Part of what’s so amazing about plein air painting, especially on Florida’s Gulf Coast, are the incredibly stunning days we have to commune outdoors, pursuing a life’s dream of being one with color and nature. It has its challenges too, and although I have sketched and painted in nature’s wild for well over 10 years now, those pesky persnicketies never cease to amaze me when they crop up. And crop up they do.
I had started out the day conflicted, such is the life of a painting mom juggling too-short time and multiple priorities. My son’s school was giving a Veteran’s Day celebration, and he being the extrovert he is, wanted to showcase my service in front of everyone. Anybody as introverted as I am knows what a horror this prospect is. So I justified my one time civic absence by reasoning that I DESERVED a day to paint, that this was my calling and my purpose and my career and that I could dedicate as much to that child as to my other. I think sacrifices have to be made for a life as an artist, and all we ever have really, is time.
I was excited. The evening before, I had crafted an ingenious plan for clouds. Our morning skies are often truly complex with layers of color and depth, and I knew that painting with others at the Hermitage Art Retreat on Manasota Key with the Englewood Art Center (a division of the Ringling College of Art) was bound to yield lots of land-based greens. So I wanted to go with clouds, looking up to the skies as a symbolic reference to the future. That morning, wouldn’t you know it, all there was up there was flat blue. Not interesting, textural blues, but flat, uneventful dull blue.
So, in a scurry of now re-imagining, I had been doing a lot of reading about art and the subconscious and about pushing the boundaries of convention in painting. If painting is nothing short of communication, then that communication should be in part, always questioning the status quo, seeking the greater meaning, exploring the future. And encouraged by a recent first place win with a piece executed WAY out of the bounds of traditional art, I naturally thought the same could be applied to plein air!
I chose the smallish 20×10 (or so) wood porch patio as my perch because it was clean, dry and elevated from the sea bed. But in plein air, you don’t get to always choose your neighbors and before I knew it, 4 or 5 other lovely women were up there with me. One of the great things about plein air is you meet people. One of the drawbacks about plein air is people are often of different mindsets. Beginners just sketching, hobbyists out for a day, more serious semi-pros, and the slightly bored professionals who have been doing this thing for well over 20 to 30 years. Some like to talk and chat and laugh, you know, socialize. And believe me, when you’re set up and on a time constraint, the last thing you want to do is move and set up somewhere else while the clock is ticking.
I travel very light. I don’t want to be hauling a lot of junk with me. I don’t wear sunglasses (it affects the color perception), a hat (for the same reason), sunscreen (makes the hands oily), or bug spray (can’t stand unnecessary chemicals). I also don’t carry an easel (I paint on an inclined drawing board), nor a chair of my own (it seems to pretentious), nor an umbrella (seen too many of them simply fly away), nor any laborious baggage. Everything I have fits in an economical small plastic covered bin which I can drop at the side of the road, park my car, and come back and pick up in an instant. My water (I’m primarily a watercolorist), even fits inside the bin with paper towels, sponges, paints, brushes, and small tools.
It was hot. I already told you about the clouds, so the sun was beating down on us. I relented and retrieved a plastic chair, but it was at the wrong height for my tallish frame and was sticky. So I sat on the porch itself and elevated the drawing board onto a wood bench. My legs went numb. I couldn’t move. Bugs moved in, and lots of them. In watercolor especially, bugs like the pigment and the water and they will not only visit the work, but will sit and stay a spell to drink. This means you can’t simply shoo them away because the surface is wet and you will smear the work. I alternated between works. I carefully measured out my columns of white for my window pane effect above.
And while I was measuring, I was thinking that I was sooooooooo tired of seeing the same ole, same ole in plein air painting. In Florida, and I imagine in other regions as well, you get a regionalization. Everything becomes about water, palm trees, green grasses, and pelicans and hibiscus because, really that’s all there is! And I was thinking that if the traditional bounds of plein air could be expanded to challenge this convention, and often much loved school of thought, that maybe new contemporary life could be breathed into the form. In one of my pieces, I decided to try just that by incorporating a neo-pointillism (tiny circles) style to encapsulate the sanctity of the sky and water in a drop form, please excuse the image but at least you’ll get the idea. For some reason, I kept thinking about Standing Rock reservation and the pipeline conflict. Why, I have no idea. But painting is like that, ideas often come from only God knows where, and you’re positioned there at the easel wondering, what is THIS about?
They tell you in plein air that you always bring more than you need, and that is true no matter how lightly you travel. I brought a delicious strawberry salad for lunch and didn’t eat it because I was so focused in producing three works in five hours when normally any ONE effort takes far longer than that. You get sweaty. Your arms and fingers cramp. You can’t relax. You get thirsty, and nothing satisfies the thirst. Your legs hurt. You need to go to the bathroom. And you get tired. Really tired. All that concentration, all that uncomfortable stress, all the elements of the open air studio that are unexpected, unwanted, and truly unenjoyable start to creep up on you.
