Train Hopper Blues

Trio by Maureen Robinson.

Trio by Maureen Robinson.

More than two years ago, Maureen Robinson left her farm in Zirconia for Atlanta. It wasn’t a journey she had intended to make, for she was traveling south as part of her fight against Stage 3 breast cancer with six weeks of radiation treatments at Emory University. It was an ordeal that would not only help restore her to health, but also produce a powerful series of stunning black-and-white photographic portraits of Atlanta’s transient population of train hoppers who inhabit “Little Five,” just east of Five Points, a shabby-chic section of town the New York Times once called “Greenwich Village with peach trees.”

Maureen’s photographs, on show in the solo exhibition “Travelers” this month at Asheville’s Flood Gallery, capture in stark black-and-white the spirit and gritty pride of a group on the fringes of society, fiercely committed to surviving on their own terms, many of them counting their dogs as their only family.

It was the dogs that first attracted Maureen, on whose farm she and her husband Lee raise and train dogs for herding competitions. “I would go up and speak to these train hoppers about their dogs first,” Maureen says of her initial contact with her subjects in Five Points’ Freedom Park and elsewhere in the neighborhood. “After some doggie talk, I would ask to photograph the dogs and things would grow from there.”

Maureen was staying by herself during those six weeks of radiation and was glad of the chance to focus on something besides her cancer, soon finding herself spending every one of her six weeks in Atlanta with Little Five’s transients, although their acceptance of her was almost immediate. “I think my bald head and weakened appearance made it easy to approach these kids,” Maureen says. “And I think it also helped that I accepted their choice of dropping out. I didn’t approach them in an effort to change anything.”

The train hoppers’ stories have many common threads — abusive childhoods, substance-addicted parents, dispiriting juvenile detention facilities — but Maureen’s photographs locate far more inspiring narratives beneath the dreadlocks, tattoos, body piercings and cast-off clothing. Her subjects project a sense of community and caring bred in the nation’s rail yards and municipal parks, where home is a more fluid concept than for most of us. “Maureen has a way of capturing life in her photographs that’s just extraordinary,” says Jolene Mechanic, the Flood gallery’s executive director and the curator of the show. “The faces seem to look right at you as if they want to communicate something. It’s an amazing body of work.”

Maureen knew nothing about train hoppers or their lifestyle before wandering into Little Five Points, but has since

come across them not only in Asheville but during her travels across the country with her dogs for competitions in places as disparate as Fort Collins, Colorado and in New Mexico. She’s since come to respect their tenuous and often dangerous existence. “There’s a fair amount of predators victimizing train hoppers, and I think that’s why so many of them travel with a dog,” Maureen says. “All the dogs I met are well-trained and socialized, and while I’m not an advocate for this style of life, the dogs I’ve met have a better life than so many pets left neglected and chained in the back yard. I was touched by the connection and care these modern-day hobos have for their dogs.”

The Flood show is Maureen’s first exhibition of her work. Indeed, she considers her photography a secondary activity to her work with her dogs, although they are a frequent subject for her camera, both at home and during her frequent trips with them to far-flung herding trials. “I think I may have the most photographed and well-traveled dogs in Henderson County,” Maureen says. But the response to the Little Five photographs seems to have sparked a new enthusiasm for taking pictures, particularly in the western states, where she photographs wild horses, environmental landscapes and the hardscrabble lifestyle of ranchers. The Wheels Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is planning a show of such work next year.

But “my hoppers,” as Maureen calls them, remain an important part of her oeuvre, especially now that she’s emerged, at the age of 62, on the other side of breast cancer. “I’m feeling stronger every day,” Maureen says. “I have a strong connection to this collection of photos and people. The project helped me through the most difficult time in my life. These kids are survivors, and so am I.”

For a sampling of other photography by Maureen Robinson, visit Travelers opens on December 1 at Flood Gallery in Asheville.

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