All the livelong day

Mark Priest, detail from “Get Back to Work,” acrylic on canvas, 1994.

Mark Priest, detail from “Get Back to Work,” acrylic on canvas, 1994.

Ever since the railroad linked both coasts of this vast country, it has been richly woven into the art of Americana. The romance of the railroad and its long, arduous creation inspired songs like those born under Woody Guthrie’s hand, tall folk tales (think John Henry and his hammer) and even visual art. In his new exhibit, Laborers of the Railroad, Mark Priest puts faces on those working-class men who braved the elements of the varied American topography, relying on their hands for typically hard labor, to make a living as they connected those rails. Priest brings those men to life—and larger than life—in the 12 paintings now showing at the 40 Acres Art Gallery, located at 35th Street and Broadway.

Priest paints what he knows. Before studying painting, he worked as a railroad laborer for almost 10 years. Under his brush, stories about the railroad come alive with movement and color, in a style that immediately recalls the art that emerged in the Depression-era WPA (Work Progress Administration) projects.

In “Get Back to Work,” Priest tells the story of laying track during 10-hour days, with a boss screaming at a weary worker perched on a rail. With grimy hardhats and muscles rippling, you can almost smell their sweat. Priest includes a dramatic sky that underscores the tenseness in the scene.

In other pieces, he utilizes an impressionistic quality reminiscent of Claude Monet, but his palette is far from pastel. It’s dark and heavy so that it perfectly offers the shimmer of summer’s heat hovering in the air.

Exhibit-connected photographs and artifacts from the California State Railroad Museum also are exhibited at the nearby Underground Books and Uncle Jud’s Cuts. Learn more from a railroad expert at the gallery this Saturday at 2 p.m. The show closes on March 26. For more information, call (916) 732-4673.