OCTOBER IN THE RAILROAD EARTH
My Study of Boxcar Art, or "Who is Mr. Bass?"
The colorful and aged boxcars began to capture my attention as they slowly rumbled and creaked down the grade towards the Sacramento Valley. The pleasant noise of the mixed manifest train echoed through the small and somewhat depressed town of Dunsmuir, California. This train would be my first train, the first train that I had seen up close and personal in my entire life. The size of the train and the sounds it generated was enough to mesmerize a grown man as if he was a young boy with his first model train set. That grown man was me.
I began to count the cars, curious to the length that was hidden a hundred yards to the north, around a bend and up the canyon that was home for the residents of Dunsmuir. After getting dizzy, I gave up on the counting and began to enjoy the rumbling and the creaking, smelling the fresh lumber and then looking at the various railway names on the boxcars. The entire experience was invigorating, to say the least. My first train was very enjoyable.
After sixty or more cars had passed, I began to wonder if it would ever end. I had no idea of the typical length of a train. I returned to looking at the boxcars as they rolled downhill, still moving slowly after a crew change at the yard office. This is when I noticed the paint stick markings on the sides of the swaying boxcars. The first mark that caught my eye was a simple name and a date. It was ordinary, yet unique enough to catch my attention. That name was Mr. Bass.
The last name caught my eye for sure, it being my surname. I wondered which of my relatives this might be… All nine of my dad’s uncles had worked for the SP back in the 40’s and 50’s, but they had all passed away years ago. I then began to look at each boxcar, looking for another “Mr. Bass” signature, as I searched the family tree in my mind. Two or three more of the passing boxcars had a Mr. Bass scrawled on their steel sides. This was bizarre, I thought to myself. Every car on that train had some form of a sketch or mark or moniker. There was a wide variety of markings and I found each them fascinating. My first train experience was leaving a mark on me, so to speak.
This is where my interest in what I call boxcar art (BCA) began on a cold winter morning in December 1999. This day would become a pivotal point in my life. This was the day that I began to take an interest in trains and the art on the boxcars. Because of BCA, I would return back to my photography that brings me great pleasure, and is my art. Moments after seeing my first Boxcar Art, I began my journey to find out more about Mr. Bass. This one train lead to my research project regarding the sketches and monikers that adorn most if not all of the boxcars that roll across North America.
I wondered who this Mr. Bass was, and why he and these other artists were drawing sketches, names and monikers on boxcar after boxcar, leaving their name and their message on the rolling steel canvas of America’s trains.
My curiosity grew as I watched several other manifest trains that day and over the balance of that weekend during my visit to Dunsmuir. I had to find out more of this odd habit, so I sought out and found others with knowledge and contacts in the railroad community. Some were willing to share their BCA knowledge. Others were hesitant to offer much of anything, giving the excuse of keeping the artists and their sketches a mystery. I was interested in digging deeper to find out more about Mr. Bass and the other boxcar artists.
My first contact in the Boxcar Art community was a well spoken and educated hobo who goes by the name of North Bank Fred. Fred is a proponent and follower of the hobo lifestyle. This former rider of the rails shared many stories of riding and “marking-up” (hobo term for leaving your mark) with all sorts of characters throughout the Western United States. Besides his experiences as a nomad of the rails, Fred has an intimate understanding of railroad operations.
Fred talked and I listened. It was a good arrangement; we both did what we do best. However, the more fact and lore that I absorbed, additional questions began to form in my mind. The additional information led to dead ends and confusion, like a twisted novel that made no sense until the final pages. It became apparent that a good percentage of the authors of these messages had no desire to be understood or identified.
I began frequenting the storage tracks near my office in Anaheim, California; photographing and documenting the monikers and sketches that I found on the boxcars as I walked the tracks. My fascination with BCA kept me busy at lunch hours and for the few hours of daylight that remained after business hours. At the time, the rail customers provided a mix of rolling stock from various parts of the country. The variety included: BNSF beer cars from Colorado; newsprint boxcars and lumber loads from the Pacific Northwest, and paper products from Arkansas. I documented my sightings in journals and with photographs of the sketches that came into town.
