A Portrait of Two Artists

By: Don Meyer
reproduced with permission from Don Meyer

When I first received word of Gil Reid’s passing, it did not come as a surprise. I already knew from one of Mid-Continent’s members, who was Gil’s dialysis technician, that he was in extremely poor health and not expected to live long. What did surprise me was that his heart had been able to hold out as long as it did, because the news about his frail condition came to me during our Santa Express event last November.

I first met Gil about ten years ago. I was working on a plan to use the museum’s depot as an art gallery. The concept was a pretty simple one. I was looking for a cheap exhibit as a means to provide our guests with something new to see, which in turn gave me something new to promote in our advertisements. A local artist helped me to organize one art exhibition that would last a month. That left me with the rest of the season to fill.

As I shared my dilemma with Tom O’Brien, then Mid-Continent president, he asked me if I had talked with Gil Reid and Ted Rose, both Mid-Continent members. I was still so new to any form of railroading that I did not know who these two gentlemen were. And when Tom informed me of their status as preeminent railroad artists, I was reluctant to even make an inquiry. After all, why would they condescend to do an exhibition of their work at a lowly railroad museum given their accomplishments in the art world?

In the end I sent both Gil and Ted letters informing them of the use of the depot as an art gallery that summer and asking if they would be interested in exhibiting their work. I did this solely as a courtesy, since they were Mid-Continent members. I could not conceive of either one of them saying yes, but I also wondered how it would look having an art show at the museum without at least giving our two prominent members the opportunity to turn down my request. To my surprise, both accepted.

I first met Gil at his studio. He had informed me that he did not have an inventory of original works on hand since he was only painting by commission. What he did offer was an exhibition of the work he had done for Amtrak by displaying the calendars he had in his possession for all the years, save one, that he had been commissioned to do paintings for them.

We spent a delightful afternoon together. I left that day with a carload of calendars, a wealth of knowledge about Gil’s career as an artist and illustrator for Kalmbach, and a deep appreciation for the kind-hearted man that was Gil Reid. During our short time together, he kept apologizing to me for not being able to find that one missing calendar. He also kept expressing his gratitude for the chance to display this retrospective of his work, even if only as prints on calendars.

He did one other thing for me that day. He gave me the contact information at Amtrak headquarters so that I could inquire if they would be willing to loan me one of the many originals they had hanging in their offices. A few weeks later I was on the station platform in Portage, waiting for the delivery of a Gil Reid original. The train stopped just long enough to unload five wooden crates, each one holding a painting for our art show. And they were huge. That day I drove back to the office, thankful that I had brought my pickup truck.

The day the Gil Reid exhibit went on display in the depot, Gil and his wife Lorrayne were there. A reporter friend, Tom Michele, from the Baraboo News Republic was there as well to do an interview. Gil took Tom around to each calendar and discussed the inspiration behind each painting. It was fascinating to hear what Gil went through to create each composition. In some cases it meant being at a certain time and location to photograph a train that would comprise that year’s painting. In some cases it meant taking elements of different photographs and creating a composite that existed only in Gil’s imagination. And on occasion Gil painted his friends into the scene, a golfer in one painting, a fisherman in another. I would give anything if I had only had the foresight to record that interview. What I do have is the memory of a wonderful experience that proved to be one part of an education I received that year in creating an art exhibition.

Gil’s one-month show was followed by another featuring the artwork of Ted Rose. Negotiating with Ted was a totally different experience from that of dealing with Gil, but one that proved to be just as rewarding for both Mid-Continent and me.

Ted was not interested in merely displaying his work. He wanted to sell his paintings and personally delivered 45 of them from his studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. My approach was to group the paintings by themes and arrange them on the walls in a way that I thought would make an eye-appealing display. But Ted would have none of it. “That’s alright for your living room,” he snapped at me, “but this is an art gallery.” He subsequently supervised the hanging of the paintings in two horizontal rows around the rooms of the depot. The gap between the two rows was at his eye level giving people the best view of all the artwork, in his estimation.

