The Steelville Arts Council hosts a plein air event every summer, and it seems it just can’t help but be unusual compared to most. This year, painters painted in a cave.

How many artists have painted the inside of a cave from life? We don’t know, but we know the number is at least 18. Those dozen and a half painters worked 150 feet underground in Onondaga Cave, near Leasburg, Missouri, for six hours during the Steelville Plein Air event. “It was like being in outer space with no straight lines, no reference points, making it necessary to rely on drawing skills and color and value relationships to define space,” reports Nyle Gordon. Marcia Willman recorded some of the impressions the painters had of the experience in a blog post. “The lack of harshness made the cave a difficult subject, and it took Spencer Meagher a while to get his bearings,” she says. “Without realizing he was looking into a stream, he later discovered some shapes were reflections rather than fluid and flowing formations.”

The Lily Pad Room. Photo by Veronica Brown
The Lily Pad Room. Photo by Veronica Brown

Onondaga Cave is unusual in itself, or at least its caretakers are. The Underground Ukulele Extravaganza is coming up on the calendar, and it’s not the first musical event held in the caverns. The idea for painting in the cave came from another activity in Onondaga Cave — a six-hour evening meditation session. Steelville Arts Council volunteer Nancy Jeffers attended the meditation session and had a dream later that night that artists were painting in the cave. When she told the administrators at the cave about her dream, they loved the idea. “Its the most amazing thing they they’ve ever done,” says Willman. “Who thinks of these things but people in Steelville?”

Spencer Meagher at work in Onondaga Cave. Photo by Ellen Bowles
Spencer Meagher at work in Onondaga Cave. Photo by Ellen Bowles

Willman has other tales from Steelville’s plein air event, including a visit to a farm along the Meramec River, where she was so entertained by her conversation with a sharp-as-a-tack, 105-year-old retired schoolteacher living on the premises that she returned the next day just to visit her, even though the retiree had the habit of always keeping one eye on the Kansas City Royals game on the television during their chat. But the cave painting activity is the one that the artists keep talking about.

"Underground Nocturne," by Spencer Meagher
“Underground Nocturne,” by Spencer Meagher
Queen's Canopy, the subject of Meagher's painting. Photo by Veronica Brown
Queen’s Canopy, the subject of Meagher’s painting. Photo by Veronica Brown

“At first blush, the experience harkens to nocturnes, without the bugs and wind, but with challenges intrinsic to a subject formed of water flowing through darkness,” Willman says. “These novel challenges leveled the playing field between novice and professional artist and resulted in more abstract paintings than typical of other venues. The dramatic cave formations were well-lit, creating strong contrasts between shape and shadow, but the ambient light was less than expected and some nocturne lights proved insufficient for color mixing. What appeared to be artists pumping up their colors was an inability to see local color on palette and canvas. Nathan Jones mixed dark colors only to find out later, in the light of day, that they were quite bright. Bryan Shaner contended with the deception of darkness and “the multiple layers of formations, which made it difficult to distinguish near from far.” Because the resulting paintings were unique and portrayed magnificent subjects of interest to area patrons, many sold quickly.”

"Underworld," by Nyle Gordon
“Underworld,” by Nyle Gordon

The eight-day event awarded prizes on every night — both purchase prizes and First, Second, and Third Place awards. It is located about two hours from St. Louis and 4 ½ hours from Kansas City. For more information, go here.


  1. i am so honored to have been a small part of this adventure. I am sure the artists realized that I was both very very excited as well as very very nervous about the event when we gave them the details the evening before. What a spectacular job done by the Director of the site as well as the Friends of Onondaga Cave Association. It would never have come together if it hadn’t been for them. Thank you for the article.

  2. I am so happy to find this article – thank you for the coverage of something great happening in Steelville.

  3. I was so captivated by the depth and values of Henryk Ptasiewicz’ interpretation of the Pipe Organ formation at Onondaga Cave, after purchasing it I realized it needed to hang at the cave to be appreciated by more people. It now is hanging in the classroom for many to enjoy and is in the first line of sight upon entering the facility. I am so grateful for the artists who participate in this plein air event, raising the bar higher each year.

  4. This is awesome, I am a Plein Air Artist but, never dreamed of painting underground !!! It had to have been an exciting adventure.

  5. I’m a volunteer for STARCO it was very exciting to be at the cave for the paint. The artist also seemed excited, except those perhaps didn’t have a head lamp! I purchased 2 of the caves paintings and they are proudly hanging in my great room.
    The arts council is having a Fall Plein Air also this year hope to see you all there.

  6. Thank you, Mr. Bahr, for shining a light on the creativity of the Steelville Arts Council volunteers who work tirelessly to support the arts and artists in small town Missouri. The artists are pleased, too, to be uplifted and share our work with the plein air world. We are truly grateful to you, Eric Rhoads, Stephen Doherty and the rest of the staff at Plein Air Magazine who have made it our mission to be a Plein Air Force!


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