Kane Was Able

1929 Self Portrait of John Kane, considered one of his masterpieces, resides in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

As rabid supporters  of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders gnash their teeth, it may be time to look at John Kane.


No, not John McCain. John Kane. Is he a candidate? No, he’s dead. Has been so since 1934.

Kane was a one-legged, uneducated laborer who picked up a paint brush late in life and did everything “wrong.” 

I bring up the Pittsburgh artist because the most common adjective used on social networks these days is “stupid.”

It may be just as common on television, but I don’t watch that.

“Stupid” describes other political camps in the least forgiving way possible. Although one would think you are born stupid, there is an underlying belief that others make you that way (college, parents, National Rifle Assn., etc.) And, you are just too  . . . too . . ., well, stupid to know any better.

A better word would be “naive.” (I am college-corrupted, so I know.)

The word is far more forgiving, but of course these are not forgiving times.

Naiveté was both celebrated and laughed at in the time of John Kane. In fact, it was his claim to fame.

Moving, Moving on Up

Kane was quite young when his peasant family moved from Ireland to Scotland. His father hoped to find good work to improve their lot. The boy was only 9 when he insisted he be permitted to quit school and go to work in a shale mine. Good thing he did because his father died the following year.

Mrs. Cain (spelling before Ellis Island)) then married a man who soon left for America to seek opportunity . In 1879,  19-year-old John followed and joined his stepfather in Pennsylvania.

“I was always on the lookout for better jobs,” Kane wrote in his autobiography. 

“The wages interested me the most. The amount of work, the hardness of it, the hours and all like that, didn’t worry me a bit.”

He worked in McKeesport, Connellsville and Braddock, and then went to Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

Kane labored for the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, a tubing factory, a coal mine and a steel mill. He was a construction worker and street paver.

He was powerfully built,  so, if the economy was good, he always got hired. That ended  late one night after he returned to Braddock.

An unlit B&O train surprised Kane and companions as they cut across a rail yard.  He pushed a cousin out of the way, but Kane’s leg got caught and the train severed it five inches below the knee.

Takes Leg Loss in Stride

Recovery took months for the 31-year-old and he came to depend on charities like the Salvation Army.  He became so good at walking on a wooden leg, though, that few ever noticed a limp until his later years.

Still, he had trouble finding work. The B&O Railroad finally gave him a low-paying job as a night watchman.

At 37, Kane married Maggie Halloran. After the births of two daughters, he needed more money. Kane started painting railroad cars for the Pressed Steel Car Company in McKees Rocks.

“I . . . became in love with paint,” he wrote.

At noon, while others were eating, Kane painted  pictures on the sides of boxcars. He said the foreman didn’t mind as long he painted over the creations after the lunch break.

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