“We played Off to California and the Arkansas Traveler; Elzic’s Farewell and Ragtime Annie, the notes like bright sparks from a fire swirling upward into the dark sky, set the stars dancing. Suddenly my mind was filled with vivid images from an earlier time that touched my soul. These are the paintings drawn from that inspiration.”
~ Paula McHugh
Joe McHugh is a fiddler and storyteller whose powers of imagination and infectious sense of humor hearken back to the likes of Mark Twain and Will Rogers. Paula McHugh is a gifted visual artist and musician. Together as the Time Travelers they transport audiences through time to the folkways of the trans-Appalachian pioneers, the rough and ready days of the California gold rush, the injustice of slavery and building of the underground railroad, the divided loyalties of the Civil War, the myth and reality of the cowboy, the perils of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression—even the crazy challenges faced by back-to-the-landers in the 1970s.
Weaving together legends, tall tales, and little-known historical facts with authentic fiddle, banjo, and “courting” dulcimer duets, as well as projected images of original paintings—a bountiful feast for ear and eye that is sure to delight the intellect and nourish the soul.
Music as Muse
Since 2008 I have been working on a series of oil and egg tempera paintings based on the evocative titles of traditional American fiddle music. The great idea of America is that it is a melding of many cultures and American fiddle music reflects some of that diversity. Immigrants from England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, and other European countries crossed a vast ocean in hopes of finding a better life, bringing with them their musical traditions. The weaving together of these traditions with the music of Native Americans and enslaved African men and women created a unique style of folk music of which the fiddle tune played an important role both in providing moments of artistic release for people struggling just to survive and facilitating social interaction at dances, weddings, fiddle contests, and other community rituals. There have been thousands of fiddle tunes written. Some fiddle tune titles conjure up images from the natural world, June Apple, Spring the Valley—or they pertain to rural folkways—Dusty Miller, Bull at the Wagon, Boatman. Others commemorate significant events in American history—Off to California, Booth Shot Lincoln. My goal as an artist is to capture the soul behind this essential American music in my paintings, to help us better understand and appreciate the human condition both past and present.
Many artists title their work upon completion. I work my compositions in reverse. Beginning with a well-known or obscure musical title I research any history I can find about it, then I go about developing my ideas. I strive to tap into the wellspring of the collective memory, the places and experiences that shaped us as a people, along with their moments of courage, loss, faith, love, cooperation, and humor. I began this series of paintings working in watercolor and egg tempera but then turned to oils for the richness and depth this medium offers. My horizon lines and landscapes are often curved to echo the melodic nature of the music I portray. I often study photographs taken during the early part of the 20th century looking for some telling element to kindle my creative imagination: an uncertain expression on a coal miner’s face, the tired posture of a man picking cotton, or a medicine show pitchman wearing an Indian war bonnet. Integrating these enchanting images of the past into my work I sense the slow and steady turning of the wheel of time, so different from the urgent, fractured, abstract pace of our modern lives. My great hope is that I can impart this experience to others through my paintings.