Friday, September 05, 2014

Dave DeArmond sketching his way down the Kansas White Way

Inspired by car run, KC artist sets out to paint every town along the Kansas White Way

On a cloudy, humid August afternoon where uncertain skies threatened either sun or storm, David Douglas DeArmond turned off Highway 9 and drove north toward Greenleaf. His maroon Honda CRV slowed at the city limits and thereafter crawled along at a snail’s pace with his head swiveling left and right as if detached from his spinal cord. Something about the intersection of 5th and Main caught his attention so he wheeled around in a driveway for a second pass. 

Again, that slow crawl as he inspected each angle, each line, each geometric shape. For a moment it appeared that he would stop, but after a long hesitation he turned west on 5th, cruised several blocks, looped north around the park and made a right turn into the one-block downtown district. The Honda pulled to the curb by a Bell substation.

When he exited his vehicle, DeArmond had a huge grin on his face.

“I’ve been here before,” he said excitedly. “I remember that phone.” He pointed to a bright red plastic bubble enclosing a pay phone, possibly the only one of its kind in northeastern Kansas. “I painted it a long time ago, with the elevators in the background.”

The brick architecture appealed to him, but it wasn’t what he was looking for. He drove back to the intersection of 5th and Main and eastward two blocks to the edge of town where he pulled to the shoulder. The gravel road arrowing straight east undulated like tidal surges. Consulting a hand-drawn map that looked like an indecipherable mass of squiggles, lines and numbers, he squinted back toward the town proper and sized it up. To the left of the intersection rose a CO-OP sign, to the right an abandoned service station. There would have been more but a broad swath of the area had been scraped clean by a tornado 50 years back and some of it had never been rebuilt.

“This was the original White Way,” he said. “It has to be.”

That settled it. He parked at the Co-op, popped the latch to the hatchback, pulled out a small folding stool and a 12”x 12” Cartiera Magnani Acquerello sketchpad, and set off on foot down the road to find the perfect spot to sketch.


DeArmond’s interest in the highway was sparked by a conversation he had at the Kansas Sampler Festival in May. He had recently completed a project on the Midland Trail and was selling the resulting book when someone mentioned an upcoming car run honoring the first organizational planning session for the Kansas White Way in May 1914. The car run, scheduled one week after the Sampler, would cover almost 200 miles of Highway 9 from Atchison to Concordia, with its final destination in Frankfort. Though he missed the event, DeArmond couldn’t stop thinking about it, and a quick Google search led him to the organizers who offered him a digital copy of the original log book.

Like the Midland Trail tour book, the Log of the Kansas White Way provided a mile-by-mile synopsis of both routes from east to west and back again. Directions often involved navigational details that have long since disappeared, such as windmills, flagpoles, schools and railroad tracks. And, too, much of the information was no longer accurate; modern highways have completed reshaped the road. But some of the original road still existed, and some of the original architecture, and some of what was missing could be found, with luck and perseverance. It was like fitting together a puzzle with half the pieces missing. 

“First, I made a list of places and towns, trying to figure out how big the project would be,” he said. “I knew it wouldn’t be a small one.”

DeArmond’s wife, Judy, recognized the signs as he sat at the table with his pencil and notebook. When figuring turned to mumbling about getting back to painting, it was time to pack a small suitcase with a few days’ worth of clothing. 

What he couldn’t decide was what to make of the project—a book, a DVD slideshow or some sort of hybrid. Books are nice but expensive to make, and DVDs are often enigmatic to customers. In the end, about the time his wife was finished packing his bags, he decided that the decision could wait. “I’ll worry about that when the time comes,” he said.

DeArmond is no stranger to the road, or to wielding a paintbrush or pen, for that matter. Largely self-taught, he has done plein air painting across the U.S. as well as England and Australia. Between April 2007 and June 2013 he challenged himself to create four to six pieces of artwork in each of Kansas’s 105 counties. Each finished piece was 11x15 inches or larger. By the time he finished the project he had racked up 16,800 miles and had spent innumerable nights in motels.

