Sedona Plein Air: I Call Them Heroes

Note: This is Part 3, the final post, of the account of Sedona Plein Air Festival 2010

In which the artist(s) may not have seen themselves as heroes yet, nevertheless, they became heroes.

Before we go any further I want you to click on the first image below. (The image will enlarge and, after that, you can click on each image to advance the slideshow.) In these photos of the Sedona competing artists by photographer Tim Poly, look at their faces and/or their demeanor.

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Do you see the fully-engaged people I see? Serious and yet lighthearted, present and focused yet open to others, reaching out for something special and bringing that thing back to humankind? It’s not to much to see or say this because that is exactly what is happening. If we are to accept Campbell’s definition of a hero then here is a gallery of heroes, those who leave the ordinary world, encounter challenges and “magical” helpers along the way, and bring back a “boon” to humanity. I don’t want to harp on this theme too much; I’ve said enough in the past on this (See “Magical Helpers”). But, if the artists themselves have not heard it, then it is good to repeat: plein air painters are heroes in the classic sense. But I will not belabor that idea any further since I may offend some by the use of the term hero, which has taken on an different meaning these day.

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An interesting article published in the Huffington Post entitled “Debate: Must ‘Plein Air’ be Defined?” quotes a number of plein air artists, including Nancy Tankersley (shown here in this Tim Poly photo) who competed in Sedona Plein Air, about the definition of “plein air”. Read what she, Ken Christensen, and Camille Przewodek have to say as they are far more articulate. Nevertheless, my own feeling is that the painting should be completed on location and that some tweaking in the studio is perfectly reasonable. But don’t tell me plein air is taking a photo or sketching the scene then doing the painting in the comfort of your studio. That dog don’t hunt. I really do not care what the impressionists did regarding plein air either. Here is my definition, and it is all tied in with the “hero” aspect of the challenge: Plein air paintings are essentially finished on location. Period. End of sentence.

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That dog does hunt. Why do I feel strongly about this? For the same reason that came up several years ago when I was part of the founding group of what became the Monterey Bay Plein Air Painters Association (MBPAPA). We wrangled over the by-laws as to who could be a member and why and eventually came to the thorny subject of “plein air”, what it is, and why. I do admit I was stubborn about this, but I would not be part of a plein air organization that defined plein air as anything less that stated above. But why?

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Take a look at those faces again. The serious joy of this endeavor is rooted in the deep, full experience of standing in a place long enough to not only paint it but to become a part of it. For example, I was painting a lovely pastoral scene on the hillside of an old mountain winery in California when a small group of deer wandered through the scene. Now, I resisted painting them in for fear of falling victim to the Disney Factor wherein your painting become unbelievable and unbelievably cute. I continued to paint quietly and the deer wandered off. Or so I thought. About an hour later, finally realizing it would be wise to step back from the canvas, I stepped back. Just one step. Around me stood the group of deer, five in all, within reach. You have to stand in a place quietly for a long time for wild animals to come to trust you. At other times, I have had coyotes trot past me within two feet when he clearly could have taken a wider and more cautious circuit. Birds sing in full voice after an hour of painting and one can hear songs one would never have heard just strolling along the wild path.

But that is the the magical and fun part of plein air. More often it is beating sun burning your cheeks and arms, insects tormenting your eyes and ears, winds threatening to make a lovely kite of your canvas, all of these things and, worse, tourists asking Very Stupid Questions, as Pooh would put it. (I shall list these questions in another post.) Suffice to say, if the sheer fatigue, blistering sun, annoying insects, sniffing dogs, and pestering wind do not get you then the tourists will. This is plein air. None of this happens when you sit in your cozy little studio with NPR playing on the radio while you sip your tall latte. Oh, no, no, no, you don’t get to call that plein air. That dog definitely do not hunt!

The hero leaves the ordinary world on a quest, struggles with great adversity,  and brings back a “boon” for humankind. Plein air painters leave the ordinary world, struggle with great adversity, and brings back a piece of beauty for us to see. A boon for humankind.

– The End of Part 3 –

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