This painting adorns the entire south wall of the main dining room of the Country Kettle in Gibson City, IL. In a town like Gibson City, breakfast is a social meal. Even if all you get is a cup of coffee and maybe some toast, breakfast is where you find out what’s going on in town. The Kettle is literally at the crossroads, sitting in the southeastern corner of the junction of State Routes 47 & 9. There’a a McDonald’s and Casey’s convenience store across the street, as well as one of the town’s two bowling alleys. Maybe a hundred or so yards to the south is the Harvest Moon Drive-In Theater.
The Kettle itself shares a parking lot with one of the banks. Regulars know that if you want to get out onto Route 9 to go to the County Market or Big R without sitting at the light on 47, you can cut through the bank’s drive-in exit. You’re not supposed to come into the parking lot that way, but if you’re my father-in-law that’s more of a suggestion than a rule. There are a few places to get a good breakfast in town, but I never mind it when Dad says he wants to go “down to the corner place.” The French Toast is pretty good there. The biscuits are good, but it’s just a white gravy with a rumor that it’s spent time in the same room with some sausage. I’ve never seen actual evidence it’s true.
I like going to “The Corner” because it means seeing The Painting. I’m no art expert, but it’s my belief that this painting may be one of the largest attempted by someone lacking in any sense of perspective whatsoever.
I don’t remember when I first noticed what an incredible work this really is. Gibson City is a small town in central Illinois and seeing a rural scene on the wall of a restaurant isn’t unexpected. I think my obsession was triggered when we sat at a table under one end it and I noticed the road with no visible means of support
I was hooked.
The more you look at this painting, the more you realize that it gets almost nothing correct. It challenges our assumptions. “There’s a wagon, a person and two horses. Of course the horses are pulling the wagon and the person is driving.” But is that really true? It may be that the horses are merely strolling by. They’re certainly not in front of the wagon. Maybe the person on the wagon is just relaxing and trying to figure out which legs go with which horse.
Then there’s the barn with the disembodied levitating head. There’s certainly no room for a body in there. Perhaps the body was eaten by the freakishly large chickens that guard the front yard.
I think the artist does capture an important characteristic of the town. It’s a friendly place. That’s why it was important to depict the tiny city limits sign made especially for the gnomes who work the local fields. Farm work is already dangerous, but to these wee folk the giant steam-powered tractor from 1870s that roams the fields is a real danger. Luckily the roads are paved with some sort of flexible fabric. The bridge and stream? No idea. I’ve never seen anything even slightly resembling this around here. But I’m keeping my eyes peeled for the gnomes.
By the time the artist got to the left side of the painting, space was apparently running short. Gibson City actually has a rather prosperous little downtown. There are very few empty storefronts. Rather than going to the trouble of painting several of those buildings, though, the artist took the bold choice of combining architectural elements from several buildings and invented a single building that doesn’t exist and has no obvious purpose. Might be a church. Might be a firehouse. Hard to say The gazebo-looking thing actually does exist in a park, though to my knowledge there are no trees growing inside it. This is the only water tower M.C. Escher ever designed.
I love this painting. I wouldn’t change a brush stroke. There’s not much danger of the Kettle ever going out of business as long as the town is here, but I’d contribute generously to a fund to preserve the painting if anything did. For all my snark about the composition, the color palette is exactly right. I don’t know why the artist thought there was a brick-arched bridge over an indeterminate-sized stream, but the town is made of brick and those bricks are exactly that color. It may sound like damning with faint praise, but I actually mean it. I think the way the colors hang together is part of why it took me so long to actually look at the painting. Come for the impressionism. Stay for the surrealism.
It’s easy to make fun of it. No, it’s a lot of fun to make fun of it. But I don’t love this painting for it’s innumerable faults. I love it because in its own weird, innocent, sweet way it does absolutely nothing it sets out to do. It presents a fantastical place where stereoscopic vision and Euclidean geometry are equally irrelevant.
You can call it bad. You can call it brilliant. You can order another cup of coffee.
It’s really just a matter of perspective.
POSTSCRIPT: I had a chance to talk to some longtime Gibson City residents about the painting. The artist was a woman, but they could ‘t remember her name. She was well-known in town for her paintings. I took that to mean in a good way. It turns out that building next to the water tower is a City Hall that burned down. The current city hall is a really neat art deco building, but it also features a tower. The water tower is gone, but it’s been replaced by a communication tower. Alas, it hews to things like geometry and gravity. Finally, the 1870s steam tractor depicted is actually on display in a small park within site of the Kettle. The consensus at the table was that it was unlikely that the artist is still alive, but if she is she should sign the piece. I’d go one step further and say that if she isn’t, there should be a plaque. This was clearly painted with love.