`Piermont Division' as HO-train performance art

Neighbors

December 01, 2006|By Janet Gilbert

Two words model railroaders - or miniature railroaders - hate," said Howard Zane, 68, of Columbia. "Train garden or train set."

Descend into Zane's basement world, and these common expressions seem lacking indeed; the scene is neither seasonal nor childish.

Nearly 3,000 square feet are permanently dedicated to depicting a fictional region of West Virginia with rolling hills and waterfalls, industrial centers, town squares, factories, homes and schools linked by HO trains.

When the trains are running, "Piermont Division," as Zane's layout is named, is more of a performance-art experience than a scale model-train display.

"You can sit down and wait an hour for a train to arrive," said Zane.

The layout, which Zane began working on in 1983, features 1,400 feet of track, or 27.8 scale miles meandering through historically accurate vistas set between 1945 and 1954.

"I love the past," said Zane. "The future scares me - I don't even like the present."

Zane's earliest train memory is of Christmas 1941, when he was 3 years old, watching his parents attempt to put together his father's first train set.

Zane's father's set started as a top-of-the-line, off-the-shelf Lionel. Eventually, it evolved into an "O-scale" set. Zane's father continued to expand his set, and while Zane appreciated it, he said: "It was always Dad's hobby."

HO trains, which Zane works with, got their name when they were developed in the 1930s from the "O" scale of model trains popular in the United Kingdom. The "H" stood for "half;" thus HO meant half-O scale; the slightly odd ratio of 1/87th actual size. HO scale is one of the most popular scales of model railroading in the world; it allows model railroaders to fit more detail into a given area.

And details are what Zane's display is all about. His basement layout represents about 15,000 hours of work; Zane continues to spend 40 to 50 hours a week creating and refining sections. It clearly is his passion and seems to provide the perfect outlet for his myriad, disparate talents.

Zane graduated with a fine-arts degree in industrial design in 1961 from New York University/Parsons School of Design. He said the field held his interest because "anything that's made had to be drawn and designed first."

His career in industrial design was interrupted by service in the Army, where he was an aviator. For almost two decades, Zane pursued a career in commercial flying.

In 1977, he got back into the arts by starting an industrial design and architectural illustrating business, from which he retired in 1987 at age 49. During this time, he also rekindled his other early love - traditional American "old-time string band" folk music. Zane plays the banjo in a band called "New Southern Cowtippers" with his wife, renowned fiddler Sandy Hofferth.

"You retire to go into something else more enjoyable - never just to quit work," Zane said.

Zane has increased the size of his basement twice to accommodate the ever-growing, changing Piermont Division, and he is thinking of adding another 2,000 square feet.

"This would make it [the Piermont Division] the largest layout in the nation - not that that would be the goal," Zane said.

He describes his layout filled with charming, humorous vignettes much the way you would expect an artist to describe a painting, sculpture or a theatrical production.

"It's multidimensional art," Zane said. "The first and second dimension is drawing, and the third is dimensional art - scale models. The fourth is movement, the fifth is sound."

Even Zane's approach is that of an inspired artist; he created the mythical town of Mack, W.Va., in a two-week burst of creativity. Driving through Western Maryland after a gig with his band, he arrived home about 2:45 a.m. and immediately began sketching out the town.

Zane said he went to bed about 6 o'clock that morning, then got up four hours later and worked for two weeks straight on all the structures and scenery. He designs and creates everything from his benches to his buildings and scenes, painstakingly airbrushing every element to create the weathered, authentic look of long ago.

His display includes considerable amounts of what Zane terms "negative scenery" (below the track line) and "positive scenery" (above), adding to the visual and emotional impact of the scenes. Waterfalls cascade from craggy mountains; rivers reveal pebbles below shallower surfaces and ripple above rock formations.

Zane welcomes the public (younger than age 17 with an interested adult) to Piermont Division between 10 a.m. and noon Saturdays, by appointment only, at no charge.

"Just call first," he said.

"Art has no meaning unless it's shared," Zane added.

It's just one of the reasons Zane recently published his book, Howard Zane: My Life With Model Trains. The book includes 450 color photographs of Piermont Division and how-to tips on scale model railroading, intertwined with just-as-colorful stories of his growing-up years.

"It all goes back to my family," Zane said of why he wrote a book this year. "I could leave my children money - it would be spent. Property, sold. Articles [on Zane that have been published in numerous model railroading magazines] could be lost or ruined. But a book in the Library of Congress is forever.

"My descendents can look up Grandpa - it's a legacy I wanted to leave my family."

Flip through its pages, and you can almost hear that whistle blow, 500 miles.

Contact Howard Zane through his Web site: www.zanestrains. com, or call 410-730-1036.

Neighbors

Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? If there is, Janet Gilbert, our neighbors reporter, wants to know about it.

E-mail Janet at janetgilbertsun@verizon.net, or call 410-313-8276. Janet also has a Web site: www.janet gilbertonline.com

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