"It was a real kick to take the train," he said. "It was always kind of haunting. I was always interested in the sort of vast, post-industrial landscapes that you would see from the train. It could be considered a wasteland in a way, but to me it was always romantic."
As a grown man, Churchill, 45, took that sense of romance he had for the world around him and lovingly documented it. An exhibit of his latest series of oil paintings, entitled "Meadowlandscapes," debuted on June 1 at the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission's (NJMC) Flyway Gallery in Lyndhurst. The exhibit will continue until June 30.
Beauty in the background
Churchill, a Secaucus resident since 1999, is a graduate of the New York Academy of Arts, located in Tribeca. "Their claim to fame is they are the only arts master program that emphasizes work based on the figure," he said. "This is based on the work of the 19th century French Academy, which centered on anatomy."
The shift in Churchill's work from focusing on figures to landscapes wasn't that difficult for the artist.
"I always felt that a good painter could paint anything," he said. "The Academy has a way of turning out people who paint really great figure painting and portraits, but there's never anything going on in the background. I took a lot of interest in what was going on in the background anyway."
The artist feels blessed by the background in his adopted hometown. "Living where I live in Secaucus, I've always liked this landscape," he said. "The Meadowlands is one of those in-between spaces. People don't live there, but there is a huge population that is traversing it on a daily basis. Because they are just making their way across it, people don't really regard it the same way they do for other parts of the landscape. But I think it's just as compelling if not more so in a way for what it represents."
Meadowlands an inspiration for many
The Meadowlands represents many things for Churchill. It is a place where serenity and cacophony collide. In one painting, the huge rock outcropping that tops Snake Hill in Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus appears on the left, while New Jersey Turnpike traffic streams over the Hackensack River Turnpike Bridge to the right. In the foreground, egrets delicately land in front of the native marshes while a muskrat swims towards them.
The process through which Churchill realizes his vision is relatively simple. "I like to come out to the park and take photos with my kids," he said. "Then I paint using the photos with oil paints, which give you a lot of warmth and depth in the shadows."
For someone who worked in advertising for 14 years, this view also represents something else. "This area served as the inspiration for the 'rock of Gibraltar' imagery in the Prudential insurance ad campaigns," Churchill said. "The copywriter who came up with that campaign used to commute on a daily basis past the site. Seeing this rock used to make him think about something that was stable and was always there."
While the Meadowlands have always been where it is since the days of the Ice Age, it hasn't always been appreciated. Churchill is happy that the region appears to be coming into a new age of appreciation.
"The first time I ever went out on a pontoon boat ride into the Meadowlands, I looked around and said 'Wow,' " he said. "I think a lot of other people had the same reaction and worked harder to preserve it. The bird population is back, and the people are coming back too."
Public praise and a unique perspective
A lot of people also came to the opening reception for Churchill's exhibit. Pat Barcomb has lived in Secaucus her whole life. Her comments reflected those who believe that the Meadowlands have often been overlooked.
"Who would think to go and paint the Meadowlands?" she said. "But his colors were very nice. I especially liked the pictures of the bridge over the Jersey Turnpike with Newark in the background."
Lisa McLellan, of Wyckoff in Bergen County, also voiced an opinion common to those not used to seeing something serene in the swamp.
"I was pleasantly surprised," she said. "Nobody expects the Meadowlands to be captivating and beautiful. Charlie's paintings showed that it is."
Churchill mentioned that he admired the work of the 19th century English Romantic landscape artists J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, as well as the French impressionists. However, he feels that using the Meadowlands as his personal wellspring of inspiration has given his work a unique angle.
"Secaucus may be called the jewel of the Meadowlands, but it's the Meadowlands itself that's the real jewel," he said. "It's really given me a sense of my place in the world. The work is about me, but it's also about something beyond me that I'm just a witness to. The swamps of the Meadowlands, the Hackensack River and Snake Hill are going to be here 300 or 400 years from now when I'm gone. That's exciting to me. Artists are looking for that kind of immortality. That's part of what I'm going for."
The Flyway Gallery can be found inside of the Meadowlands Environmental Center, located at Two DeKorte Park Plaza, Lyndhurst.
Reporter Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.