Artist Ted Laws captured Johnson City's railroading legacy on canvas

Sue Guinn Legg • May 16, 2019 at 9:42 PM

While the beloved Johnson City artist Ted Laws was never a professional painter, the body of work he created gives no hint.

In a tribute included in the Johnson’s Depot online collection of city history, Laws’ son, Leo, recounts how even their family was unaware of his father’s remarkable talent until he took up painting a pastime in his retirement.

According to the tribute, Laws’ began “his prolific painting adventure” at the age of 72 and spent the last 10 years of his life “recreating vintage railroad scenes remembered from his youth.”

With his passion for the trains that were the heartbeat of this city in his childhood, his attention to detail and his mastery of depth and scale, Laws managed to capture on canvas a realistic, full-color look back at a rich chapter of Johnson City’s railroading legacy.

Laws’ own father had been a master carpenter who helped build the Southern Railway station in the early 1900s and, according to family lore, enjoyed carrying young Ted outside in the evenings to see the steam engines as they rolled through the darkened town.

The images were lasting as Laws, who often painted himself and his family members into his scenes, produced numerous depictions the Southern station and railway and night views of the city.

In the post World War I era, Laws worked as a Western Union boy delivering telegrams around the city by bicycle. And he included himself in his Western Union uniform standing with his bike in the foreground of large and vivid paintings of Fountain Square as it appeared in the 1920s.

Leo is quoted saying, "Dad was meticulous in the detail of his work, and not just that involving the trains. He studied the details of each building from old photos and was very particular in his choice of automobiles in the paintings. He had an old stack of magazines such as Popular Mechanics and National Geographic, some dated as far back as 1909.”

Johnson City historian Ray Stahl was a Ted Laws fan whom Leo said, “took delight in seeing the paintings evolve and came by frequently to see dad's latest work.”

Stahl commissioned Laws for the painting used on the cover of his book, “Greater Johnson City: A Pictorial History,” depicting an ETV&C steam engine and a team of horses and wagon at Henry Johnson’s original depot around which the city grew.

According to the tribute, Laws painted a total of more than 30 works featuring scenes of Johnson City as well as the historic train stations of other Northeast Tennessee cities.

The paintings he exhibited were consistent art show award-winners in the 1980s and today can be found hanging in businesses and homes throughout the region.

For more on Laws’ life and the invaluable collection he created, visit www.stateoffranklin.net/johnsons/tedlaws.


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