Video: Watch Ellie Schaul as she walks through one of her interstate highway paintings.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I don't often get rung up by The Art Store asking if they might show a Gazette-produced multimedia news feature on a laptop during an art exhibit. When they said which one -- an audio slideshow from last June on the massive Interstate 64 bridge now swooping across the Kanawha River -- it was time to investigate.
Highway construction does not come readily to mind as the subject of an art show. That didn't give pause to the much-esteemed Charleston-based artist Ellie Schaul. Witness her 17 colorful oil paintings on the art of the interstate highway, featured in "Movin' On: 64, 77, 79," up through May 22 at The Art Store in the Bridge Road shops.
"Once I got started on these, I couldn't stop," said Schaul, standing amid the paintings in her South Hills home studio before they were carted off to The Art Store. "No matter where I was in the city, there would be another painting."
Indeed, just as the coming of the roads early in the 20th century changed life in West Virginia, the coming of the interstates in the late '60s and early '70s changed Charleston -- its look, its history, its landscape.
Schaul did some homework for the exhibit (the show's title refers to the interstates portrayed in the paintings). Her research was aided greatly by an e-mail correspondence with one of the chief engineers on the enormous and controversial project to plow an interstate right through Charleston. Not everyone thought punching a highway through town was such a grand idea.
Schaul gestures to the largest work in the show, "Movin' East; 64, 77," a 48- by 60-inch oil on canvas that depicts the half-built Interstate 64/77 as it swerves east on its way toward the Capitol.
It is a piece of social history in its own right. She points to the far top right of the painting where the interstate barges into view, then rolls her hand into the space a foot outside the frame.
"When you think about all the thousands of homes that were taken when this thing came through town, it's really kind of unbelievable. This used to be the black neighborhood in town -- and it just wiped it out. It went to the Supreme Court to try to get the interstate to stopped coming through here. But -- nope.
"And over in here, the part you can't see, it was like the red-light district of Charleston, where all the speakeasies were. You couldn't get liquor by the drink then. If you were going out on a Saturday night, you had to go and knock on the door and they'd open a little window and peek out. If they knew who you were, they'd let you in."
Some of the well-to-do were also affected by the new behemoth in town and were not pleased. Schaul pointed to the top of a hill in her painting, a hill that was nearly sheared in half to cut a way for the interstate as it barged eastward.
Lee Kenna, a member of a prominent family of the time, lived in a house atop that hill, she said. "Of course, he was beside himself because they were going to take his front yard. And it did take his front yard. The house is still there, but the front yard is gone."
The Gazette's then-city editor and columnist L.T. Anderson was incensed with the demise of scenic hillsides to clear a path for the interstate, said Schaul.
"L.T. was having just a complete conniption over this whole thing. He just had article after article about the horrors of taking this mountain down. And the city of Charleston was going to end up being so homely because we were just going to have this shelf, you know, half a mountain."