Eric Engstrom’s Roadside Distractions

Wood's Fish Market, Town Wharf, Plymouth, Mass

The divine Ms. JoAnn Locktov turned me on to Eric Engstrom’s art, which I’m featuring here today. (If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a hundred times, she’s the center of the connectivity universe!) I thought he’d be the perfect post for this #TravelTuesday because he’s the ultimate gadabout when it comes to his art, which is now on view at Gallery Route One in Point Reyes Station, California, until January 16th. His works reflect his interests in history, vernacular architecture, and the character of “the places in-between” along the back roads of America. One of his “bibles,” William Least Heat Moon’s book Blue Highways, remains one of my all-time favorites. I asked Eric to share a bit about his inspiration and what he is up to in 2011. Happy roaming everyone!

In his own words… I’m a great admirer of barns—those utilitarian structures that manage to define their regions and uses so perfectly, ones mainly without architects as their creators. I am also fascinated by old industrial buildings that no longer produce the goods that sparked America’s growth in the 19th and 20th centuries. All of my art is based on my original photographs taken on several cross-country trips along old secondary roads. By creating digital photographic collages and then over-painting them with acrylics, I’ve tried to enhance the mundane and to create compelling visual comments about our built environment. Recently, I’ve added three-dimensional assemblage elements to the images, bringing forward the character of the structures even more clearly.

My inspiration spans all the way back to my early childhood. My dad, also an artist, used to pack the family in the car and take us for long drives through the back roads of New England, where I became fascinated with barns and abandoned commercial buildings from the back seat. While in high school I read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, and dreamed of just getting in the car and driving, with camera, sketchbook, and journal to record what I’d experienced. After finishing the Rhode Island School of Design, I worked for Plimoth Plantation Museum in Massachusetts as a graphic and exhibits designer. One of my early assignments was to visit museums and tool collections on the East Coast, driving between small towns on secondary roads. Visiting places like the Hagley Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, the Mercer Museum in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, and the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, New York, among others was a delightful part of my job. Studying in detail the barn illustrations of Eric Sloane gave me a real appreciation for American agricultural outbuildings.

Later on, I read the classic journal Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck, and William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways. I have continued my readings with Vanishing America by Michael Eastman, Roadside America by John Margolies, and am currently enjoying Long Way Home by Bill Barich. I’ve driven across America many times, always preferring the old numbered “US” routes to the Interstates. My most recent cross country journey in the fall of 2007 totaled over 11,000 miles, less than 400 of them were on the Interstates.

I began digitally enhancing my photographs in the late 1990s, and when I retired from the interior design field, I began creating individual digital photo-collages, each one using the same image. A couple of years ago, I began pasting the collages to canvas or hardboard (Masonite), and enhancing the images with acrylic and pencil. In this way I began to create imagined landscapes around the buildings I had rendered. By manipulating the buildings and landscapes visually, they became more interesting—the intent was that the mundane could be converted into intriguing and somewhat mysterious images. Last summer, in response to a group show requirements, I began working in the third dimension, using skills I developed years ago as an architectural model builder. The extra dimension not only adds layers to the image, it also allows the viewer to participate more fully in enjoying the work. My intent in 2011 is to explore the medium further and push toward more complex and edgy works.

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  • Candace Loheed

    Nice article about Eric Engstrom’s work at Gallery Route One. His work is a love poem to the back roads, and technically pretty fabulous (a technical term).

  • Eric Engstrom

    Saxon:Thanks for the wonderful coverage – it’s much appreciated.

  • Saxon Henry

    What a beautiful way to phrase it and I completely agree!! What a talent!

  • Saxon Henry

    It’s well deserved, Eric! So happy to get the word out about such talent. I’m going to take you up on that tour of SF/ Napa if I make it to Cali!

  • Rosemary Carstens

    Thanks so much for introducing us to Eric and his work. Blue Highways is one of my all time favorites, too. A few years ago when I rode solo on my motorcycle from my home in Colorado to the Pacific Ocean in northern CA and then up the coast through Oregon and into Washington before turning home, it was so great to be on the road day after day, traveling all the back roads. These works of art echo all that I saw and hope to see as I one day take to the blue highways again.

  • Saxon Henry

    Wow: that’s quite a ride, Rosemary. I didn’t know you were such a gadabout (but then again we writers tend to have that wanderlust in us, don’t we?)! So glad you stopped by. Are you coming to NYC for the ASJA conference in April? Would love to connect in person.

  • JoAnn

    Thank you for sharing Eric’s splendid work with your readers. I have watched his art develop and it keeps becoming richer and more poignant.

  • Saxon Henry

    I was so happy to know about his work: thanks very much for that! I think one of the most important things in life is to get the word out about wonderful talents and this is definitely the case with Eric. I only wish I could have seen the work in person! Thanks for your continued support of Roaming by Design: always so great to see you here!

  • Tara

    Eric :I love back roads ,& all the old beat50’s -60’s & 70’s journals on finding yourself and road trips ,individuality& abandoned spaces . My favorite pet projects in my old career were restoring theatres ,the art palaces fom the 20-40’s.Your art is technically correct but your use of color is vibrant fresh & revives the spaces you love.I am so happy for you that you are experiencing the time to create art in a more personal way. You are doing for blue highways & abandoned spaces what you did as a designer bring life into space.Tara Durkan