems and drawings. Parks will mail back the postcards in a year so hikers can reflect on their adventures as they followed in the footsteps of the stampeders from Dyea, Alaska to Bennett Lake, British Columbia.
She will combine this intimate composition of postcards with her own art, photography and writing while on the trail to create a short animated film about the Chilkoot Trail
The Artist Residency was developed to help connect people and national parks and national historic sites through art. Artists go beyond just making art; they also act as translators, inviting people to share their experiences at these special places through paintings, sculptures, photography or other mediums. – KGRNHP