Peter Howell - July 2008
It’s becoming hard to turn a corner in Talbot County without tripping over an artist’s easel. Plein air painters are everywhere, from the cornfields of Cordova to the streets of Easton to the docks of Tilghman Island. Plein air has achieved buzzword status on the Mid-Shore. Suddenly, it seems that everyone has moved, lock, stock and palette, into the great outdoors to paint.
Yet plein air painting is hardly a recent phenomenon. Its’ pedigree stretches back to 17th-century Rome, where two French artists, Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin, upended the conventional wisdom that landscape painting was not a classical genre.
Lorraine and Poussin may or may not have coined the phrase en plein air, which means “in the open air” in their native tongue. But they sowed the seeds of a movement that bloomed in Europe during the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment and the Romantic period in the early 19th century. The French artist Camille Corot, England’s John Constable, and Theodore Rousseau, Jean-Francois Millet and Charles-Francois Daubigny of France’s Barbizon School were the stars of plein air painting in 19th-century Europe.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the first identifiable school of painting in America, the Hudson River School, captured the enthralling light dancing over the Catskills and Adirondacks in upstate New York. Painters like Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt documented the nation’s changing identity as the frontier pushed its way west across the Hudson before the Civil War. Many of today’s Eastern Shore artists follow in their footsteps. Indeed, Plein Air-Easton! will award, for the first time this year, a Vanishing Landscape Award.
A century later, plein air painting was imported to California by…Americans. Painters like Guy Rose went to France to study with Claude Monet, one of the French Impressionists who had revolutionized outdoor art with their spontaneous, intensely colored, light-filled paintings. Rose returned to California to paint the coastal beauty of the Laguna Beach, Carmel and Monterey areas.
With its clear, intense light and pleasant climate, California was an ideal incubator for the American Impressionist plein air movement. It attracted artists from all over, including John Gamble, Paul Grimm, Edgar Payne and William Wendt. It has long been the hub of plein air painting and festivals in America. Historically, all the important plein air festivals have been held on the West Coast.
Now, in the 21st century, it’s the East Coast’s turn. Plein Air-Easton! was the brainchild of painter Nancy Tankersley. While she never competed in a West Coast event, she attended the Carmel Art Festival, and studied how a major plein air event is run. Not long after she and her husband, Carl, bought the South Street Art Gallery in 2004, she began talking up the idea of a plein air art event in Easton. Ellen General of the Avalon Foundation and Al Bond of Easton Main Street, always on the lookout for a way to attract visitors to town, got on board, and the Plein Air-Easton! Competition & Arts Festival debuted in 2005. Fifty artists came from up and down the Eastern Seaboard and beyond to compete, and were uniformly amazed by how well organized the festival was. One after another was heard to say, “I can’t believe this is a startup,” or words to that effect. More than $10,000 in cash prizes was awarded, including the $4,000 Grand Prize, which went to Gavin Brooks of Towson for “First Light Sailors.” This year’s purse will exceed $13,000 in cash and art supplies.
In just four years, Plein Air-Easton! has grown into a week-long celebration of the outdoors and the painters who capture it on canvas. New events have been added each year. In 2006, for example, the Academy Art Museum began purchasing paintings by PA-E! artists, and the Troika Gallery and Creatrics became the first Easton art galleries to award prizes. The St. Michaels Art League and the Working Artists Forum sponsored the first Local Color exhibit, a showcase for local artists not participating in the main competition. Local Color returns this year to the Tidewater Inn’s Crystal Room July 25-27.
Also in 2006, Plein Air-Easton! added an evening of live entertainment by presenting the Maryland Shakespeare Festival’s (MSF) production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. (Last year ArtHouse Live performed Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, and MSF’s The Merry Wives of Windsor is on tap at 8 p.m. Saturday, July 26, in the parking lot at the corner of Glenwood Avenue and South Harrison Street.)
Last year marked the debut of the Plein Air–Easton! Photography Contest. Two new painting awards were presented: the South Street Art Gallery Award for the Best New Artist; and the Utrecht Art Supplies Award for Best Use of Light.
In addition to the Vanishing Landscapes Award, the first Talbot County Abstract Photography Contest, sponsored by Traces of Us Gallery and Hobby Horse Photography, is new this year. The challenge: capturing the beauty of Talbot County and downtown Easton from an abstract and contemporary viewpoint. Registration will be held on Sunday, July 20 at Traces of Us Gallery from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is free with a donation of nonperishable food item(s).
