Multi-Track Artist

Forgotten rail workers inspire painter’s realism

By Jessica Laskey
November 2023

When Marjorie Methven landed in town to earn a teaching credential and master’s degree at Sacramento State, she had no idea she was returning to her roots.

“While doing research for my master’s thesis on visual self-narrative, I started to look into my own genealogical history,” Methven says. “It turns out that my great-great grandfather settled in Antioch and my great uncles worked for the railyard (in Sacramento) in different capacities at the turn of the 20th century. I didn’t know that before I moved here. It was quite serendipitous.”

Before the research, Sacramento was just a place on the map to Methven, who grew up in Minnesota and went to college in Wisconsin.

Once here, her digging turned up more interesting items. There’s an obituary for one of her great uncles, whose suicide note was printed alongside his death notice in The Sacramento Union. She also found a number of historical pictures of women who worked for the railroad.

This inspired a new painting in Methven’s signature style—figurative realism captured in oil paint that lends a dream-like quality to realistic imagery.

In the piece, a group of Black women wearing dress coats and holding shovels are depicted against a geometric background, with details from the original photo augmented by the artist’s imagination.

Many of Methven’s paintings depict women and are based on the artist’s “own past history and feelings from past experiences.” Her work has a gestural, emotive quality that makes her pieces energetic and haunting.

While showing her work at area galleries, including the Artists Contemporary Gallery, Solomon Dubnick Gallery and 750 Art Gallery, Methven enjoyed a 25-year career in education. She taught high-risk kids at American Legion continuation high school, art at a post-secondary academy in Natomas, middle schoolers at Fern Bacon and high schoolers at Hiram Johnson.

After two serious accidents, including a head-on car collision, Methven retired at age 59 and turned her attention to art. She loves to work outdoors and stays busy on a series of increasingly abstract landscapes of the Delta. (If her work looks familiar, it was featured on the March cover of Inside.)

An East Sac resident for more than a quarter-century, Methven travels the region to find inspiration, such as the abandoned mission building “surrounded by huge artichoke plants with purple spikes” she spotted and turned into a painting.

Often, she finds inspiration closer to home.

“I took a tour of the railyard before they started to tear it apart and took all kinds of pictures of the inside of the buildings,” Methven says. “I even had written records from the workers.”

The information, along with research from California State Railroad Museum archives, will inform a new series of paintings that includes the one of the women workers. Methven is now 70 and recovering from a knee replacement. But this new artistic inspiration won’t let her slow down.

“I haven’t shown for a while,” she says, “but I keep working.”

For information, find Methven on Instagram @marmethven.

Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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