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VOL. 129 | NO. 166 | Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Canal Centennial

Dixon exhibit celebrates Panama Canal's 100th year

By Andy Meek

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History buffs may be especially interested in one of the newest exhibits on display at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, which commemorates the centennial of a triumph of engineering that represents a milestone in both U.S. and world history.

“Connecting the World: The Panama Canal at 100,” which runs through Oct. 5 at the Dixon, presents a collection of art organized by North Carolina’s Mint Museum that includes early imagery of South American and American industry by a handful of period artists. And it’s sponsored by Karen and Dr. Preston Dorsett, as well as Nancy and Steve Morrow.

Laura Gray McCann of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens’ curatorial staff, with Jonas Lie’s oil painting “Culebra Cut,” painted in 1914. It’s part of the exhibit celebrating the Panama Canal.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Laura Gray Teekell, a research assistant at the Dixon, said the museum was particularly excited to have the collection now, since it was able to show it on Aug. 15, the day of the centennial. That’s when the canal – which provided a major shortcut in travel between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – officially opened, after the U.S. took over its construction years earlier.

After the collection – which focuses on three artists working in the U.S. at the time the canal was opened – finishes its showing in Memphis, it will return to the Mint Museum, in Charlotte.

“Americans were fascinated with what was going on with the canal and had a real appetite for images of it,” Teekell said. “The French had started work on the canal and failed, so the Americans came in and started to work on it, and it was sort of a main emphasis for President (Theodore) Roosevelt. He really wanted to have the canal finished, and in 1906, he was the first sitting president to travel outside the U.S. while in office. He went down there and made a big production of it.”

Artists who kept Americans abreast of news and tidbits related to the canal’s progress included Joseph Pennell, Alson Skinner Clark and Jonas Lie, and their work is included in the Dixon exhibit.

It’s introduced by a selection of paintings by other artists. Complementing the artwork during that period was a steady stream of photographs, early films and sheet music, among other things, which all served to feed the appetite of U.S. interest in the canal’s construction.

“Joseph Pennell was already an established artist,” Teekell said of one of the artists in the collection. “He was a print maker, and he went down with this idea to make a book of his images. He made sketches and lithographs, and he published pictures of the canal in 1912 that were so popular the collection went into at least five editions. It was kind of an indicator of the appetite Americans had for this monumental engineering feat. He was obsessed with and really moved by the wonder of the work itself.”

Pennell already was one of the country’s leading printmakers and, according to information included in the exhibit, wrote in a print article at the time that he wanted to visit the canal because he considered it “the greatest engineering work the world has ever seen. … I went because I believed that at the canal I should see the wonder of the work, the picturesque-ness of labor, realized on the grandest scale.”

Clark’s paintings are typified by things such as impressionist color and brushwork, along with a mixture of rugged tropical scenes and man-made structures. Lie, meanwhile, created more than two dozen known paintings of the canal, which toured the country after he returned to the U.S.

“We’re always looking for great partners who create great shows, and the timing of this just worked out so nicely, this being created for the centennial of the canal,” Teekell said.

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