All competition photographs will be shown and sold at the Traces of Us Gallery, at 307 E. Dover St., from July 26 to Aug. 8. Hobby Horse Photography, at 35 E. Dover St., will exhibit and sell the first-, second- and third-place winners and honorable mentions from Aug. 9 to Sept. 1.
The Abstract Photography Contest is different from, and in addition to, the Plein Air–Easton! Photography Contest. The Photography Contest is sponsored by Paragon Light Photography, and all entries must depict aspects of the 2008 Plein Air-Easton! Festival itself. Cash prizes will be awarded, and selections will be included in a yearlong touring exhibit. Deadline for submissions is Friday, Aug. 15. Winners will be announced Sept. 5 during First Friday Gallery Walk.
While Plein Air-Easton! has been growing, one thing has stayed the same: the limited number of artists juried in. From 160 entries, jurist Brian Stewart has selected just 55 painters to compete this year. Of the 55 competitors, more than half – 30 – are returning. No fewer than 10 are four-for-four, including Grand Prize winners Tim Bell of Edgewater (2006) and Rob Barber of State College, Pa. (2007). Five are from Easton: David Grafton, Stephen J. Griffin, Joe Mayer, Julia Rogers and Nancy Tankersley. Three more local artists will be chosen in June in the Fourth Annual Mid-Shore Choose Three Plein Air Competition.
This is Tankersley’s first year as a competitor. Since she was on the organizing committee that chose the jurist and judge in 2005, 2006 and 2007, she says she “didn’t think it was appropriate” to enter. But she recently left the committee to devote more time to her painting and her gallery. “I felt like the festival was firmly on the ground,” she said earlier this month, “and it was time to return to being an artist.”
Artists, like any skilled and sensible competitor, go where the money is. Plein Air-Easton! attracts the reigning and rising stars of plein air painting because it offers, among other blandishments, substantial prizes. Those prizes are underwritten by the Friends of Plein Air-Easton! In years past, Easton businessman and Mid-Shore Medici Timothy Dills, for whom the grand prize is named, led the way in supporting Plein Air-Easton! This year’s best Friend is the Bay Hundred Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in 2001 to celebrate and preserve our cultural and environmental heritage for future generations, which donated $10,000. All told, the Friends have contributed $31,000.
As in years past, the Academy Art Museum, at the corner of South Harrison and South treets in Easton, will be action central. All the paintings created during the week will be on display and for sale there Friday through Sunday, July 25-27. The Collectors Preview Party will be held there from 7 to 9 p.m. on the 25th. Tickets are $150, but admission is virtually free for serious collectors, because 100 percent of your ticket price will be applied to your purchase. Artist and art critic F. Lennox “Lenny” Campello will offer an insider’s look at art collecting at 7 p.m. on the 26th. And on Sunday the 27th, the Academy will host two events: a fine art photography demonstration by Brazilian artist and photographer Fabiano Cafure, owner of Traces of Us Gallery, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; and a lecture on “Art as a Political Motivator” by Brian Young, the Academy’s new curator, at 2 p.m.
The Academy is also the venue where the most volunteers are needed, according to Volunteer Coordinator Elizabeth Tong. Last year, she says, “We were inundated with people at 10 o’clock Saturday morning, when the place opened.” Plein Air-Easton! runs on volunteer power, and more volunteers are needed to keep up with the festival’s growth. Volunteering is fun, says Tong. Returning volunteers, who know the lay of the land, are already staking their claims to their preferred assignments. Tong says the most pressing need is for people to do intake and hang paintings all day Friday the 25th; staff the Collectors Preview Party on Friday evening; and staff the Academy from 9 to 9 Saturday and 10 to 4 Sunday. To volunteer for anywhere from an hour to a day, call Elizabeth Tong at 410-822-8878 or 410-822-5993; or e-mail her at email@example.com.
Plein Air-Easton! 2008 begins July 21 and concludes July 27. To learn more, and for a complete schedule of events, including the Collectors Preview Party, exhibits and sales, the Quick Draw Competition, the Winners Paint-Out & Sunday Brunch, and workshops, lectures and demonstrations at local galleries, visit www.pleinaireaston.com or call 410-822-7297.