Painting Small Town USA

Bradley Shoemaker has carved a comfortable niche for himself by painting an idealized place many of us would like to call home. His watercolors and limited-edition prints feature horse-drawn black buggies trotting down snow-covered streets, quilts airing in the breeze and white-steepled churches rising out of green-carpeted knolls: appealing stuff to anyone who has fond memories of, or even just an affinity for, life in a small town. But the “anytown” appeal in his work comes from one specific area—Pennsylvania’s rural Susquehanna Valley, where he’s lived and worked nearly all his life. “I’d love to travel and paint, but out my back door there is so much,” he says. It’s no doubt that it’s familiarity with his subject that gives him an edge when it comes to capturing the feel of small-town USA. And he’s parlayed his ability to hone in on homespun ideals into a successful gallery and print business, which he owns and operates in small-town Lewisburg, Pennsylvania—population 7,500.

Forging a Link to the Past

Like Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, artists whom he admires, Shoemaker portrays rural landscapes on the brink of modernization. “It’s all changing quickly,” the artist says about the Amish/Mennonite farm country. “I have a desire to keep alive images of the past. It’s unfortunate, but my children won’t see the old structures that I saw growing up, so with each painting I try to document the times and places.”

To this end, Shoemaker’s efforts go beyond the architecture of a town, and touch on the character of the people who live their lives in the towns he paints. For example, to capture the steadfast nature of a close-knit rural community, he uses soft, quiet colors to establish a serious, introspective tone. Shoemaker attributes this careful attention to studying and capturing the emotional fabric of a scene to the success of a painting and/or print. “I look at the scene in different light and weather conditions, at different times of the year and at different angles. I let the images cook for a while, then ideas start emerging,” says Shoemaker. “When I get ready to paint, I close my eyes and think, what does the downtown really look like? What’s inside of me that I can contribute to that scene? That’s when the best things start to happen.”

Contributing editor Mark Gottsegen is an associate professor of art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the author of The Painter’s Handbook (Watson-Guptill).

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