I see the three bodies in his painting
as people falling from the 110th floor of the South Tower. I see the broken
debris and splintered wood as pieces of steel and glass collapsing to
the ground, taking firefighters and innocent people with it.
n 1986, John Boak
created a painting that depicts the horrible event that took place in
Cripple Creek, Colorado in the early morning hours of June 5, 1904. An
explosion destroyed the Independence train depot in a matter of seconds,
killing thirteen men and injuring twenty others. In Boak's work, that
horrific moment is captured as if looking up at the patchy night sky as
the debris and people seem to fall down to earth. While Boak's intention
may have been to portray this event accurately and capture it in time,
this intended message is lost in the aftermath of September eleventh.
The image no longer represents the image of a small town explosion almost
a millennium ago, but rather rekindles recent memories of the events that
shook the country only one month ago.
While 2001 has proven to be a year of fear, anger, uncertainty and terrible
destruction, the years between 1893 and 1904 were equally chaotic for
the small mining town of Cripple Creek, Colorado. Tensions began to grow
between mining companies and workers over their long hours and low wages.
In response, John Calderwood, a former coal miner, established the Western
Federation of Miners (WFM) in 1894. Calderwood and five hundred men formed
a union in February of that same year. Their demands were simple: three
dollars' pay for an eight-hour day. The conflict went on with neither
side willing to compromise. Non-union workers and union workers competed
for jobs as companies refused to fulfill the WFM's demands (Sedivy). Soon,
simple conflict escalated into bloody violence.
Harry Orchard, a former member of the WFM decided to take matters into
his own hands. Armed with dynamite, Orchard intended to rig the Independence
train depot so that as the train arrived carrying the evening shift of
non-union workers, there would be a massive explosion and all those aboard
would be killed. So, on June 5, 1904, Harry Orchard, aided in part by
another miner named Steve Adams, planted two boxes of dynamite under the
depot's loading platform (Langdon, 308). The dynamite would be detonated
by acid vials when a wire was pulled. At 2:15 a.m. the Florence &
Cripple Creek train pulled into the Independence station. By mistake,
Orchard pulled the wire too early, missing the train but wiping out the
station almost completely (Sedivy). The explosion illuminated the night
sky. The terrible sound awakened the entire town, and within a short time
the scene of the horror was surrounded by people. The awful circumstances
that brought the crowd together combined with the dim early morning light
produced a scene of almost indescribable horror.
The men who had been waiting at the station were blown in all directions,
and some of them were so horribly mutilated that identification was extremely
difficult. Aided by flickering candles, the mangled remains were gathered
together. Quivering arms and legs and other portions of the mangled miners
were picked up after the explosion several hundred feet from the station
(Langdon, 308). The groans of the injured mingled with the cries of the
men, woman, and children who stood around them. Some of these were relatives
of the dead and injured miners. Emma Langdon, a resident of Cripple Creek
at the time of the explosion is quoted as saying, "their grief was
pitiful to behold" (Langdon, 308). The station itself was completely
destroyed. Emma recounts that:
"All windows of the depot were broken, the large foundation posts
sprung and the entire front of the west end of the structure blown in.
The entire basement was a mass of broken timbers. The roof was pierced
in many places, huge pieces of time were thrown hundreds of feet in
all directions, the houses in the vicinity telling a sad tale of confusion
and flying missiles (Langdon, 308)".
Soon, government officials began searching for a suspect, a probable
cause, and ultimately a good reason to eradicate the Western Federation
of Miners. The investigators accused the WFM of violent and anarchistic
behavior (Jameson, 228). The WFM denied having any part in the explosion
of the depot. No distinct evidence was found and no one was caught and
blamed for the explosion; until 1905.
More than a year after the devastating explosion occurred, Harry Orchard
confessed that he had murdered Frank Steunenberg, the governor of Idaho,
on December 30, 1905. In his confession, Orchard also alleged that the
inner circle of the WFM had hired him to set explosives at Independence
depot. "Orchard's is a complicated story which lies probably as much
within the provinces of psychopathologists as in historians and amateur
detectives" (Jameson, 229). Orchard may have told the truth and may
have concocted the plan independently. The truth will never truly be known.
