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Route 4 Became My Roadmap

Painting the land, I learned its history

When we were looking for a home to call our own, we drove. We searched up toward Frederick and Rockville, around Annapolis and down Route 2. We kept heading down Route 2, and from there we ventured down Route 2/4.
    We saw areas of open farmland, old barns in open fields, crops growing, fenced pastures and shopping districts. All this was interspersed with communities that clearly had been built on old farm fields, rolling land with no existing trees but sometimes a barn. There were sections of forests and homes along the way with mailboxes right on the road.
    And then the road itself rolling up and down over the countryside, in and out of broad swales and ravines. Because of these ups and downs, a driver gets to see more along this one road than on many others in Maryland, making Route 4 one of the rare roads where you get views.
    One day, I saw this.

    It inspired me. My husband was patient and circled the car back north where we could see the barn, but not at the same aspect, so we went farther north and came back south. While he carefully drove about 55mph, I took this picture, shooting across the beam, aiming past his nose and out the driver’s side window.
    We took more pictures that day, and more in the months and years that followed, discovering more and more to see. I devised rules for what and how to shoot. I had to be the passenger in the car taking the pictures as the driver drove at a normal rate of speed, not hampering traffic. The image had to be one you could see from the road.
    In 2009 I started a set of paintings based on those photos. Painting after painting, my Route 4 series grew, and I was showing it in galleries throughout the area.
    At Annmarie Garden, I met Barbara and Donald Cox, who own the red barn in Sunderland just north of Route 2.

    They explained what I was looking at in the painting I had called Field of Curiosities. In the fall scene the trees are particularly golden, and the sun glows through and behind them. On the golden-green field are several objects we could not identify: cable spools, hay bales, stacks of wooden palettes. I painted everything faithfully, including a blue streak under the little corncrib.
    My attention to detail was rewarded. The mysterious objects were part of a paintball setup, Barbara Cox told me. The blue object under the shed was a sled. My painting had captured a family memory.
    And sometimes my paintings brought memories to me:
    “That’s my barn,” Dale Norfolk announced on seeing this snow scene, called Flag Barn in Winter. “And those are my trees!” He’d grown up on that property. A native of Calvert County, Norfolk had decades of photos. His images from the 1950s and ’60s swelled my Route 4 series.

    His picture of Morgan Russell clearing Route 4 in the 1950s led to this painting, combining two photos. I made it big, 30 by 60 inches, so you can see all that’s there: an old school house, a school bus in the snow, a ’57 Chevy, the old Jones Store Texaco at the intersection where Chaneyville Road meets Route 4.

    Painting by painting, I’m still at it. The more I paint, the more I learn about the road and its history.
    I found out that Route 4 used to be a road where people could roller skate or play games and where you might find two cars nestled up for a quiet “Calvert County phone call.” I learned that the oil drum on the back of a tractor was used for ballast, weight so the tractor could get through deep snow.
    School busses really did go out in all that snow?
    And that was only 40 years ago.

•     •     •     •     •

The more I work on this series of paintings, the more doors open up to me. I never thought I would be so inspired by a road.

See Shelden’s Route 4 Series at the Prince Frederick Library through March.

Suzanne Shelden, your love of the countryside along Rte 4 has intrigued me ever since I saw Blue Highway hanging in a gallery in North Beach. Since then, I have had the honor and pleasure of meeting you at Artfest through the the county. I have fallen in love with all these places you paint and also with you. Your work is phenomenal, not just Rte 4 landmarks but anything you put on canvas takes on a life of it's own.

Your biggest fan,

Christy M. Witschie