Ideas change the world.

Mill Street Mood_2

Our craft suffers from a scarcity of ideas. Ideas that change our image of what the hobby could be.

When Frank Ellison suggested that a model railroad’s operations is comparable to a theatrical production, where the trains are actors and the layout is a stage, he expressed the idea that model trains could do more than go round and round without purpose. This idea altered the concept of what model railroading could be. Miniature trains could be more than toys, they could have a larger purpose. Today, we’re still exploring and benefitting from his fundamental thinking.

A few decades later, Allen McClelland proposed that a layout could represent something bigger still: a portion of a national transportation system that funneled traffic from outside its boundaries. In an era when the majority saw their layouts as a closed, self-contained entity bound by the size of the room, that concept blew those artificial barriers away. The V&O was a testament to the power of an idea and one man’s vision. Allen spent decades exploring and refining that core idea. Was he inspired by Ellison? Perhaps. Did he carry Ellison’s idea forward? Definitely.

Conceptual ideas like Ellison’s and McClelland’s have been few in number but, when you consider the impact both have had, I wonder if we’d all still be watching toy trains mindlessly chasing their tales without them.

I speak so often of this theme because I believe our old definitions and concepts have grown shallow and lack the power to carry this craft into maturity. They’re quickly becoming a straitjacket, rather than a foundation to build on.

There Are Stages In A Creative Life
It’s a fundamental premise in the arts that great works are born of an idea rather than subject matter, medium or techniques. Yosemite didn’t make Ansel Adams a great photographer. Adams’ vision of what a landscape photo could be made him a great photographer.

Beginners are obsessed with questions of how-to. How do you do this? What tool do I need for that? What color blue should I paint my sky? What should I model? This is understandable because in any skill based endeavor the initial learning curve is steep until the fundamentals have been mastered. However, when one reaches intermediate or even advanced levels of understanding and skills, for many, their focus is still on questions of how. More sophisticated in content perhaps, but still confined to thoughts of craft, as if craft is all there is to it. Mastery of craft is important, however, mature artists will move beyond craft into the deeper and richer realms where ideas live.

An artist intent on serious work will begin to form a vision for her work. She’ll certainly be a master of craft but will ask questions centered on what she wants to say about the world or her subject matter. Questions about the subject; about form and the nature of the thing. Why does this speak to me? What do I want to say in response? How do I express that in my work? These are questions every serious artist strives to answer. They’re the fruit of a growth process toward artistic maturity.

What Is Maturity?
Consider a child’s crayon drawing and a Picasso portrait. Picasso is credited as saying that it took him a lifetime to learn how to draw with the freedom of a child. Yet Picasso’s work is not childish, it has a profound maturity of expression compared to the child’s crayon drawing.

The difference is in what each brings to the work. A child’s drawing no matter how innocent and precious is an immature work. We don’t expect it to be otherwise, unless of course it was drawn by your child. A work by Picasso while simple in form represents years of study, practice and keen observation. Picasso gave himself to the work as a life-long student and this discipline yielded mastery and a mature creative vision in return. Picasso didn’t follow art traditions, he invented them.

What Shapes Your View Of The Craft?
Reflecting on this topic of ideas, I wonder where our current thinking is taking us? Do we have a vision for a mature hobby that would sustain a serious creative vision like other art forms? I suspect the knee-jerk response to this will be: “Are you nuts, of course it’s mature.”

But is it? Have we uncovered all the depths it has to offer? Did Allen McClelland really codify everything there is to understand about the hobby in the V&O series? Or have we barely scratched the surface?

Earlier, I suggested our definitions and concepts have grown shallow and constricting, holding us to a past that has lost relevance for many in this age. Rather than do the deep work of examining our traditions, we’ve pinned our future on the trivia of more bells and whistles (literally), on the consumption of ever more toys that tickle the eye but leave the heart and mind unmoved. If the hobby is loosing relevance, is it because we no longer think of it in relevant ways? If other forms of entertainment capture the imagination, is it because they truly engage or simply tell a more compelling story?

A Mature Vision Of The Craft
I hesitate to go here because there are no definitive answers that people can cling to for security. But after months and years of thinking and writing about this, I will suggest a direction to consider: stop obsessing over the trains. Like a paintbrush, a camera, a musical instrument, they are creative tools, a means of expressing a vision. The depth of that vision comes from us and if we are shallow and superficial in our approach, the outcomes of the work will be the same.

I suggest the idea that railroad modeling is large enough to embrace the best practices from many arts. To pigeonhole it as merely playing with trains robs it of the power to fully engage the individual. My emphasis on the discipline of craft, on the power of story and the principles of art are all ways of expanding my view of this craft and perhaps, yours as well.

What does railroad modeling offer me in the twenty-first century? As a creative person, it offers me a medium to explore ideas and to grow in ways to numerous to count. It offers an outlet for work that engages my mind and hands as well as my heart. It gives me a connection to the past and present. It shows me who I am and who I can become. Would you ask more than that?

All these themes are a way to examine what we bring to this work as modelers. If all we bring is an ability to reproduce objects in miniature form, we’ll go right on the same path and arrive at the same ends we have now. But if we can expand our vision of it, there is no limit to where we can go. I have said countless times this craft amply rewards what you bring of yourself to it. If it does die of irrelevance, it will be our failure to each other and to ourselves that killed it.