Following that, in September and October of 2013, he painted every Kansas landmark named in the transcontinental 1916 Midland Trail motor car touring guide. The project netted 60 11x15-inch watercolors and a book containing the sketches. The book and a narrated DVD slideshow containing the sketches, watercolors and oils done in the 105 counties project can be purchased at Kansas Originals Market in Wilson and Tecumseh, and at the Berger Sandzen Memorial Gallery in Lindsborg. 

In some ways, following the Kansas White Way would be similar to his quest down the Midland Trail: part exploration, part discovery, part creativity. It was a daunting task—preliminary research led him to believe he’d need at least 93 sketches to complete the project—but at 77 years of age he liked to keep his mind honed and his talents sharp. His fieldwork was as methodical as it was efficient, his sketches minimal but meticulous. “Simple, fast and focused,” he called his technique, and it had served him well over the decades. He would need it on his journey down the highway.


At each location DeArmond creates a single sketch using a combination of 0.5mm and 0.8mm Micron pigment ink markers. He also photographs each location to use as color references for the watercolors he applies after he returns to his studio. Because painting is more time consuming than sketching, he said, he can only finish three in a day, a far cry from the 10 sketches he can crank out in the same time in the field. 

“I’ve found that it’s the fastest way to get a good image,” he said. “I need to consider the cost of gas and motels while doing this project. After all, Kansas is over 420 miles wide.” 

Kansas is also known for its wind, humidity and weather extremes, all of which often make watercolor techniques ill-suited for the outdoors.

When he arrives at each town, he maps out the exact route of the White Way and chooses a scene oriented westward for the direction of travel. Each selection is taken from the log book. In Linn, the directions were to cross the railroad tracks heading east, drive past the elevator and turn left. He chose that location for a painting. In Palmer, he chose the old service station with its overhanging veranda. He also painted the old Peats Creek School to the south of Palmer.

“What I want to do is not just paint the towns, but show the modern traveler what was actually on the White Way,” he said. “I want them to see what was there in relation to what still exists.”

In order to be as exact as possible after a hundred years of highway rerouting and rural depopulation, he supplements the log book with a heavily-used DeLorme Atlas and Google Earth. The former is used to find seldom-used gravel and dirt roads that in many instances were the precursors to the current road system. The latter gives him a birds-eye view through exquisitely-rendered satellite imagery. “This is to ensure whatever I draw is actually a view on the White Way,” he said. “It makes it more interesting.”

The log book itself, however, detailed as it is—or was, a century ago—leaves as much to the imagination as it does chance.

“I find a lot of errors in the log book,” he said. “Mileages are wrong, for one. Apparently the authors were different people for each town. Some were very good, and the route is easy to retrace because the author included cardinal directions. Those that didn’t, well, it almost breaks your heart. It’s nearly impossible to retrace.”

He believes the book was hastily put together with sealed notes provided by volunteers in each town, then compiled by a press in Beloit. The typesetter had no way to checking for errors so it was printed as fact. 

“And that was the end of that,” he said. “I often wonder how many of these people even owned cars.”

Regardless of the imprecise nature of the entries, DeArmond said, the log books served their purpose.

“The whole idea was to get people out to drive these roads,” he said. “The directions were adequate, and the white poles certainly helped, and it was much better than the Midland Trail book. That book covers whole country, but there’s rarely anything with cardinal directions. You pull your hair out trying to figure it out.”

Unlike most participants of the Kansas White Way car run this year, neither DeArmond nor his wife are “car people,” his term for those obsessed with motorized vehicles, preferably vintage and antique. 

“We don’t have any old cars and probably never will,” he said. “It’s certainly interesting to see them, but that’s not what attracts us to the road. We’re interested in automotive history, and the history of the towns and the roads themselves.”

After Greenleaf, he intended to head to Cawker City for at least another day’s work before turning for home. 

The sun was westering through a rent in the clouds when DeArmond crosshatched the last tree half-cloaking the old service station.

“VoilĂ !” he said brightly. “Now to add the foreground and we’re done.”

