West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture & History

Richwood Galleries to Showcase Two Colorful Artists

Two acclaimed Nicholas County artists—one living, one deceased—will be showcased at separate galleries on Saturday, October 9, 2021 when Richwood’s 34th annual Mountain Color Art Show holds its first annual Art Walk street fair.  

Bloomfield Gallery will be exhibiting the bold and expressionistic works of Nicholas County painter Steve Flynn.  The Lawrenson Gallery, also on Main Street, will feature a retrospective exhibit of Gayle Surface (1907-2000) a prolific Richwood folk artist whose paintings of bucolic American landscapes are fetching thousands of dollars at high end galleries in Lewisburg and other places. 

Style-wise, the two men couldn’t be more different.  But Flynn, a photographer and self-proclaimed “outsider artist,” knew and revered Gayle Surface. 

In fact, in 1997, Flynn photographed the ninety-year-old Surface, who was still painting.   He also taped an interview with the artist that is as much a story of twentieth-century America as it is about the man.  

Gayle Jaxson Surface was born in a “coal holler” near Richwood, the son of railroad builder.  He was eight when his parents bought him a box of watercolors for Christmas.  He told Flynn that when his brushes wore out, he made new ones out the fur from the family house cat. That same year he read a book about an artist and decided he wanted to be one. 

So after graduating from Richwood High School, he followed the advice of Horace Greeley: “Go west, young man.” 

He first drifted from Chicago, where he said he met Al Capone, to Cincinnati where he found a job doing advertising illustrations.  When the Depression hit, Gayle hopped a boxcar, which took him to to small town after small town. He would rent a room for a quarter and find jobs painting windows of barber shops, pool rooms, stores. He even did tattoos. In 1933 he made his way to an artist colony in New Mexico where he lived with a sheepherder’s family.  Ultimately he would find himself in New York’s Greenwich Village, sharing a loft with a German painter.  “The painter was a modernist  and Gayle was a realist,” according to the Flynn interview.  “Both would  sell art in Central Park and sell a painting  for $25 or $30.” According to Gayle, “that was a lot of money back then.”  There he met his first wife, Dosha, whom he married in 1934.  They would have five daughters and a son. 

When the war broke out, Surface would return to West Virginia where he worked for eight years with the United Cement Pipe Company, but his wanderlust would return.  Dosha divorced him in 1959.  Two years later he married Vena. 

By this time, Surface had been selling paintings all over the United States and abroad.  In 1937, he sold three painting  to the McClery Calendar Company  for 25 dollars each.  In 1957, Ford Times magazine  bought  one painting  for $75 of the covered  bridge at Phillipi,  West Virginia.  

Like many West Virginians, the tug of home was eventually too strong.  Gayle and Vena settled back in RIchwood surrounded by the nature he so loved.   He lived on income from his paintings, often painting several renditions of a particular local scene and selling them around town.  

When Flynn interviewed Gayle Surface in 1997, he said, “My work is realism and my talent was given to me by God.”  His art, he said, was from the life he had lived, from the people—rich and poor—and Fromm the places he had been.  Sometimes he would blend images from those various places, inserting mountains from the Southwest behind a West Virginia lake.  

Since the Flynn interview, Surface paintings began “surfacing” everywhere.  Almost everyone in Richwood has a Gayle Surface around the house.  It is only in the past twenty years that their value is being recognized.  Today, Surface’s grandson Kris Moose and his wife Marnie have purchased a large collection of his paintings and are donating them for the retrospective at the Lawrenson Gallery.  

Flynn’s work, along with his own rare photographs of Gayle Surface, will be on display across the street at Bloomfield Gallery.  Curator and owner Cecil Ybanez said, “We chose to exhibit Steve Flynn because he puts forth a very unique and very personal viewpoint because of his life experiences.”  Flynn works as an emergency medical technician and often uses his art to process the trauma he witnesses.   “While his aesthetic has an unfiltered and assertive quality—with its bold lines and saturated colors—his work has a nuanced language which he has honed as a way of self-expression.”

The Mountain Color Art Show opens on October 3 at Richwood City Hall and continues all week.  On Saturday, October 9, Main Street Richwood will be blocked off from 10:00 til 4:00 for the first annual Art Walk Richwood.  Artists, writers and musicians will line the streets for the outdoor fair.  In addition, Roy Moose, son in law of Gayle Surface will perform a History Comes Alive presentation at 1:00 in the Sterling Spencer Sculpture Garden.  

         Artists can still apply for a booth.  Simply contact the RIchwood Area Chamber of Commerce at 304.846.6790 or click on this link: https://www.richwoodchamberofcommerce.org/richwood-art-walk-1

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