In the U.S. alone, enough miles of track have been laid to circle the globe four times. This monumental undertaking has virtually gone unnoticed. But over the past ten years, it has been the focus of my work. It is not about the impressive array of locomotives and cars, but rather the day-to-day routine necessary in the development and preservation of the railways. The viewer will find no noted heroes and heroines of the traditional kind. Those who play the role of hero in these works are the men and women who laid and repaired the rail. Each painting helps to memorialize an occupation that played a crucial role in the advancement of American society. In an ever-changing and -developing era, these artworks are the chronicles of an occupation destined for extinction.
I worked as a laborer and machine operator in a rail-laying gang for the Louisville division of the L&N Railroad (now CSX) from 1979 to 1986. As a member of a road crew, I spent ten-hour, four-day work weeks in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Georgia, and Virginia. Forever etched in my memory are an infinite number of untold stories about the men who toiled beside me on the railroad. This wealth of personal experiences and technical information has become the narrative for more than 150 works.
All the works of this series stem from drawings created from memory. I strive to create dramatic compositions. Figures are tugging, heaving, hoisting, and dragging. They depict the mental, emotional, and physical prowess needed to succeed on the railroad. Every muscle is strained to the limit. Vibrant color and light are used to lead your eye through the piece.
In the eyes of the upper echelon, the laborer seemed to function as a mere instrument in the furtherance of a great cause. Individuals appear to count for little. I want the viewer to share both the positive and negative experiences of the hand laborer and machine operator, thereby getting a candid portrayal of the enormous effort that went into laying rail.
Mark Priest, 2001
Mark Priest has a BA in painting from the University of Louisville and an MFA in painting from Yale University. Besides being a former machine operator for CSX Railroad, he has worked in many positions teaching art: He was the guest artist/instructor at Manual High School in Louisville in 1986, was a teaching assistant under Professor Richard Ryan in intermediate drawing at Yale, and taught painting at the Visual Arts Association in Louisville and drawing at Seminole Community College in Sanford, FL. Mark is currently an associate professor of painting and drawing at U of L, a position he has held since 1993.
Mark is the recipient of many honors and awards, such as a Vermont Studio Residency in Johnson, VT in 2000, and several grants from the University of Louisville, including Women Research Grants and Project Completion Grants. He has had various solo exhibitions at galleries, including the Belknap Gallery in Louisville; the Gallery Bershad in Boston, MA; the University of Kentucky Art Museum; the Michigan State University Museum; the Kentucky Railroad Museum in Louisville; and the Triangle Gallery in Washington, DC. He also has participated in numerous group exhibitions, including shows at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville; the A&A Gallery of Yale University; the Museum of Contemporary Art in Palermo, Italy; Heike Pickett Gallery in Lexington; the Kresge Museum at Michigan State University; and the University of Washington. His work can be found in the collections of the George Meany Labor Center in Washington, DC; the Kildare County Arts Center in Newbridge, Ireland; Brown-Forman Corp.; Orlando City Hall of Orlando, FL; the First National Bank of Louisville; and others.