He selected a thicker marker and ripped it in a zigzag across the lower frame to portray the rutted road. What had appeared unformed, a blank slate, now appeared defined and delineated, complete. It was just enough and no more.

“Done,” he said, and without fanfare collapsed his chair, tucked the sketchbook under his arm and headed to his car. He had been in town for about 40 minutes. Simple, fast and focused.

Cast iron convert

Few things in life are more tedious than having to listen to converts gush about their conversion experiences, whether religious, ideological, psychological or political. No matter how extreme, egregious or mundane the former sin (or lapse, as it were), the particulars all hew to the same pattern: I was lost, and then I was found. And then I went on the road trying to make others see the error of their ways.

Democrat versus Republican, Baptist versus Catholic, creationist versus scientist, Mac versus PC, Ford versus Chevy, branded products versus generic—today’s American has lost all sense of toleration, indulgence, charity or forbearance. Don’t believe it? Just read the comments on online news articles, product reviews or Facebook entries. Temperance, moderation, self-restraint, have all been tossed out the window in favor of strident, in-your-face, spittle-spewing vehemence. A distressing number of Americans have not only drunk the Kool-aid, they’re actively brewing more. It tastes good. It makes them feel better about themselves. It whets their hatred like a keen-edged blade.

Which is why I hesitate to even bring this up, but since you’re still here, I might as well share my story. You see, I’m a convert myself, and it’s come after a long and troubling journey—in the kitchen, of all places.

Be warned, though: this wasn't a Saul of Tarsus epiphany. There was no blinding, ethereal light, no rapturous moment of revelation. It was more of a quiet evolution, a slow unfolding that nevertheless brought me to a juncture where the old ways stretched behind me and a new way before me, and all I needed to do was to decide which path to take. Should I stick with stainless steel cookware, I asked myself, or switch to cast iron, and if so, why?

Hardly the stuff of myth-making, I know, but relevant in that I was still smarting from the berating I received after my cast iron debacle earlier this year when I half-heartedly considered throwing my Lodge skillet into the dishwasher. At the time I compared my attackers to those of some secret, dark cult, something a number of readers responded to with affirmation. 

So why this sudden hankering for change? There’s a lot to be said for tradition and continuity, especially when branching off into the unknown required cash expenditures I could ill afford. Plus, there’s also the problem of having a small kitchen with limited storage space. After all, cast iron isn’t exactly compact. And I wasn’t particularly unhappy using stainless steel. We own some of the finest cookware available, Swiss-made, lavishly expensive, heirloom quality that we purchased back in the flush days 25 years or so ago, and it’s still as good as new. Our pressure cooker has been called the “Rolls Royce” of pressure cookers by several prestigious culinary organizations. There was absolutely no reason to change, and yet something about cast iron called to me, and I though I tried to ignore that still, small voice, it whispered to me in my dreams and haunted my days.

Our single cast iron piece was a no-brand, weatherworn 10-inch skillet we bought when we first got married. Though it was never properly maintained, it developed a glass-smooth patina that no Teflon could ever hope to match. The poor skillet had been tortured and misused unmercifully, washed in dish soap and left to air dry—a surefire way to introduce rust, which soon spread across the surface like some toxic fungus—with only the occasional tri-annual seasoning attempts which usually involved tossing it into the oven during self-cleaning cycles. 

Several years ago I went shopping for a griddle to make pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches. Our five-year-old Teflon model was warped and the Teflon flaking off in pieces that we could not help but ingest (merely the latest in a series of short-lived griddles), and I was perfectly willing to spend an uncomfortable amount of money for a good replacement. Finding one, however, turned out to be harder than I imagined. Product reviews at Amazon and several cooking sites led me to believe that no matter how much I shelled out for a new griddle, the warping and the flaking were guaranteed to follow. It wasn’t a matter of if, but when. 

There was, however, an alternative that finally caught my eye: a round 10-inch Lodge cast iron griddle. Instead of dozens or hundreds of negative reviews, the Lodge was universally adored. Reviewers didn’t just offer favorable comments, they gushed over the griddle as if it were a life-altering object of the highest value. That it cost less than most Teflon griddles didn’t escape my penny-pinching eye.

