During the Paint Ellicott City event in Maryland, Alison Leigh Menke got on a roll, and she kept rolling. In truth, she kept falling.
“Each plein air painting poses its own challenges,” Menke says. “Yes, of course, the movement of light is always one of them, but for this painting my environment posed the greatest challenge. I had planted my easel on a 2’-x-3’ sandy patch surrounded by a sea of large rocks and countless visitors. It was quite a maneuver I had to undertake around boulders and spectators to get a glance of my painting at a distance. I absentmindedly pace back and forth while I paint, so I found myself on several occasions backing up into rocks and toppling over. This generated a few laughs as one man called me out on tripping over the same rock twice!”
Menke chose the painting spot by the Patapsco River in part in deference to the heat — it was 95 degrees and sunny that day. She was also relaxing a bit after winning the Quick Draw competition and selling a painting. “I hoped to find some shade and comfort near the water,” she recalls. “After navigating down a rocky dirt path to the shore of the Patapsco, the shapes of the river and the Main Street Bridge, and the light and shadows they created, captured my attention. I was attracted to the juxtaposition of the hot day on the river and the cool refuge under the bridge. The light danced on the rocks and the energy of the scene in the water became — as my teacher Caroline Jasper once told me —my ‘star’ interest. So, I dropped my pack on a rock and set out to try and compose a painting to best express what I was witnessing.”
Menke’s preliminary sketch
What she was witnessing was an annual event on the waterway in which people wade into the river and stack rocks into little towers. Menke says the event is both a personal competition and a spiritual experience for the participants. The artist evidently tuned in to the creative vibe — her piece won the Gino Manelli Award, the richest honor at Paint Ellicott City.
The scene Menke depicted and her finished painting
Gino Molfino, the coordinator of fine arts for the Howard County public school system, served as judge. “Each of the works in the Paint It! Ellicott City 2016 exhibition were quite strong in their own right, and the jury process was a difficult one for me to select only eight final award winners … let alone two top selections for the Gino Manelli Award/Prize. I grew up in Ellicott City, Maryland, and have many associative/personal memories and connections to the city depicted in the exhibition. I was immediately attracted to works that resonated a sense of place through the artist’s portrayal of light, form, space, and atmosphere. I was looking for paintings that visually communicated that familiar feeling of Ellicott City.
“Ms. Menke’s intimate views of Ellicott City in the exhibition are an honest, fresh, and immediate visual response to her experiences. The physicality and confidence for which she develops color relationships and applies paint in ‘Cooling Down’ create a strong sense of space/form and exemplify what the feeling of plein air painting should be in my mind … and the feeling of Ellicott City summers that I recall.”
For her part, Menke feels like she simply fell into it. “I felt pleased when I finished this painting, due to a strong start and maintained focus throughout. It never felt like a losing battle — I just let the painting happen!”