John Boak captured this moment in history. He depicted an event that is
largely unknown and that had never been captured before. There are no
pictures of the event, only of the aftermath, and it is not something
that is described in textbooks. John Boak says, "I thought I would
explore some colorful incidents from my own background" (Boak).
The elements of his painting of the Independence explosion drew heavily
upon various elements of modernist abstraction. Boak says,
"It is part of a long-term project of using early modernist visual
systems in the service of literal imagery. The foundation of modern
art, Cubism, is essentially 'realist' in its impulse. I am drawn to
the vision of the cubists. It lies between an art of observation and
reporting of the world, and an art of reconstructing the world using
the mind. Cubism is the art of simultaneous multiple perspectives"
In addition, Boak uses a system of diagonals, breaking up the picture
plane of the scene. "Unlike most broken-picture-plane paintings,
I have not abandoned deep space perspective: the landscape recedes in
the middle of the night sky blue diagonal of the painting. I do not repeat
the distant range of mountains, to keep up the shattering effect even
in the deep-space portion of the painting," Boak says (Boak). The
idea of multiple perspectives and deep-space diagonals is very clear in
Harry Orchard Blows up the Independence Colorado Train Depot. The
perspective shown is one that is very uncommon. The two bodies, the detached
hand, the leg that may or may not be attached, fall towards the viewer
as though the viewer is lying on his/her back looking up at the sky. The
perspective is amazing and original and draws you to the painting. In
addition, the foreground triangles of imagery, upper right and lower left,
consist of abstractions built of supposed building parts into which whole
objects are placed: three whole people, a detached hand, a leg which may
or may not have a body attached to it, a clock, a train engine, and a
door (Boak). The objects are whole to give them focus amongst the debris.
Boak says this is "patterned story telling, not naturalism".
It says, "this is what got blown up", not "this is what
the blowing up looks like". Boak's objective is to construct a paining
that is a visual calm and overshadows a tragic event.
The intense colors that Boak uses are very much his trademark. He uses
the colors in order to keep his paintings powerful and intriguing. On
the subject of color, Boak says, "I keep my colors clean by keeping
out canceling colors from areas where they might occur. That means no
yellow in blue areas, no red in green areas, and no blue in yellow or
orange areas". Boak goes on to say, "The colors, being thin
films of air-born paint, are basically transparent. The light enters the
paint layer, passes through to the white background of the canvas, and
bounces back to the viewer. Under bright gallery lights, the painting
has powerful colors" (Boak).
The colors not only provide intensity, but also provide a kind of appreciation
of the event that is depicted. While most would think that a painting
of such a tragic act of terrorism would be shown in dreary real to life
colors that would create a mood of sadness and horrifying tragedy, Boak
does not. Instead he uses bright colors, such as vivid greens and yellows,
to recreate the explosion. This would suggest to the viewer that the event
is not so much tragic, as it is memorable. It is an event that affected
our nation and the people of this country in their fight for rights. Boak
wants the viewer to remember the explosion in Cripple Creek the way we
remember those lost in Vietnam, for example. The painting memorializes
what happened in 1904 and the men who were lost. It is not something that
should be upsetting or painful, but something that should be honored and
appreciated. Between the use of whole objects, almost 3-D-like in appearance,
and the use of powerful colors that catch the eye, the painting is intense
and captivates its audience.
My first glance of Harry Orchard Blows up the Independence Colorado
Train Depot, prior to reading the caption that goes along with the
painting, predetermined my perception and my interpretation of the painting.
September eleventh. I had never seen the painting before or
even heard of the artist, but I was instantly attracted to it. Besides
the alluring colors and the intriguing view the artist provides, images
of what occurred on September eleventh flashed through my mind. Images
of terrified people hanging out of smoke-filled windows, planes crashing
into the World Trade Center creating a fiery inferno, American landmarks
falling to the ground, people being chased by a tidal wave of dust and
smoke, bounced against my cornea. I couldn't see anything except New York
City. Firefighters, news reporters, President Bush, American flags, vigils,
fliers of missing people, swirled in my head. I couldn't see a train wreck.