Ted’s paintings came in three sizes and were priced according to size. And each price was divisible by three in order to make the math easier. For at Ted’s insistence Mid-Continent was to get one-third of the proceeds for each painting sold. He then notified the people on his client list that an exhibition of his latest work would be on display and for sale by the Mid-Continent Railway Museum. People flew in from around the country to be there on the first day of the exhibit. A few asked to be let in to the depot before anyone else so that they could have first shot at purchasing one of his paintings. It was an eye-opening experience to witness Ted’s popularity first-hand with the competition for getting first choice at a painting.

We sold ten paintings that first day and twenty-two for the four-week run of the exhibition. Mid-Continent netted about $10,000 in sales proceeds. Ted was pleased and confessed to me later that he was totally surprised at the success of the show. I had apparently made a new friend. A few years later, when I was the new executive director of the Minnesota Transportation Museum, Ted made a donation to MTM of his original watercolors done to illustrate the book John Blair and the Great Hinckley Fire. His kind act helped to enhance my reputation with my new employer.

For the Blair paintings I had the brilliant idea of creating an exhibit at the Jackson Street Roundhouse with the intent of using the subject matter of the paintings to create a relationship with the African-American community that made up a large segment of the population in that part of St Paul. The exhibit was funded by the Pan African Community Endowment, a fund established within the St Paul Community Foundation. The exhibit was opening up new doors of support for the museum. But once again I ran afoul of Ted’s artistic sensibilities.

Like a good museum director, I had prints made of the original paintings. The prints were framed and put on display so that the originals could be held back in safekeeping. The intent was to protect the originals from any damage, even from the potential for fading under the type of lights used to illuminate Bay D in the roundhouse. Ted was appalled. “Why would anyone want to see a print when they can enjoy the original?” was his one exasperated question of me. He declined to attend the opening reception we held for the exhibition. Somewhere in my files I still have the invitation for the reception that he returned to me with a terse, handwritten note, “No thanks!”

It only got worse when a few months later I wrote Ted a letter about another brilliant idea I had for obtaining other Ted Rose artwork for the museum. He hit the roof. I received a scathing letter from him and when I tried to call to smooth things over, he wouldn’t talk to me. Devastated, I called Gil Reid to tell my sob story and get his advice. It was then that Gil informed me that Ted had just received some rather troubling news concerning his health. He didn’t elaborate, but my feeling from what he did say was that Ted was having to cope with a diagnosis of cancer. He suggested I wait a while and give Ted time to adjust to his situation.

I followed Gil’s advice and let some time pass before calling Ted again. I began our brief conversation with an abject apology for anything I had written that had offended him. Ted thanked me and said we would talk again when he got to feeling better. But that was the last time we did talk. The news of Ted’s death made the rounds of the railfan community just as word of Gil’s death last week made the rounds via the Internet, a wonderful tool for sharing hard news with the least amount of personal anguish.

The year we did the Mid-Continent Depot Gallery, Gil Reid was on hand for the reception held in Ted’s honor on the first day of his exhibition. John Gruber was there too and took a photo of the two men standing outside on the depot platform. The photo ran in the next issue of the Railway Gazette, which John edited at that time.

Gil Reid and Ted Rose at Mid-Continent.
Photo by John Gruber and provided with permission by Bonnie Gruber.

That photo is how I remember Gil and Ted. Their expressions reveal their friendship and their mutual respect for one another’s work, even though their styles were completely different. That photo symbolizes for me the fact that they are inextricably linked in my memory for what they both offered a fledgling museum administrator, who was even a greater novice in the world of art exhibition than he was in running a railroad museum.

If you ask me which one of the two is my favorite artist, I can tell you that if you are talking about style, then it is Ted Rose hands down. I love his work. And to this day I will comment to someone when the light plays on a locomotive a certain way or the sunset has a certain type of hue to it that it is a Ted Rose sky, or a Ted Rose scene, or a Ted Rose moment. I am a fan.

But if you ask me who is my favorite on the basis of personality, then my answer is Gil Reid, without a doubt. The only way I can think to describe him to you is in words guys usually do not like to have applied to themselves; dear, sweet, kind. Gil was a gentleman in the truest and best sense of the word. He was an artist who defied the label typically applied to people with his talent, that of having an artistic temperament. Ted, on the other hand, fit the concept perfectly.

It would be too much for me to claim that we were close friends. Acquaintances would be more appropriate. Beneficiary would be the proper way to describe my part in our relationship. I am grateful for the opportunity to have known and worked with them both. They will be missed.