Of course, there were a few negative reviews. There always are. Some people complained about rust and the constant need for re-seasoning, and others didn’t like the weight. Another gave it a one-star rating after carelessly dropping it on his glass-topped range. It was too slow to heat, it was too slow to cool, it couldn’t go in the dishwasher, it was too hard to clean. 

Still, I liked the idea of something that would never, ever, ever warp or deposit flakes of chemical coating into our foods, so I ordered it. And for the most part liked it. It was smaller than I wanted but I learned to get around that limitation, and I learned, more or less (mostly less) to season it now and then, and I loved its heft—when carefully placed on the burner, it adhered as if magnetized. It was blacker than coal and unseemly heavy but it heated evenly and, I knew, would last a lifetime, if not more.

Even so within several weeks it started rusting on the bottom and the cooking surface looked pitted. I read up on seasoning cast iron and tried it for a while, but never with the devotion of a true convert. It was a tool, no more and no less, and shouldn’t need coddling. After all, our stainless steel cookware was still shiny and reflective, and it was never pampered.

But that still, small voice kept whispering in my ear. Oddly enough, at the same time my wife asked if we could make a fire pit out back for the 7-quart Lodge dutch oven she bought a decade ago and never used. How could I not see a divine hand in the timing? We were tapped into something larger than ourselves, something that tugged us into a renunciation of stainless steel. Then again, maybe one of those cultists hexed us with a voodoo spell. 

The pull was irresistible. Despite my doubts, I started poring over Lodge catalogs, amassing recipes and maintenance tips, buying cast iron cookbooks when they went on sale (also suspiciously timed), and pricing various skillets, lids and ovens. Shortly thereafter when a hefty 12-inch skillet went dropped in price I snatched it up and waited anxiously for its arrival. At least Saul had instantaneous gratification! 

When it arrived three long days later, I lovingly seasoned the skillet and placed it in the oven to preheat. There was something about the act of seasoning that made it seem more, I don't know, timely, more systematic, more liturgical. Like when using a smoker, the rituals involved force the cook to slow down, to plan each step, to fully inhabit the moment and the process. And if that isn’t what life is all about, I don’t know what is. Live the moment. Seize the day! 

Ten minutes later I added a touch of oil, browned a few slices of bacon, topped it with five large diced potatoes, diced red and yellow onions, hot green chile and two large bell peppers, capped it with a self-basting lid and slid the skillet into a 350-degree oven for one hour.

If there was a single revelatory moment, surely it was when we pulled the skillet from the oven and removed the lid. Or maybe it was when we added eggs to the leftovers for a scrumptious skillet breakfast, or the skillet cornbread, or the sausage-potato-zucchini-squash-chile-pepper-mushroom dish we made in a new 5-quart double dutch oven I purchased two weeks later.

Since then, I’ve ordered a cute little 6-inch skillet, a cast iron trivet and a 3-quart deep skillet with self-basting lid. I’m also looking for a self-basting lid for the 12-inch skillet and a 14-inch pizza tray. Lodge’s miniature 3-inch skillet would look good hanging with the others from the ceiling beam in the kitchen. 

Lest you say this is simply a case of castironitis, or a pathetic example of mindless consumerism, let me add that since my “conversion” I’m having fun in the kitchen. Cooking has become an adventure, a journey, a destination. Cleanup is a snap. The skillets can go straight from the burner to the oven and back, something that would destroy our stainless steel pots and pans with their brass handles. Unlike Teflon cookware, we can use any type of spatula, spoon or fork without worrying about scratching. And unlike Teflon, these will be passed down to our sons and grandchildren as family heirlooms. They will last. 

Now, I’m not asking you to convert to cast iron—I know you have your own beliefs, and that’s okay. But here, please take my tract, a pocket-sized, full color version of the latest Lodge catalog. Your timing is impeccable. I just put a chicken into the oven to roast in the 12-inch skillet. Church services begin in one hour.