The model train made its way around the track, outlining one loop and then stretching out and displaying its cars in all their glory – a mix of plastic and metal, lights and logos, new and old – before rounding a second, more suspenseful loop, eventually unwinding itself and heading back to where it began, only to keep going.
“There’s something nice about how campy it is,” Sam Duket said as he watched the train make its way around the track he built with Brad Fesmire.
The installation was designed by the two artists and woodworkers for their “Untitled (not titled yet)”show at the Jamestown Arts Center which opened April 27. It combines their talents and showcases their longtime adoration of model trains. Duket’s observation was made the day before the opening, as the two men were testing out the train on their custom-built track for the first time.
The idea for the show came about last February or March, they said. Fesmire, a resident of West Kingston, applied for a Rhode Island State Council on the Arts grant last spring, and was awarded $2,500 for the project last summer. The two have collaborated before and participated in four shows together, and also own a company that does custom-built woodwork and restorations. It is based in Olneyville, where they made most of the elements for the train installation.
Duket and Fesmire met in 2008 in Providence, where Duket still lives, and believe their mutual affection for trains must have come up in conversation around Christmas time, probably over beers. The two have about 50-60 model train parts between them, mostly handed down from their fathers and grandfathers, although a few new pieces were purchased for this installation.
“I suppose that’s where it all started: meshing the collections together,” Duket said.
“I’ve never bought a piece of train anything until this project,” Fesmire added.
And what they have bought, said Duket, “pales in comparison to our collections.”
The trains are powered by a 620-watt Lionel engine that could run four trains on separate loops. Many of the train cars also are Lionel products; the company has been an industry standard for decades, and was founded by Joshua Lionel Cowen in 1900.
The platform holding the train tracks is a smooth surface, made from bolted birch, which contrasts with the raw edges of the legs or trestle supports, made of hemlock. Fesmire said the two went looking for wood, found what they wanted at a sawmill, and had a somewhat intentional idea behind the design. As for its shape, that came after laying out train tracks at their Providence workshop, and then cutting the wood around the path.
Artwork hangs on the walls of the gallery space, but seems like it is there to accent the train and the installation, and to remind visitors that both men are artists and crafters. Many of the train cars and parts share a similar orange hue used by Fesmire in some of his paintings, and the platform holding the train tracks reflects the simplicity of the raw oak pieces made by Duket and on display.
Ahead of the show’s opening Fesmire said most people seemed excited about seeing the train in action. Duket added that for some people, there is a comfort and commonality in watching a model train go around that is not necessarily inherent in viewing artwork.
There is something very charming about it, he said, from the sounds and lights to even the smell of the older models.
Duket and Fesmire were also learning about each other’s collection while setting up the installation, with the former impressed by a boxcar the latter pulled out, featuring two little people – potentially robbers, or vagabonds. Another car had an attached searchlight that rotates and flashes, which Duket deemed “priceless.”
Of the newer train pieces they bought for the show, they intentionally sought out ones that had some sort of narrative element to them, like a car carrying a tractor trailer for the Providence-Worcester rail line.
Other cars in their collections include a Krey’s of St. Louis Ham-Bacon boxcar, advertising “deliciously mild” food for over 50 years; a Canadian Pacific car carrying logs; a Bethlehem Steel car affixed with an adjustable crane; a car with a Sunoco oil tank; and, of course, a caboose.
As Duket and Fesmire were troubleshooting the generator and whether a diesel engine or steam locomotive should take the lead, and how many railcars could be linked together without threatening a collision around a particular bend, they were visibly enthused about the installation.
“I like everything about this,” Fesmire said as he watched the train go around.
When a 20th car was linked to the line, Duket announced that it was officially the longest train line he had ever made, and he and Fesmire watched in a sort of awe as it followed the route they had designed, whistling on its way.