Two acclaimed Nicholas County artists — one living, one deceased — will be showcased at separate galleries on Saturday, Oct. 9, when Richwood’s 35th annual Mountain Color Art Show holds its first annual Art Walk street fair.
Bloomfield Richwood Gallery will be exhibiting the bold and expressionistic works of Nicholas County painter Michael Steve Flynn. The Lawrenson Gallery, also on Main Street, will feature a retrospective exhibit of Gayle Surface (1907-2000), a prolific Richwood folk artist whose paintings of bucolic American landscapes are fetching thousands of dollars at high-end galleries in Lewisburg and other places.
Style-wise, the two men couldn’t be more different. But Flynn, a photographer and self-proclaimed “outsider artist,” knew and revered Gayle Surface. “He was a friend of mine. He taught me how to mix paint. He encouraged me and gave me ideas,” Flynn said.
In fact, in 1997 Flynn photographed the 90-year-old Surface, who was still painting at that time. He also taped an interview with the artist that is as much a story of twentieth-century America as it is about the man.
Gayle Jackson Surface was born at Saxman, a “coal holler” near Richwood. He was the son of a railroad builder. At age 8 his parents bought him a box of watercolors for Christmas. He told Flynn that when his brushes wore out, he made new ones out of fur from the family house cat. That same year he read a book about an artist and decided he wanted to be one.
So, after graduating from Richwood High School, he followed the advice of Horace Greeley: “Go west, young man.”
He first drifted from Chicago — where he said he met Al Capone — to Cincinnati where he found a job doing advertising illustrations. When the Depression hit, Gayle hopped a boxcar and rode the rails from one small town to another. He would rent a room for a quarter or sleep in the “hobo jungles.” He found jobs painting windows of barber shops, pool rooms, stores. He even did tattoos.
In 1933, he made his way to an artist colony in New Mexico — probably Taos — where he lived with a sheepherder’s family. Ultimately, he would find himself in New York’s Greenwich Village sharing a loft with a German painter.
“The painter was a modernist, and Gale was a realist,” according to the Flynn interview. “Both would sell art in Central Park for $25 or $30. That was a lot of money back then.”
In 1934, he married a girl from back home, Dosha Russell. They would have four daughters and a son.
When World War II broke out, Surface returned to West Virginia, where he worked for eight years at the United Cement Pipe Co. But his wanderlust would return. Dosha divorced him in 1959. Two years later, he married his second wife, Verna Sparks, also from Nicholas County.
By this time, Surface had been selling paintings all over the United States and abroad. In 1937, he sold three paintings to the McClery Calendar Company for $25 each. In 1957, Ford Times magazine bought a painting of the covered bridge at Philippi for $75. Another work was acquired by the Sunrise Museum in Charleston.
Eventually Gayle and Verna settled back in Richwood, surrounded by the nature he so loved. He lived on income from his paintings, often painting several renditions of a particular local scene and selling them around town.
Surface told Flynn, “My work is realism and my talent was given to me by God.” His art, he said, was from the life he had lived, from the people he’d met — rich and poor — and from the places he had been. Sometimes he would blend images from those various places, inserting mountains from the Southwest behind a West Virginia lake.
Almost everyone in Richwood has a Gayle Surface painting around the house. It is only in the past twenty years that their value is being recognized. Today, Surface’s grandson, Kris Moose, and his wife, Marnie, have purchased a large collection of his paintings and are donating them for the retrospective at the Lawrenson Gallery.
Flynn’s work, along with his own rare photographs of Gayle Surface, will be on display across the street at Bloomfield Gallery. Curator and owner Cecil Ybanez said, “We chose to exhibit Steve Flynn because he puts forth a very unique and very personal viewpoint because of his life experiences.” Flynn works as an emergency medical technician and often uses his art to process the trauma he witnesses. “While his aesthetic has an unfiltered and assertive quality — with its bold lines and saturated colors — his work has a nuanced language which he has honed as a way of self-expression,” Ybanez said.
The Mountain Color Art Show opens Oct. 3 at Richwood City Hall and continues all week. On Saturday, Oct. 9, Main Street Richwood will be blocked off from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. for the first annual Art Walk Richwood. Artists, writers and musicians will line the streets for the outdoor fair. In addition, Roy Moose, son in law of Gayle Surface, will perform a “History Comes Alive” presentation at 1 p.m. in the Sterling Spencer Sculpture Garden.
Artists can still apply for a booth. Contact the Richwood Area Chamber of Commerce at 304.846.6790 or go online to www.richwoodchamberofcom merce.org/richwood-art-walk-1.