I couldn't see an explosion that took place in 1904.
My perception was completely tainted by my own experience. I'm sure I
am not alone. I am sure that any American who was presented with this
painting within the last few weeks would share my reaction. My interpretation
was one of extreme sadness. Regardless of the bright colors and vivid
objects, the painting does not create a feeling of appreciation as Boak
intended. The painting serves as a reminder of the disaster that devastated
"Flames leapfrogged floors, and within minutes vast plumes of thick
black smoke enveloped the gleaming steel-and-glass towers. Through smoke
and debris, panicked workers could be spotted hugging and jumping from
as high as the 80th floor. Some held hands. Some were on fire. 'Bodies
splattered the pavement; you couldn't even get out of the building --
blood everywhere,' said George Dwarika, a janitor who crawled out of
the basement. 'I saw a man waving a red flag for a minute, and then
the guy just jumped into space'" (Powell).
Michael Powell's description of the events that unfolded on September
eleventh is strikingly similar to Emma Langdon's description of the devastation
in 1904. Both describe such horrible destruction and loss of life. America
watched the towers fall, watched the second plane crash, saw the total
destruction, and saw the horror of those trapped on the highest floors
as the building collapsed beneath them. The loss of family members, friends,
colleagues, acquaintances, the uncertainty of where people were, if people
were okay, bombarded every American. The fact that I had friends in New
York City, that my Dad flies out of Boston all the time for business,
that I didn't know if he was on business, all affected my perception of
The images that are scattered throughout Boak's painting are very generic.
There is no distinguishing feature that would date the event depicted
as occurring in 1904. Therefore, the images are even easier to transfer
and manipulate into what my experiences make me see. Through my eyes,
I see the three bodies in his painting as people falling from the 110th
floor of the South Tower. I see the broken debris and splintered wood
as pieces of steel and glass collapsing to the ground, taking firefighters
and innocent people with it : "A heavy cloak of chalky ash covers
abandoned bicycles and doughnut carts and vegetable stands. And thousands
of firefighters and police officers work
ceaselessly as night turns to day, dusty ghosts moving through a moonscape
Nothing that Boak depicts in his picture is what I see. I only see September
eleventh. The terrorist attack on the tiny mining town of Cripple Creek,
Colorado in 1904, and the massive terrorist attack on the very nation
itself a little more than one month ago, may be different in scale and
degree, but somehow share the spotlight in Boak's painting. The memories
of September change the work's meaning. The events that I have seen, and
that the nation has witnessed over the past month were never conceived
of when Boak created his painting. Boak says, "At the time I thought
it was odd that Americans perceived terrorism as alien, executed by foreigners
in distant lands (Boak)". This perception would, however, become
a reality in 2001 when we would be attacked by those foreigners from those
distant lands. Boak wanted to get across not only the point that this
event was important and should be remembered, but also that terrorism
can be internal. His point is lost, however, in the sea of current images
of the World Trade Center and photographs of the Taliban and Osama Bin
Ladin. The way in which Boak intended his work to be interpreted and perceived
will be forever overshadowed, in my mind, by the terror that occurred
on that warm Tuesday morning of September eleventh.
Boak, John. Boak. 24 June 2001. <http://www.boakart.com>
Boak, John. "Re: Harry Orchard blows up the Independence
Depot." Email to Jennifer Karey. 14 Oct. 2001.
Jameson, Elizabeth. All That Glitters. Chicago: University
of Illinois Press, 1998.
Jenkins, Sally. "Manhattan Cleaning Up the Day
After Attacks." The Washington Post (2001). 12 September 2001 <
Langdon, Emma F., The Cripple Creek Strike: A History
of Industrial Wars in Colorado. New York: Arno Press, 1969.
Powell, Michael. "New York: A City Turned Upside
Down." The Washington Post (2001). 12 September 2001 < http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14164-2001Sep11.html>
Sedivy, David. Mr. Sedivy's Highlands Ranch History.
11 October 2001. Highlands Ranch High School. 12 October 2001 < http://mr_sedivy.tripod.com/co_hist.html>
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