Feeling pretty confident, even despite the army of bugs, the winds suddenly started picking up. My partitioned window piece above went flying like a Lear jet (although I had it weighed down) into the sea oats and because of the way the porch I was on is set, I nearly lost the work entirely to Mother Nature in a near inability to retrieve it without being eaten by an alligator or a snake (I had no extendable grabber tool thingy). So I had to lay flat on my belly (in a skort) and crawl half over the porch rails to stretch my arms out into the abyss. No grace and no beauty there! Not only did this happen to me, but my porch companion’s work on easel fell down several times and as any seasoned plein air person knows, this creates an interruption of chaos lasting for at least a few minutes or more.
Here’s the thing. While I was painting, I finally put my headphones in – you know, the ones that don’t actually fit quite right? And I put my Kirk Franklin on and I began to float away with inspirational gospel songs seasoned with African American spiritual roots. And suddenly, I became hyper-aware. I mean really, HYPER aware. I didn’t care one iota about the competition, about my porch mates, about ANYTHING at all. I had reached a new, natural high, the likes of which I have only previously experienced when mountaintop skiing as a kid.
Aware of the wind direction, the sound of the birds, the sound of the grasses scraping up against each other, the sound of the bug’s hum. I became PART of the surrounding, part of the life force of the place. And overwhelming emotion fell over me like a heavy blanket on a cold day. As is often the case when I am in the moment of sacredness, I began to weep. Water just streaming out of my eyes, not sobbing or crying really, no sniffling or gasping for air, just a simple Madonna-like loss of water. Great! Now I can’t SEE, ha.
And I became immediately super-aware that I was in my flow. That this was my purpose, this was my place, this was my calling, this was meaning. THIS held value. THIS held love. THIS held spirit. And I was so, briefly (my artwork still flying all over and my exhaustion increasing as the darned ear buds are falling out), I was so HAPPY. To know that you know… that you KNOW… that THIS is me. THIS is who I am. THIS is what I care about. THIS is the seat of creation and inspiration and communication. THIS is one with the universe. This simple act of applying watercolor to my Moulin de Roy luxurious French cotton press paper, THIS was worth more than money can ever buy.
You think you’ll stay to the dying end of the production phase, but you don’t. There is no “finished” in art making, there is only “abandoned.” And so you reason with yourself. Yes, they’ll get it. Yes, I gave it enough. Yes, it holds true for the place and for the intent. Yes, I’ve done what I came to do. Yes, it’s not reasonable to be out here any longer. Yes, my stomach is growling. And you turn the works in (always turn in the maximum allowable). You think, yes, they’ll understand that I’m pushing the envelope. That I’m showing how something can be seen differently. You hope, what I experienced out here – it will translate somehow. And you forget that you’re in a location of retired senior citizens, who are often COMFORTED and ASSURED by the traditional, the tried and true, the school of what. is. plein. air. Those who WANT to see excellent interpretations of green and blue flora and fauna surrounding little white buildings, and not this new fangled stuff you’ve tried to produce.
Now, in this particular competition, the organizers had agreed they would frame the works with standard gold frame. However the instructions (and yes, I called) read the piece could not be more than 16×20, nor less than 11×15 if you were using their frames. Naturally, I assumed since they had professional art handlers, that this meant there was also a 5 inch mat. And as I finished my works, I made a small indication at the margins to “help” the handler know which way was up. In this particular blue marble piece above, I also wrote “please center to the degree possible.” So you can imagine my complete and mortifying embarrassment when at reception, as the pieces were hung for exhibition, there WAS NO MAT. And my instructions were clearly legible, nearly ruining any attempt at all. Naturally, no award…no surprise.
In the end, it’s worth it. I brought my son with me to the reception, something I love to do. He enjoyed learning how to use a toothpick with cheese and crackers and a napkin in a social setting, how to stack up the tiny turkey bits on the toothpick like a little column and then dispose the used toothpick in the proper container, how other artists show their work in their OWN frames, and how the Palm House has a fun staircase to run up and down and a fantastic coastal view. I was able to show him a particularly interesting work where an artist of my same mind used colored paper tissue in a collaging effect that created really realistic veining of leaves in another attempt at originality and uniqueness.
As we were leaving, he turned to me, my biggest art supporter, and said, “I’m sorry you didn’t win, Mom.” I laughed, and said it was okay, and it was. And then he paused and said, “You learn from your mistakes.” Yes, love. Yes. You. Do.
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