Alan Rauch never met a wall he didn’t like.
“One of my little problems in life,” he joked on Monday during an interview at his home, “is that, if there’s a wall that looks to me like it would be cool to do a painting on, I’m going to do it.”
Anyone who visits the artist’s home on Maryland Avenue in Johnstown’s West End will probably realize that before they even ring the doorbell. A mural of sunflowers, done in vivid yellows and oranges on a flat green background, decorates the cinderblock wall holding up his front porch. It took him about a week to complete the project, he said.
“I had some plantings in front of my house that, after seven or eight years, they didn’t want to grow any more,” he recalled.
“They started dying off on me, so I decided, ‘Well, they’re not interested in staying with me, so I’ll yank them out of the soil and paint my own flowers,’ and that’s what I went and did. … My idea was just to brighten up Maryland Avenue a little bit.”
The house’s back porch, too, has been decorated – a nearby fence has been covered by a large portrait of Rauch’s dog, Picasso – and one of his most visible contributions to his community is a riverwalk mural in the city’s Cambria City section that he and several other local artists collaborated to create.
“We all got together and started painting sections of that wall,” he recalled. “The community of Cambria City just enjoyed the idea of having this entranceway into Cambria City all painted over.”
Each of the artists who worked on the project chose to depict a subject that was “in some way connected to the environment of the river,” according to Rauch.
“Two of the sections of the wall that I personally painted up,” he said, “have to do with the ducks that migrate into the Johnstown area on the Stonycreek River, and the other section of the wall that I contributed to has to do with the fish in the river. That was a fun thing for me – really, a fun thing.”
Rauch, 84, spent his working life as an art director and graphic designer for several advertising agencies on New York City’s famous Madison Avenue. He took classes at three different art schools in the Big Apple, including Cooper Union in Manhattan, and eventually, upon his retirement, he bought some art supplies, set up an easel and started painting.
“I needed a rest from the corporate world,” he recalled, “and it was time to be a real artist. That was the beginning.”
He soon began displaying his work at art shows around the country, he said, including the Three Rivers Art Festival in Pittsburgh. It was there, about a decade ago, that he met several artists from Johnstown – “a place that I had never heard of before!”
“We became friends,” he recalled, “and I started to enjoy visiting them here in Johnstown. Being an artist and a painter, I became enamored with the landscapes and the mountains and all that wonderful stuff that surrounds this area, so I decided to move here.”
Upon moving to Johnstown, Rauch bought the three-story frame house on Maryland Avenue in which he’s lived for the past 10 years. He has turned the house’s attic into the studio in which he does most of his work. The space’s most attractive feature is a large window that provides him with a million-dollar view of the other side of the Conemaugh River, including the industrial complexes that line Iron Street and the rolling hills beyond.
“The views from up above here are fantastic, looking out over the city of Johnstown,” he said. “It inspires me to be part of this community. … Every once in a while, I’ll be working on a painting, and I’ll want to take a little rest from what I’m working on, and I’ll stand here and look out and enjoy the view. This is probably the reason I moved to Johnstown – because of that view outside.”
The attic is a typical artist’s workshop, complete with a tall easel and a table spattered with many years’ worth of paint. Canvases in various stages of completion are propped up against one wall or another, including a charming cartoon-styled painting of a violin-maker in his workshop.
“Some of them are half-done, and others are not quite started yet, but they’re all projects that I’m going to get involved in,” he said.
One of his ongoing projects, he explained, is based on “a really interesting old photograph” of a 1930s-era cab driver standing outside his cab. In his painting, he plans to place the man and his vehicle outside Johnstown’s historic train station on Walnut Street.
“We’ll see how that goes once I get started with it,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed that train station. There’s something about it. It’s gone through the history of Johnstown, through the floods and what have you, and it still stands, and it’s looking great. It’s just a beautiful structure. I love the architecture.”
The front room of Rauch’s house is just as vibrant as its attic and its exterior, resembling nothing so much as a particularly crowded art gallery. Almost every square inch of wall, top to bottom, is covered by one canvas or another – a stylized depiction of the musician Carlos Santana, a view of the Pittsburgh skyline and a truly dizzying array of landscapes, among many, many others.
“My work is very diverse in terms of subject matter,” he said, “and that has a lot to do with waking up in the morning and saying to myself, ‘Hey, I want to do something different today than I did yesterday.’ That’s how all these different subjects have developed.”
One of Rauch’s favorite subjects is the Johnstown Inclined Plane. He’s painted the iconic funicular railway many times, he said, including a large mural decorating an exterior wall at O’Shea’s Candies in Geistown.
“It’s always appealed to me,” he said.
“It’s historical, and (it’s) kind of the icon of Johnstown. I’ve painted similar views of the Inclined Plane that have sold several times to people in the area. They just enjoy seeing that particular subject matter. It’s become one of my best-selling painting.”
Many more of his landscapes are inspired by the natural beauty of the Johnstown area.
“I enjoy getting into my car, driving around Cambria County, and if I see something that looks interesting to me, I’ll stop the car, take out my sketchpad and do a quick little rendering of what I see, and then I’ll come back here and paint it,” he said. “I never really have anything specific in mind when I go out looking for the landscape itself because I want to have it call out to me.”
These days, Rauch doesn’t travel cross-country to far-flung art shows like he used to do, he said – but, at home in Johnstown, he’s as busy as ever. His paintings are exhibited at Bottle Works in Cambria City, which is also the place where he’s taught painting classes for the past seven or eight years.
“I enjoy teaching as much as I enjoy painting, to be honest with you,” he said. “Just about everybody who comes in claims, ‘Oh, I can’t paint, I can’t do anything,’ and after two or three classes, they’re all just delighted at the work that they had been turning out.”
His classes attract “a wide range of different types of people,” he said. “We have young folks who come in, pre-teens as well as teenagers, and then on up to people that are in their 40s, 50s, 60s. Some of them stay on with me – they keep re-signing and moving on as they become more talented. They keep getting better and better at it. I have students in my class now that have signed up for the past two or three years in a row. They just keep coming every Thursday night and every Saturday afternoon.”
Anyone interested in signing up for one of Rauch’s classes should contact Bottle Works by calling 814-535-2020, he said. Some information about his classes is available online at bottleworks.org.