When most people think of Gander, they think of planes. But when artist Clayton Hann is working on one of his watercolours, he looks past the planes, to the trains that made building the town possible.
“I don’t think the trains get enough recognition in what went on in Gander when the town was built, especially the Newfoundland Airport,” Hann told The Beacon Friday.
In 2006, when Hann retired after 25 years as a Radiologist at James Paton Memorial Hospital, he took a couple of painting classes. Since then, he’s been painting steadily, mostly watercolours. Each painting tells a story.
“I enjoy Newfoundland history. I read a lot about it. I try to incorporate it into some of my paintings,“ he said.
The Town of Gander has bought several of his works through their art procurement program.
If you visit the town hall, you’ll see one of Hann’s watercolours hanging in the lobby. It shows workers unloading crushed stone from a train. Hann says he painted the scene using a photo taken in the late ‘30s.
“That was crushed stone from a quarry near Benton. It was used in the construction of the runways.”
Hann points out that everything brought to Gander had to come by train in those days.
“Some people would say that the town of Gander should have a statue or a memorial to the train and the trainmen that helped built this place, but everything is geared to aviation history. But you don’t have to look very far, the train is always sort of in the background.”
To make his point, he opens up a book to a picture of the aviators that took the first Hudson Bombers across the North Atlantic.
“You’ll notice in the background there’s a Newfoundland Railway Sleeper Car. You don’t have to go very far to see the significance the railway had.,” Hann said.
A family of railroad workers
Hann comes by his interest in trains honestly. His grandfathers, uncles, and some of his aunts worked for the Newfoundland Railway. His mother grew up in the station house in Princeton, Bonavista Bay, where her father was the stationmaster.
In Port aux Basques, where he grew up, Hann’s house overlooked the train yard.
“Ever since I was a little kid I was around trains. As a baby I was listening to the rhythm of the steam locomotive.“
He’s painted many trains—many of them travelling along the tracks of the Gaff Topsails on the west coast. One of those hangs in the Gander town hall as well.
Presenting Fidel Castro
Hann has also done portraits of people who’ve led interesting lives. In one he’s captured an event that’s often mentioned in connection with Gander—most recently in the musical “Come From Away”—the day Fidel Castro went tobogganing in town.
He painted it from a photograph taken by a Gander Beacon reporter, changing it a little.
“ [Castro] was surrounded by quite an entourage, and the back of the hospital was in the background, but I just put a couple of kids there with Gander Lake and Mt. Peyton in the background.”
Hann says he can finish a painting in a couple of days when he’s inspired. He’s currently working on a portrait of his late neighbor Hiram Keeping, working from a photo taken years ago at a cabin on the Gander River.
Hann’s interest in history has led him to paint subjects inspired by both world wars.
A recent watercolor shows Lord Beaverbrook hanging on to his hat as walks away from a plane at the Newfoundland Airport in Gander.
Hann says it was a trip shrouded in secrecy. Beaverbrook was in charge of procurement of aircraft in England at the time, and instrumental in organizing the delivery of the Hudson Bombers.
“They put him aboard a Newfoundland freight train and took him to Placentia where Churchill and Roosevelt were having their Atlantic Charter meetings.”
He couldn’t resist adding, “Another historical incident where the Newfoundland Railway figures into it.”
Hann smiles. Perhaps it calls for another painting featuring a train…