A prime painting motif, Saxton River

by Beth Bathe

Pennsylvania artist Beth Bathe made her third annual pilgrimage to Vermont in mid-March to catch Charlie Hunter enjoying the sugaring season and great camaraderie in the field. She agreed to tell about her experience painting the last gasp of winter for PleinAir Today.

It’s artist Charlie Hunter’s favorite time of year to paint and he invites others to join him in Grafton, Vermont. Not quite a workshop and not quite a paint-out. Veteran Frozen-Assers (that’s what we ourselves) return again and again. Even ones from places that are warm that time of year. New faces, old friends, seasoned painters and those new to painting.

Charlie states, “Sugaring season is a special time in Vermont. It’s just at the start of Vermont’s famous Mud Season, the time between winter and spring, when–if the days are warm and the nights are cold–the maple sap runs and the sugarhouses steam. There are few tourists about and the cows still hew close to the barns. But the chickadees will be whistling their spring calls, the pussy willows will be emerging and the buds on the trees will be starting to redden. Or else it will be cold and blustery, with needle-like sleet peppering one’s face. A bone-crushing chill may slowly seep up one’s legs, or a glum and desultory drizzle might start. A thick mist might suddenly envelop anything more than 20 feet off the ground. You never know.”

Charlie Hunter painted a demo inside
Charlie Hunter painted a demo inside.

Why do we return? The Town of Grafton VT is a small, quaint, picturesque village, with its New England white buildings and churches and a population of approximately 650. Some say it is because The Grafton Inn is an excellent hotel, Others posit that the very challenge the weather presents may impel one to work harder, to see more clearly. Others say that the interesting demos, spirited critiques and lively discussions are what truly sets this paint-out apart. Others say that the camaraderie of a group of people sharing a common love and mutual discomfort creates an unbeatable esprit de corps.

We are “The Frozen-Ass Painters”–a hardy breed who are willing to brave challenging weather in order to capture the fleeting essence of light on the natural world, a group willing to paint in mud, snow, mist or, when heaven smiles, in brilliant sunshine.

"One More Snow," by Beth Bathe
“One More Snow,” by Beth Bathe

Each day, the group met for coffee, juice and an array of alarmingly calorie-laden pastries necessary for a bracing outdoor adventure. We then headed out for a day of painting.

Day One this year, we visited Tom Burns’ sugaring operation (it takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup). Other days we painted in the industrial town of Bellows Falls (it was 17 degrees there this year, with winds up to 20mph, but I painted outdoors!). Other days were spent painting in and around Grafton, or in the inn during sleet and snow.

Jason Sacran, toastily painting on a road
Jason Sacran, toastily painting on a road

Most days, Hunter offered formal demonstrations of his painting technique for those who want to observe and discuss His use of water-mixable oils and distinctive limited-hue palette has gained national attention in the past few years. Days are not structured to be a traditional hands-on ‘workshop.’ Instead, painters are expected to be comfortable painting on their own. Charlie stressed his view on sketching a scene out before painting. He feels it is important to get to know the subject and composition. At the end of each painting day, the group meets at the Inn, hang their day’s work and discuss what was learned, what challenges were faced, what triumphs accomplished, all over wine and snacks. We then go dinner as a group, at the inn, a local pub or eatery. Charlie believes this social time to be as important as the painting time. We talk art-talk and blather and then usually move onto an after dinner party. Then one by one it’s off to bed, and wake up in the morning and do it all again.

Jason Sacran, toastily painting on a road
Jason Sacran, toastily painting on a road

Returning Ass-Freezers this year included: Ella Biondi, NY; Carol Violanda, GA, Jeff Wagner, NH; Beth Bathe, PA; Marty Allen, VT; Jim Picone, VT; and our leader, Charlie Hunter, VT. New Frozen Asses: Catherine Steiner-Adair, MA, Jason Sacran, AK; Peter Huntoon, VT; Janet Wilson, Ontario, Canada; and Betty Soo, TX.

Jason Sacran comments, “This trip was a great Christmas gift from my lovely wife. Charlie was a gracious host and demoed and shared his techniques with everyone. The fellow frozeniers were fantastic as well and I truly enjoyed getting to know them and paint with them for sure. The accommodations were fantastic and the scenery was just what I was hoping for…snow! Lots of snow. We don’t get a lot of snow in Arkansas, so this was a true treat to attempt to paint. I also enjoyed trying Charlie’s way of painting, utilizing some of his tools and materials throughout the week. I’ve always admired Charlie’s work and am always open to experimenting, so this was a great way to fuel up before heading back out to do my own thing.

Observing the sugaring process at Tom Burns' facilities
Observing the sugaring process at Tom Burns’ facilities
Here come the artists
Here come the artists

“This has been a great experience in an immersive painting experience: Learning new techniques, observing how painters approach the scene differently, building camaraderie are but a few of the benefits of being in the elements in Vermont,” adds Raylie Dunkel. “I am looking forward to getting into the studio and applying all that was learned.”

Carol Violanda, Frozen-Ass Painter
Carol Violanda, Frozen-Ass Painter

So what starts out as a mismatched group, ends up in five days as “The Frozen Ass Painters of Vermont”, a group of new friends. A nice change from working alone in your studio. You get to paint in ungodly conditions, wearing three or more layers of clothing and get to hang out with other like minded people (did I say crazy?). But more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

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