by Mary Young, Steelville Arts Council
My first introduction to the world of plein air was about three years ago, when I just happened to be standing near the campground host at Red Bluff Park in Davisville, Missouri, when three men from Steelville Arts Council approached the host to inquire about bringing 50 artists to the park for a day of painting. It had been over 30 years since I picked up my paintbrushes, but immediately I was drawn into the conversation when I interjected, “I wanna paint.”
Two days later, I signed up for membership in the Steelville Arts Council (STARCO). Not only did I participate in the next three plein air events, I was asked to be on the plein air committee. The non-painters of the non-profit organization thought it would be worthwhile to have one of their artists on the committee, someone who could find out firsthand what it’s like out in the fields from the artists’ point of view. The council is always looking for ways to improve the experience for the artists who’ve visited Steelville every June since 2012.
It’s like a family reunion in late spring as familiar faces bring their colorful palettes to our little town. For artists who need a frame, we have a woodworker on call who makes reasonably priced frames to order, usually overnight. Friendly local residents open their homes and hearts to the artists, providing a private and comfortable place to rest each night. Many host families provide meals and whatever else is needed to accommodate the plein air participants. In turn, the artists often leave a charming little painting behind as a token of gratitude for the hospitality.
We schedule our plein air committee meetings at Gallery Zeke, located on Main Street, Steelville. During the event we display a wall of artist bios, with a favorite photo chosen by the artist. This enables the community to learn a little about these fascinating folks who can be spotted the first week of June with their easels and shade umbrellas on hillsides and neighboring farms. In the evenings, painters will be found under the streetlights, covering canvases with nocturnal scenes of ice cream parlors, stained-glass church windows, or gas station pumps with old rusted pickup trucks. Each year we find more and more local volunteers wanting to join in the annual event.
The vast landscapes of Crawford County, Missouri, and neighboring communities offer unlimited possibilities for painting locations. Many of the selected sites include Missouri State Parks and family farms surrounded by Mark Twain National Forest. The rolling hills of the Ozarks offer streams, barns, log cabins, forests, ghost towns, and even caves as subjects of plein air paintings. The beauty of rural Missouri is displayed by one of our favorite native-born Missourians Billyo O’Donnell in his book Painting Missouri — a complete collection of 115 original oil paintings that will be on display July 28 through September 2 at St. Louis Artists’ Guild.
Each year we add more family farms to our list of plein air sponsors, with many families hoping to have the painters returning again and again. The artists are treated like special guests, with chilled water bottles, cookies, snacks, and sometimes lunch. This year we had a sunset paint at Yeary Farm complete with lasagna dinner and homemade desserts. It’s no wonder many painters have told us STARCO is their favorite plein air.
Steelville Arts Council’s 2017 plein air event had one of its best fundraisers to date. STARCO selects outstanding art judges, awarding monetary prizes on a daily basis along with four Honorable Mentions. Participating artists went home with a combined total nearing $25,000 in sales and prize money. The artists do not have to earn ribbons to feel like winners in Steelville because most judges generously provide personal perspectives on all the paintings.
As an amateur painter, I never dreamed of winning a ribbon, but I jumped for joy the day my name was called for an Honorable Mention. A cheerful applause rings out from all the other artists for each of their competitors. I’ve personally interviewed many of the participants for publishing stories in our local newspaper. I can honestly say, I’ve never witnessed a sour grapes attitude among the artists about one another. Likewise, STARCO welcomes input from the artists and we earnestly work toward making the event enjoyable and profitable for all who attend.
Over 100 guests joined us on the last evening of our week-long event at the gala auction. The award-winning paintings are celebrated with an enjoyable evening of food and friendship under a painted sky at a nearby winery. The Arts Council volunteers work hard to make this event exceptional, with attention given to every detail from beautiful table centerpieces to music played by a professional pianist. On the auction block, a paragraph written by each artist is read aloud, explaining the inspiration behind the composition of the painting. We found our family of artists have a talent for poetic words, as well as painting skills.
The inspiration is what brings me to the reason I wanted to share this story. This year, rather than painting, I decided to go out on location and photograph the artists at work. I found it interesting to see the wide variety of ways the painters set up their stations and begin their work. Even their palettes of oils, pastels, and watercolors, I found to be art in their own delightful way. On our Facebook page we posted an album titled “Claim your Palette” where the artists had fun recognizing each other’s style. Most of the artists would say, “Oh, it’s a mess,” when they saw me snapping pictures of their palettes and backpacks. But what I found the most inspiring were the artists themselves.
It was an enlightening experience, photographing a country landscape along with the talented painter, the easel, the palette, and the canvas capturing the plein air essence of the vista before them. Often I would say, “Beautiful!” after taking a picture and the artists would reply, “Thank you,” not realizing I was referring to them at work. It was not likely that one artist would ask of another to stop what they were doing to take a cell phone picture. Now these very individualized photographs can be viewed by the public on Steelville Arts Council and Gallery Zeke Facebook pages.
In the end, the artists showed their appreciation for the photos capturing moments of the natural process of painting in the great outdoors. Perhaps the photographs will inspire someone else to pick up their paintbrushes after many decades and get out there to paint in the open air. Isn’t that what plein air painting is all about?
This article was featured in PleinAir Today, a weekly e-newsletter from PleinAir magazine. To start receiving PleinAir Today for free, click here.