Sunday, February 23, 2003
Hanover, Pa. Each stroke of Charles L. Amos' slender brush is colored by a lifetime spent dreaming, learning and teaching people about trains.
Enchanted by steam locomotives while growing up in the Baltimore area, Amos became, by turns, a railroad executive, a federal transportation official and the leader of a rail industry trade group.
He gave it all up at age 53 to paint. Now, 19 years later, he is "the leading railroad artist in the country," according to U.S. Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who worked with Amos in Washington in the 1970s before becoming chief of CSX Corp., a rail transportation company.
Amos' detailed paintings of hulking locomotives, often under gray skies, capture the thrill he felt as boy, watching steam engines lumber like dinosaurs through Cumberland, Md., where he was visiting his grandmother.
"When they hit Baltimore Street, the earth shook," Amos said. "It was unbelievable. It was like a moon shot, and it happened every night."
He has sold 200 paintings at prices up to $2,000 to buyers including CSX and other corporations. The pictures' appeal lies partly in their fine detail, said Gary G. Bartik, who arranged a 16-painting exhibition last year at a Cumberland gallery shortly before Amos and his wife, Mary, moved from Cumberland to Hanover, Pa., to be closer to their children.
"He is a fanatic on authenticity. The train has to be leaving at a particular time, and all the bells and apparatus on that engine have to be exactly right," Bartik said.
It comes naturally to Amos, 72, who started sketching locomotives as a boy, bedridden with respiratory problems, in Lutherville, Md. "I used to draw to amuse myself, and so I'd draw trains," he said.
When he took up art again, decades later, a cousin advised Amos to focus on railroad paintings. "He said, 'There's plenty of landscape and seascape painters around, but there's not many painters that understand the anatomy of a locomotive,"' Amos said.
His parents, who owned a bookbinding plant, recognized their son's talent and sent him on Saturdays to the Marjorie Martinet School of Fine and Commercial Art in Baltimore. The youngster took a train downtown each week and befriended some of the engineers, who let him ride up front.
"They had a profound effect upon my life," Amos said. "It was an inducement to go to art school rather than stay home and play ball with the kids."
He put away his art supplies after high school to pursue a transportation degree from the University of Baltimore's School of Business, Industry and Management.
"I wanted to be a railroad man," Amos said. "I thought it would be easier to pay my bills that way."
He landed a job with the Western Maryland Railway, a freight carrier that ran from Baltimore through Cumberland, and worked his way up to assistant superintendent over 18 years.
Amos left that job to take a position with the newly created Federal Railroad Administration, advising administrators on train operations.
Three years later, he moved to the Transportation Department as a congressional relations officer. There, he arranged national railroad inspection tours to promote President Gerald R. Ford's deregulation plan.
Snow joined the Transportation Department shortly thereafter as a deputy assistant secretary. He was a lawyer and economist with an academic background; Amos showed him the gritty reality of a rail yard.
"I said, 'John, you're writing all this legislation, and you don't even know what a switch looks like,"' Amos said. "I set up a railroad inspection trip for him."
Snow recalled the trip in a speech last winter in Cumberland, where, as CSX chairman, he dedicated a building named for Amos at the company's locomotive shop complex.
Both lost their government jobs after Jimmy Carter defeated Ford in 1976. Amos became executive director of the Association of American Railroads, and soon started painting again.
It started with a series of landscape paintings for the couple's four children. With his family's encouragement, Amos entered one in a competition and won a ribbon.
Next he sold a painting for $1,000. "It was very encouraging," he said.
By the time he left the railroad association in 1984, Amos had been commissioned to produce six paintings for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Co., then part of the Chessie System, predecessor to CSX.
"I didn't retire to paint -- I changed careers," Amos said.
Other customers have included Safetran Systems Corp., Sea-Land Service Inc., Delaware Otsego Corp. and many private individuals in Cumberland, where the Amoses lived for 15 years.
Amos also worked as executive director of Cumberland's chamber of commerce, and he was a volunteer at the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, a Cumberland tourist attraction with a 1916 steam locomotive.
Amos' first calendar was published last year, attesting to what Bartik said is the growing popularity of railroad art.
Amos is less renowned than Howard Fogg or Ted Rose, two late locomotive painters of note, but "he's starting to get some national recognition," Bartik said. "Certainly, in Cumberland and the Mid-Atlantic area, he is recognized as THE railroad artist."