America in the 1950s holds a certain nostalgia, especially for those of us baby boomers who were born during the two decades immediately following World War II. Life was simpler back then and the world was a kinder, gentler place that was filled with magic that came from our unlimited imaginations. There were no cell phones or computers to occupy our time, so we played outside with the kids in our neighborhood – riding bikes (without helmets), climbing trees (and never worried about falling) and playing hide-and-seek after dark (it was safe in those days). We addressed adults by “Mr.” or “Mrs.” (never by their first names) and all decisions were made by everyone putting one foot in a circle and doing “Eenie, meenie, miny, moe.“
When I came across the paintings of Abigail VanCannon, I thrown back into a world of endless summers. VanCannon specializes in painting people in their surroundings, with a particular observance for 1950s Americana.
We didn’t wear safety helmets, but we did wear bathing caps…….
Walking the tracks was a favorite pastime – neighborhood boys would dare each other to cross the trestle on the bridge spanning the river.
Remember the drive-in with the serving tray precariously perched on the window while you all ate in the car?
The tonal quality of VanCannon’s color palate for this series evokes the faded photographs that hold memories for many of us as the artist expertly captures the emotions of that time.
But here’s the surprise: Abigail VanCannon was born in 1985.
You were born more than a generation after the 1950s. What inspired you to create this particular series?
“I’ve always had a fascination with the past. It was fostered by my parents at a young age. They collect antiques and collectibles. They told me stories of the past and tales from their childhood. I thought the contrast between the past and present was interesting and unique. This fascination with history continued into adulthood.”
“Another early inspiration was artist Cindy Sherman. She created narrative self-portrait photographs. She inspired me to take my own photo references and use the opportunity to set a stage of props and costumes to push my own mood and story though my work.”
Where did you obtain the information and imagery for the series?
“Research materials for this series included magazines from the 1950s, YouTube videos, movies, books, internet and, most importantly, personal stories of those who lived during that time. I didn’t want to be limited or restricted by using photographs of the past so an important element of this project was taking all my own photographs from which I created the paintings. I staged my models in appropriate vintage clothing and props and was able to create a believable environment. While working I found many inspiring and beautifully restored diners, movie theaters, and gas pumps. I also attended events celebrating the fifties, like the 2012 Rock and Rod Festival in Monterey, California.”
What is your perception of the fifties? Do you wish you had lived during that time, versus the era in which you were born?
“This is a complex question. There is a certain honor or hope that surrounds this era. Many people refer to it as the ‘good ole days’, or the ‘golden age’. It was a very prosperous time for the U.S. – it seemed that many could live the American Dream and afford it. I admit I romanticize about it a bit. I mean who wouldn’t want to wear beautiful hats every day and drive fun, brightly-colored cars?”
“I’ve struggled a bit at times while creating this series. America has come a long way since then in the rights and equality of its people. I recognize this era was oppressive in ways. Every era has the fog along with the light. My goal with this series was to reminisce about the good times. I wanted to create moments of beauty, taking people back to moments of success, joy and timeless events.”
“Although I think it would be fun to time-travel back to every era for a day or two, I am very thankful to be born where and when I was.”
The artist’s last statement was a bit of a revelation for me. Perhaps because I had lived during that “golden era”, my point of reference was: “Things were better in those days.” I feel lucky to have grown up in such a wonderful place and time as compared to what subsequent generations are facing today. But as VanCannon stated in her interview, the 1950s had its challenges. Retrospection is often through rose-colored glasses and perhaps for the next generation coming of age, everything today is as it should be.
Thanks to artists like Abigail VanCannon, we can look back on the good times which allows us, as a country and as individuals, to revisit “our better selves”. This just might be the inspiration we need as we find ways to move towards a better future.
Artist Credits for the images included in this post:
Abigail VanCannon, California
Oil on canvas
At the Car Hop
Dancing at the Sock Hop
Abigail VanCannon’s artwork can be viewed at: Abigail VanCannon