By Gina Malone
Artist Nadine Charlsen had already planned a trip out West to teach watercolor classes when she learned that a beloved train was going her way. “It turned out that I could attach a 500-mile ‘side trip’ through western Kansas and follow the Union Pacific 4014 ‘Big Boy’ locomotive from Salina, KS to Sharon Springs, KS,” says Charlsen.
Built in 1941, the steam locomotive Big Boy was restored from 2016–19 using parts from other defunct Big Boy trains and operates as part of Union Pacific’s heritage fleet. It made its first excursion run in May 2019 to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. COVID kept Big Boy home last year along with the rest of the country, but in August and September of this year it resumed excursion operations with stops in Fort Worth, Houston, New Orleans, North Little Rock, St. Louis and Denver. The five-week tour included whistle-stops in more than 90 other communities along the way.
Charlsen was born 40 miles north of Sharon Springs and so was familiar with the country through which she and Big Boy were traveling. A Union Pacific app showed her the train’s progress in real time. “I stayed in Salina where it was parked overnight,” Charlsen says. “I have photos of the train as it entered the station and as it left in the morning. I followed the train from Salina along Old Highway 40 to Hays the next night and to Sharon Springs the third night.” She was able to follow the train or get ahead of it by a few miles the entire way. “I stopped and took photos in a couple of little towns and out in the flat fields of Kansas,” she says. In Kit Carson, CO, she and Big Boy parted ways: she traveling south to Santa Fe for her scheduled class and the train heading north to its home in Cheyenne, WY.
“I felt I needed to get photographs of the actual train, in motion and stopped, with different backgrounds to continue painting my train series,” says Charlsen. Since her journey, she has completed five watercolor paintings of Big Boy, the largest locomotive ever built in the US. The new paintings join her series Crossing the Tracks. Charlsen also spent some time in the area around Santa Fe photographing and painting landscapes for her America series.
The size of Charlsen’s paintings are part of their appeal for fellow artist and former 310 ART studio mate Katrina Chenevert who owns and proudly displays work by Charlsen in her home. “When she started painting trains, the bigger size (usually around 30”x 40”) really gave the trains a platform that makes them appear to be moving, followed by a sense of smell envisioned by the steam surrounding some of her engines,” says Chenevert. “In other words, her work, although abstracted, contains enough detail to involve all the senses of the viewer.”
Although she has painted many trains, Charlsen had not painted this particular steam engine, having missed its 2019 anniversary run. “Not one of my friends in Kansas sent me any information about the trip even though they knew from my social media posts that I was painting steam engines,” she says. “This year my Facebook account was flooded with comments! I love learning about the history of the old trains that helped build this nation. I want to see mass transit make a comeback as part of our infrastructure future.”
See Nadine Charlsen’s work at NorthLight Studios Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment at her home gallery. Charlsen welcomes commissions and also teaches classes at 310 ART at Riverview Station. Learn more at NadinePaints.com. Her work may be viewed at Stony Hill Bistro in downtown Asheville, at Mountain Air Country Club in Burnsville and at Taupe Gallery in North Wilkesboro.