A Failure To Communicate

by Mar 6, 2017OST Believes, Storytelling

Last week’s post was my response to a thoughtful one on Trevor Marshall’s blog. While I received a couple of encouraging comments about it, I’m not satisfied I expressed myself well. If you’ll indulge me, I want to take another crack at it and have deleted the previous post.

What Is Model Railroading?
As a creative activity, this pursuit can embrace whatever you wish to bring to it. It has a breadth and depth one can explore that lead to many positive outcomes. However, in looking critically at where we’ve come and perhaps are headed, I ask have we defined the goal too narrowly? Are there other questions we could ask, other possibilities we could explore? With all the focus on the latest and greatest widget or tech wizardry, have we lost sight of something fundamental such as what inspires or motivates us about trains in the first place? Clearly something does, why else would we commit ourselves to such an undertaking?

On this blog I have tried, with varying degrees of success, to share my understanding of artistic principles and concepts as they apply to this craft because they speak to such questions. It’s been frustrating for all of us in many ways. I’ve realized that in sharing ideas whose value is obvious to me, I’ve neglected to empathize with readers who may be hearing them for the first time ever. I’ve ignored how confusing it must feel for many of you. Modeling magazines and other traditional resources tell one story and then here I come with strange terms, weird ideas and abstract concepts that tell a very different one. As the line goes: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

For all my inept efforts at sharing, it’s important to me to keep trying because the principles of art have much to offer in terms of enhancing our experience and enjoyment of the craft.

Art Teaches One How to Look Beyond The Surface of A Thing.
It takes time to develop a deep friendship. We really have to make the effort to move beyond a first impression and spend time getting to know the person before we have a genuine understanding of them. This is of course a mutual exchange, they share about their life and interests and we in turn do the same, building those deeper bonds over time.

Art helps us look beyond first impressions. A painting of a bowl of fruit may seem simplistic at first, yet by capturing that image, the painting provides a vehicle to study the nuances of form and color in everyday objects. We ignore the ordinary because it’s constantly there and familiar. However, the artist is telling us there’s something here that captured his imagination enough that he wanted to share it with others. By capturing a moment in time, a painting or photo presents an opportunity to reflect on the object or idea. We can spend time and bring our attention and focus to the image, much as we would with a new friend. In modeling we’re doing the same thing. We’re saying there is something about the beauty of a simple grade crossing, or the actual process involved in setting out a freight car that captivates us. By taking the time to see such elements for what they are we can deepen our experience of them. Such depth can free us from defaulting to clichés and we’re less tempted or influenced by exaggeration or artifice.

Art Reminds Us of Our Humanity.
Railroading was and still is a profoundly human endeavor. The trains don’t run themselves (yet) and the industry’s very existence is to serve people’s needs for transportation, employment and more. Before automation took over so much, the human side of railroading was more visible. The switch tender’s shack near the yard ladder or the watchman’s shanty at a crossing spoke to the human side of the work by allowing employees a brief rest from the weather. The way switch stands were lined up so the engineer can see the crewman on the ground speaks to the need for everyone’s safety and desire to work efficiently.

Artists are sensitive to such things. Creativity is the practice of seeing how unrelated objects or ideas can be combined in a new way that enhances our experience. Our design practices aren’t always so considered though. From a design standpoint, how does standing on a stepstool and stretching over a section of bench work to uncouple cars on an upper level enhance our experience of the craft? What does squeezing through an overly narrow aisle that was dictated by the track plan rather than human needs do to the dignity of operators and visitors? What does subjecting ourselves to such poor designs say about our priorities? Is that extra loop of track so important that you and everyone else are forced to crawl on the floor to enter or leave the room?

Artists Understand How to Deal With Fear
In modeling, we often enter the unknown. Crafting an object is an exercise in confronting our doubts and fears. Can I make this part? Do I understand how the underframe of a freight car goes together? These questions and others all center on the core issue: am I up to this task? Can I do it well and what happens if I fail? We may not express or even understand it so literally but under the surface such doubts swirl around for many of us. They provoke statements of “that’s too hard” or “that’s too much work” as a way of dealing with the fear.

I’m as guilty as anyone of offering trite answers such as: “It’s only plastic, or just keep at it.” They’re trite because such weak responses don‘t speak to the person’s real fear. Is there a deeper conversation model railroading could provide that addresses such issues? I believe there is but can others envision one too? Creative people in all disciplines face down these doubts and other issues every day, often on a level few would understand. Some fall victim to unhealthy behavior, others find more constructive ways to push forward and create the work they desire. The lives of professional working artists have much to teach us about our own approach, even to something as simple as a hobby.

What I’m trying to get at with all this is a means of enhancing my experience of the craft and then sharing that deeper connection with others. It’s easy to succumb to a pessimistic view about the state of affairs. One that assumes people will only seek simplistic solutions and effortless convenience, or that the way things are now is how they will always be. That’s selling ourselves and other people short. The many positive responses to Trevor’s post offer a different story than that. It doesn’t have to be a winner takes all war of values. There’s room for the trivial and profound.