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A bird's-eye view of yesteryear

Gordon M. Callison, who prefers being called Gordy, swings wide the door of his Hamilton garden apartment that he shares with his wife of 41 years, Sandy, a teacher and artist.

Their studio-home is filled with books, two large easels, filing cabinets and art supplies. It is bright with the good north light that artists prefer.

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Callison welcomes his visitors with a warm smile and a powerful handshake. This morning, he's dressed in dark trousers and a deep maroon button-down shirt over which course wide blue suspenders.

His face is bracketed by a pair of silver rimless glasses, while his snow-white hair is anchored by the headband of a magnifier he wears while doing what he calls his "bird's-eye view" artwork.

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Callison, 64, who has had a lifetime of adventures, was born in Bisbee, Ariz., the son of a mining engineer father and an artist mother who specialized in painting flowers.

He spent his childhood in the Southwest, South America, California, Pennsylvania and upstate New York, following his father's work.

Callison, who began drawing cars and airplanes when he was 10, later graduated from military school and attended Corning Community College in New York.

Largely self-taught in art, Callison did briefly study at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington.

"My father always said, 'Artists don't make any money. It's OK to draw for fun, but you better do something else with your life.' So, I made a living working as a skilled woodworker, tool-and-die maker and machinist, in New York and Pennsylvania. I later owned a water purification business in St. Petersburg, Fla., before moving to Baltimore," he said.

He's had many adventures along the way, including being exposed to toxic gas that caused a seven-year memory loss, and being one of three survivors of a C-46 that crashed into the Virginia mountains, killing 30, during an ice storm in 1959.

Callison, who throughout his life has enjoyed exploring the back roads in search of old villages and water-powered mills, was working at a plant in Cockeysville when he suffered an injury that required a lengthy recovery.

"I was most fortunate to experience Maryland's back roads, many of which, 10 years ago, were dirt or gravel," Callison said.

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"I'm a mill man," he said. "Many is the bridge over a stream where I have set up a chair and drawing board on my lap, and have proceeded to carve out of the scene before me an old grist mill perched on the bank of a bubbling creek."

A friend and fellow artist, looking at one of his pen-and-ink drawings of a mill, suggested that he add other details to the drawing. He also suggested that Callison approach owners who might be interested in having a drawing of their mill and gaining a paid commission. So Callison established Gordy's Mills, which later became the present Historical-Re-Creations.

In addition to his mill studies, Callison began drawing detailed bird's-eye view of old towns and farms.

"I wanted to do something more challenging, and they really are living scenes of yesteryear. They feature not only buildings, but people, animals and vehicles. They are scenes of daily life," he said.

Callison's pen-and-ink tapestries require hours of research before he starts drawing a single line.

When doing a Baltimore County site, for instance, he not only visits and studies the location, but also consults with noted county historians John W. McGrain and Richard Parsons.

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He examines old maps and extant photographs. He also uses a digital camera to record scenes, mills or towns, which he uses later in the studio.

A large work documenting Rockland, in Baltimore County, took over 18 months to complete. The work is painstakingly meticulous, not unlike that of microsurgery.

Joseph W. Coale, a Ruxton resident, commissioned a pen-and-ink drawing of Ruxton based on his book, Middling Planters of Ruxton: 1694-1850, that was published by the Maryland Historical Society in 1995.

The 30-inch by 40-inch drawing, which was completed two years ago, was reproduced in the Maryland Hall of Records, Historical Maps of Maryland 1608-1908, recently published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

"Joe's Ruxton piece was a real challenge," recalls Callison. "Getting the terrain to talk to me was quite tough."

"He must've have used a million strokes in the drawing," Coale said.

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Such fine detailed work requires not only a lot of time, but a steady hand and plenty of patience. A magnifying glass is de rigueur.

Callison prefers working in the stillness of the night and the morning.

"It's intense work and rough on my eyes. I work between 2 and 6 in the morning, rest a couple of hours, and back it at by 9. I stop at noon," he said.

"Maryland for its size has many mill villages, for instance, within a 50-mile radius of Baltimore, there are four mill villages," he said. "My forte is preserving these scenes for posterity because these little hamlets are rapidly disappearing."


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