In the first few months of this interest, I found an internet site moderated by Michael Pouline. Although the forum is no longer active, I learned more of the artists and their backgrounds its message boards. During these weeks and months of reporting my sightings, I gathered tidbits of info about a wide variety of boxcar artists. Sadly, these resources got me no closer to finding out more about Mr. Bass.
I began to name several of the monikers and discovered their names through contacts I was able to make. Sketches like “Faves”, “El Truncon”, “the Dancing Cowboy”, and “Handicap Crosser” were noted in my journals and captured in my imagery. A highly valued catch or sighting for me would be one of the many sketches by a female artist called Mattie, or Matokie Slaughter. Sadly, Mattie passed away after a bout with cancer; Matokie Slaughter rest in peace.
The most noted entry in my journal would be “Colossus of Roads”, a perennial presence on rolling stock throughout the nation. Not only a pleasant sketch to view, but the artist also teases my brain with his cryptic messages that are below his sketch, which features a cowboy with a tilted hat, to keep it from blowing off in the in the passing wind, as the boxcars roll across the America. The mystery of his phrases have caused me to always be on the lookout for another sketch by Colossus of Roads. Attempting to decipher the puzzling comments has help pass time as I walk cuts of cars in search of more boxcar art.
A cooperative fan of boxcar art shared the contact information to the creator and artist behind the Colossus of Roads sketch. I discovered that his artist’s name was “buZ blurr”, a former brakeman for the MoPac. buZ and I began to correspond via the the US Postal Service. It was through these mailings that I began my endeavors in the Mail Art community and developed my homemade postcards. I got an insight into buZ and his cryptic phrases and words that he employed to caption his sketches. The captions, or dispatches, as buZ calls them, once explained, lost their intrigue and mystery. I have thought to myself many times, maybe it was better to not have the dispatches decoded.
Here are a few of the more memorable dispatches from my journals:
AUDACITY OF HUGE
FAKE DUANE HANSON
STEADY ROLLING BLUES
BIG ROCK CANDY MOUNTAIN
PAPER AS A METAPHOR FOR LIFE
PRETTY UGLY WHITE BLACK BLUES AGAIN
SORROW FLOATS – SURREALVILLE PHOTOGRAPHER
And buZ’s annual tribute to Jack Kerouac, OCTOBER IN THE RAILROAD EARTH
Others had taken notice of buZ blurr’s steel canvas poetry and put together an art exhibit of photographs of his work. I was able to contribute several images to this exhibit, which was curated by Bill Daniel of Portland, Oregon. Here are three of my submissions to that exhibit.
During my research and knowledge gathering days, I was able to meet several of the artists. Some young, some old… some artistic, some not so artistic… some stable, a few not so stable. One young artist from Utah has passed away in a bizarre drowning; while others seem like they’ll never die… With this knowledge and lore absorbed, I still have little understanding of the culture and purpose of those that write or “mark-up” on the sides of boxcars. It still remains a mystery…
I am still trying to figure out who Mr. Bass is. From what I have been able to determine, he once lived and worked in Utah and maybe Montana. He is possibly in Oregon now, with many of his marks on the boxcars that ride the rails of the former Southern Pacific. Mr. Bass’s mark is along side other prolific boxcar artists like Herby, Ponca Roper, Millwright Joe, Scaleman Coco, the Happy Camper, Mr. Clean, and many others from the lumber producing areas of Washington and Oregon.
Maybe, just maybe, this mystery is one that I really don’t want to solve. It is possible that once I find out who Mr. Bass is, I may lose my interest and passion for seeking out monikers, for writing about my findings, and of course, for my desire to document this interesting medium of Boxcar Art with my camera. In the mean time, I will continue to stroll along cuts of rail cars with my camera on my shoulder, and my eyes peeled looking for more clues to this great mystery of Mr. Bass and Boxcar Art in general.
The next time a manifiest rolls past your vantage point, take a moment and enjoy the monikers and sketches that adorn the sides of most boxcars rolling across America.
And if you see a clue as to who Mr. Bass might be, make sure you drop me a line...
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