Story by Courtney Scoby, Staff writer
The Paris-Henry County Heritage Center in Paris, Tennessee is hosting “The Photographic Exhibit –World Travels with Joe Routon,” an art show that began Sept. 20 and continues until Oct. 31.
The exhibit is free and open to the public and features 90 of Routon’s photographs from 20 different countries.
Joseph Routon, a native of Paris, Tennessee and graduate of Murray State, is an accomplished artist and musician, whose photographs have appeared on the cover of “Budget Travel Magazine,” in the travel section of the “Philadelphia Inquirer,” in advertising for the Travel Division of the “Smithsonian Institution,” and in the United Nations’ publication, “The Interdependent,” according to a press release from the Paris-Henry County Heritage Center.
Although his primary profession is painting portraits in oils and he has enjoyed much success with his photography, he began his career in church music. He earned a Bachelor of Music in organ music from Murray State.
Shortly afterward he moved to Louisville, Kentucky with his wife, Joyce Ann, whom he met while studying at Murray State. He pursued a Master of Sacred Music degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Routon’s interest in art developed early in life but did not become a career until much later in life.
Routon’s grandmother, Pearl Routon, was also a portrait painter and his father studied art at Murray State under Clara Eagle, a former professor. Routon later studied under Eagle as well.
“She was a wonderful teacher and she laid a great foundation for me,” he said.
After a few years of full-time jobs in church music, Routon took a continuing education course in portrait painting at East Tennessee State, at the urging of a friend.
“From the beginning, I was hooked on painting portraits in oil,” Routon said. “I started thinking about changing careers.”
Soon he, his wife and their three young children moved to New York so that Routon could continue studying portrait painting at the Art Students League in New York City. He worked as a photographer for the “Advertiser Photo News” in Warwick, New York to help pay for his studies.
When his wife was offered a job in Haddonfield, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia, the family relocated again. Routon furthered his artistic studies at the nearby Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Routon and his wife now reside in Haddonfield, where he runs his oil portrait business.
While the mention of oil portraits may conjure up images from history textbooks, Routon said that the practice is far from a dying art.
“When photography evolved to the point where everyone could take pictures, many thought that portrait painting would soon die out,” he said. “For a while, it ebbed, but in the past decade or two it has enjoyed a rebirth.”
Although his profession is painting oil portraits, his photography is “strictly for fun,” he said.
“I especially like it when I can use my photography for a good cause, such as a medical mission trip to Mexico, where I photographed and documented the work of several ophthalmologists who performed eye surgeries for the World Cataract Foundation,” he said.
One reason Routon derives so much joy from his photography is because of the places it takes him. Over the years, he and his wife have traveled to about 50 countries.
“In the beginning we traveled mainly to Europe, to see the art museums and churches,” he said. “As I became more proficient with the camera, I wanted to expand my horizons, so we traveled to Asia, Africa, Russia and South America.”
Routon’s inspiration comes not just from exotic locations, but from the works of other artists as well.
“Two weeks ago we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City to see a special exhibit of paintings by the great portrait painter John Singer Sargent, and two days ago we were in Philadelphia for an exhibit of the leading Impressionistic painters,” he said.
However, he does not have to look far from home for inspiration.
“Also, my wife inspires me,” he said. “Her willingness, 36 years ago, to pull up stakes; leave good, secure jobs; and move, with three small children and very little money, to New York for art school made it all possible.”
Routon also credits his alma mater for his success.
“It’s very doubtful that I would have been able to become a full-time artist if it hadn’t been for the great training that I received at Murray,” he said.