Suspicious to Congenial: People Encounters While Painting Michigan's Backroads
Much of my art is inspired from driving rural roads throughout Michigan, especially in the Upper Peninsula and Mid-Michigan. When I see something interesting, I will pull over and paint from my vehicle or outside of it if weather permits. Below is a short video of from one of my favorite spots which is in Winn, Michigan:
Almost every time I’m painting from my vehicle, someone will stop to inquire what I’m doing because it looks weird seeing a man parked in his vehicle constantly looking up and down. This blog post features some of the art and photos I’ve done during my back road travels and encounters I’ve had with people which ranges from congenial to suspicious.
Twenty five years ago I painted wherever I wanted with little caution or consideration of others. While painting this tee pee in a front yard near Gladstone in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the home owner investigated. At first he was pretty concerned until I showed him my work and introduced myself.
He was also Native American, and he invited me in his house for coffee! We talked for hours and became friends. I painted a shield for him to go with his regalia and we often caught up at pow wows. Here is a pic of Don with my son at a pow wow in Assinins.
Since I moved downstate, most people who stop are farmers. At first, they are all a little suspicious-rightfully so-but after some questioning, we get into a conversation. Often, I forget about the art and the farmer will apologize but I tell them meeting people is one of the reasons why I like painting in the country. Their presence and story become part of what I’m working on, permeating the watercolor.
Isabella County, Lincoln Township Farm
The farmers tend to be the friendliest, with hunters a close second. For example, I was parked in front of a beautiful wreck of a farm-see below-and getting ready to paint. Almost immediately a truck pulled up.
After the usual questioning, he told me about the history of the farm depicted in the following drawings and paintings. He was very excited at what I was doing and encouraged me not to stop. Like me, he thought it was wonderful I was preserving some of the past. One of my future projects is going to be a large watercolor based on these studies.
Below is an unusually sprawling house I painted in western Isabella County. A walker stopped and told me a story of a Native American family that resided there a few generations ago; however no one has lived there for years. I wish I would have written down the story because I remember little of the conversation. I think I will start writing things down more after future encounters for future blogs.
Closely Watched Property
The farm property below is surrounded by woods so the first time I came upon it I was delightfully surprised. The barn appeared in good shape but it was obvious it had been unoccupied for years There were old cars scattered about the property.
My first visit was about twenty years ago, and I was painting from my car when a man driving a tractor slowly made its way towards me.
The farmer asked a lot of questions and stated he kept his eye on this property due to many trespassers and thieves. Finally after about 20 minutes of talk he finally seemed to accept who I was and we had a great conversation.
Last year I decided to pay this farm a visit. The junked cars were gone but it looked about the same except the barn’s paint was more faded. Right on cue a truck slowed down and I recognized the farmer as the same one who stopped 20 years ago. He vaguely remembered me and was now retired.
Here are some of the images from that farm. I actually haven’t painted much there due to the talkative farmer-but a good trade off.
The only really threatening encounter I have had occurred near the Clare County border in northern Isabella County.
While painting this clear cut, I noticed from my rearview mirror someone pulling out of a trailer about a quarter mile down the road in a small tractor. I thought “here comes the welcoming committee.” When he pulled up, I went through my usual routine, including showing him the painting.
He studied it quietly before saying, “grown men aren’t supposed to be doing this. I painted when I was a kid.” He then turned around and drove back to his trailer.
I was relieved because he creeped me out. I got out of my vehicle to stretch and to clear my mind of the encounter. However, he came back almost immediately, and told me “We’ve had a lot of stealing around here lately and I think you are the look-out. I don’t believe this art thing. I don’t want you here-leave!”
I was scared because I was pretty sure he went back home to get a firearm. I was also angry, but I only said “I’m not breaking any laws, you can see my license plate, call the police if you like. I don’t want any trouble so I will leave.” For more about this painting and the encounter, see my Flickr page.
After this happened, I called central dispatch and they advised me to let them know where I was and what I was doing. They would still have to respond if someone reported me but at least they would know what is going on.
Unfortunately, I rarely plan to go to a specific spot; the fun is wandering around the countryside, sometimes crossing county boundaries, where I can run across interesting things.
Trucks, Drugs, and Law Enforcement
It Is common for people in trucks to repeatedly driving back and forth, eying me up before they leave. Others have pulled up behind me without getting out-then I leave. I’ve even been followed a couple of times.
I’ve often wondered why these things happen. Perhaps some people in economically depressed areas are more suspicious-a survival trait they may have learned for good reason.
Another factor may be the high prevalence of substance abuse-I often find evidence of drug use in my outings. I don’t think meth cookers would like me parked in front of an abandoned structure if they have a meth lab in it.
Also, it seems like some people are very territorial and take great pride in their role of defending where they live, whether the threat is real or imagined.
I have had DNR officers and police quickly pull up on me but sometimes I’m so completely focused on my work I do not notice. I had a state trooper knock on my car door window, startling the heck out of me. Law enforcement officers always leave me be once they see I’m painting. I am doing nothing illegal and I only park where I can get well off the road and am not a safety hazard.
A Move to Lansing
I noticed a jump in people being suspicious when I began painting in the greater Lansing are that included Eaton and Clinton Counties. I had moved to Lansing due to a layoff. Many people told me that their farms were being stripped by copper thieves.
Commission Work Vs. Roaming
I have started advertising work for hire on my commission page. Currently I am painting a picture of a barn that used to be owned by my customer’s grandfather.
I drove to the property and engaged with the owner who welcomed me to paint and draw to my heart’s content. I was able to hook him up with my patron because he was interested in the history of the farm; he and his family had only been living there for about a year.
Getting on the farm was an experience I have always wanted to do and is much more in depth and rewarding than painting from the road. If you have a farm or grew up on one in Mid-Michigan, contact me. and I may be able to get out to the property, with permission of course, and preserve some your memories while I enjoy the farmland and the structures on them.
Final Thoughts-Privacy and Safety
Some landowners are concerned about privacy-if images of their property are put on the web with enough information for others to find it, they could be vulnerable to loss of privacy, theft, or people trespassing. The most identifying information I usually post is the road or township the structure is on.
The majority of people I’ve met while painting in any rural area pose no threat and welcome my presence. I believe if I break down, get stuck, or get into an accident, folks will go out of their way to help me because that is a situation they understand and they are in control.
Here is a painting I did during a snow storm while parked on the side of M-20. Someone pulled over, got out of the car, and asked if I needed help. I realized I was creating a dangerous situation and I became more careful where I parked after this.
I highly value my trips in the countryside although I’m more likely to photograph now rather than paint. Yet there are times that I am compelled to paint directly from my vehicle. Hopefully I’ll meet more congenial people checking up on me and be able to forge new connections and friendships while doing the kind of art I love the most!