Friday, September 05, 2014

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.

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