But when the Clinchfield No. 1 came to life again on Winegar’s canvas, he knew he had something special at his fingertips. It was, after all, one of America’s most famous locomotives.
“Really, it’s one of my favorite trains I’ve painted,” Winegar said in a telephone interview from his Farmington, Utah, studio, “and I’ve done a lot of trains.”
Pat and Brenda Hill of Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, commissioned the painting of the No. 1 in honor and memory of Clinchfield Railroad families.
“When Simon showed us the painting, it brought me to tears,” Brenda said. “He captured a piece of my heart in his beautiful painting.”
Brenda’s grandfather, Oscar B. Peake, worked for the Clinchfield Railroad in Erwin for 50 years, first as a young waterboy and eventually as a mechanic. He was one of the Clinchfield workers who helped rebuild the Clinchfield No. 1 in the fall of 1968. When Peake died in 1977, the No. 1 followed his funeral procession to the cemetery and the steam engine’s whistle was blown to mark the passing of an esteemed member of the Clinchfield Railroad family.
The Hills were familiar with Winegar’s work and had acquired some of his paintings, so when the couple wanted a painting of the Clinchfield No. 1, they knew Winegar, a top American landscape artist, was the man to do it.
The 39-year-old artist has made quite the name for himself. His oil paintings can fetch thousands of dollars, and his work is a mainstay at several galleries in the American West.
The Clinchfield No. 1, a 4-6-0-style locomotive, was built in Indiana in 1882 and had a storied history before it was famously rebuilt 50 years ago this month. But it was that renewal in 1968 that put the real-life “little engine that could” into the history books. After rotting and rusting away for 13 years in the Clinchfield rail yard, the locomotive was rebuilt from the boiler up and then used as a marketing tool for the mountain railroad.
From 1968 until 1979, the No. 1 pulled popular excursion trains between Spartanburg, South Carolina, and the mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and Kentucky – and beyond. The historic steam engine and the excursions that carried thousands over the years received massive media attention, including from the likes of The New York Times, Southern Living and the Chicago Tribune.
The locomotive’s well-documented history wasn’t familiar to Winegar before he started work on the painting. His biggest concern, he recalls, was how to bring it to life again on the canvas.
“For an artist,” Winegar explained, “when someone gives you an idea that’s not yours, sometimes you kind of fight against that, because it’s not your idea. You don’t mean to, it just happens naturally. … To be honest, it wouldn’t have been a train I would have picked. I didn’t look at pictures of the train and say, ‘Wow! That’s the coolest train I’ve ever seen in my whole life!’ I didn’t say that, and I didn’t think that.
“My biggest worry was I would paint a black-on-black train, and it would be blah. Painting it could be really unexciting because it doesn’t have the highlights and the interesting color markings as some trains do. So I had to figure out how to tackle that and to make these colors really come alive.”
Pat Hill praised Winegar’s painting, saying it has “as much to do with atmosphere as anything else.”
“The beauty of the locomotive shows up in the reflective qualities of the engine itself,” he said. “Simon captured the beauty of the engine, its two-toned boiler, the brass shining in the sun.”
And, Winegar adds, “If you look at the painting, even on the black, there are a lot of colors going on because of reflections in the black (of the boilerplate). There’s a lot of that steely blue sky making it onto the engine, so I was able to use that to make it more interesting.”
He experimented with adding color to cars behind the engine and the coal tender.
The Clinchfield No. 1, displayed at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, since 1979, has been the focus of artists such as Ron Flanary, the late Ted Laws and the late Kenneth Ferguson, but Winegar is certainly the most high-profile artist to capture the locomotive on canvas.
“I’ve always been a landscape artist,” Winegar said, “and I do some urban stuff, whatever strikes my fancy, but trains, for me, have a special place in my heart.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m a kid who never grew up or what. I just love the structure. I love the history. I love the meaning behind them. I love the lights and darks and the hard and soft edges, just so many things that are interesting about trains from an artistic standpoint but also from a historic standpoint.
“It’s as if I’m recording some of the history of America, you know, hard work, integrity, industrialism. … I try to understand what the train did, why it existed. I like to find out the history about what I’m doing. It gives me a little more ammunition to go on, and the Clinchfield No. 1 really came alive because of all the history.”
The Hills are now offering a limited-edition of 75 framed giclee prints of Winegar’s painting, as well as unique note card sets. The “Clinchfield No. 1 Collection” will make its official debut during the Unicoi County Apple Festival in Erwin and will be available at the Unicoi County Historical Society’s booth and at the Clinchfield Railroad Museum.
Those who buy the giclee print at the Apple Festival, which will sell for $250, will also receive a free copy of a special, limited anniversary edition of “The One & Only: A Pictorial History of the Clinchfield No. 1,” an award-winning book by A.J. “Alf” Peoples and Mark A. Stevens published in 2013 and out of print since 2014.
A portion of the proceeds from sales will go to the Clinchfield Railroad Museum in Erwin.
“I’ve got the original,” Brenda said, “and it will remain one of my most cherished possessions, but it’s too beautiful, too special, not to share with other people. And we want to use it to raise awareness and money for the Clinchfield Railroad Museum. It’s just a way that Pat and I can give back to a place that has meant so much to me and my family for so long.”
Winegar said if his painting can help preserve a piece of Americana that may be the biggest compliment of all.
“I certainly hope people will appreciate the painting and the train, but the cool thing is understanding and learning the history about it,” he said. “Art has to be more than just a picture. If it doesn’t say something more than what it looks like, then I might as well be doing something completely different. … And in this particular case, it’s easier, because there’s already this great amount of beloved history surrounding this train.
“I’m standing on the shoulders of giants, honestly. I mean, all these people who spent their whole lives working on that train, running it, building it, restoring it. I mean, I just did a little painting, but if it didn’t have all that history, it wouldn’t be half what it is.”
Winegar’s painting, it seems, has become another colorful story in that history.
“I think the painting turned out as good as it possibly could have,” he said, “but there is way more to that train that just what it looks like, and that’s really cool to me.”
To buy a copy of the limited edition giclee, visit the Unicoi County Historical Society booth during the Unicoi County Apple Festival Oct. 6 and 7 or the Clinchfield Railroad Museum in Erwin, Tennessee. The commemorative collection can also be ordered by emailing [email protected] or directly from the website, www.clinchfieldno1.com.
Mark A. Stevens is a former newspaper editor and publisher with newspapers in Northeast Tennessee, Louisiana and South Carolina. He is now president of MAS Communications, his public relations and marketing firm in Pawleys Island, South Carolina.