“I was the only son of my mother and father, and I was exceedingly aspiring, and my daring was very great. I thought there was no enterprise in the world too mighty for me….and after I had achieved all the adventures that were in my own country, I equipped myself, and…at length it chanced that I came to the fairest valley in the world…”-Thomas Bulfinch (1796–1867). Age of Fable: Vol. III: The Age of Chivalry. 1913.
The following is an account of my trip to compete in Plein Air Easton 2008 in Easton, Maryland. Plein Air Easton is a plein air painting competition of the best quality.
Beginning the Journey
After two weeks of preparation and what seems like a lifetime of struggle, I pulled out of foggy and chilly Pacific Grove and headed for sunny and hot San Jose where I would spend the night in my fiance’s house, though she is away, traveling in Russia. Her house is near the airport. She asked me to water her garden. She has a lush garden, and after weeks of very hard work, it was a rosy, sun-filled pleasure to soak the tomatoes, beans, basil, lavender, roses, fig tree, apple tree, apricot tree, cala lilies, orchids and a hundred other plants that make up this ravishing place.
This night I would be alone and hoped to sleep early since the taxi would pick me up at 4:30am for a quick ride to the airport and a flight to Baltimore, Maryland, where I am to pick up a car and drive an hour or so to Easton, on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay.
There, for the next week, I and another 40 artists will compete au plein air in 100 degree, 100% humidity. But it is fortunate, and it will be a wonderful experience, because the competition organizers take care of the artists. I have been given a late 1800s four bedroom tenant house that has been completely restored and modernized, while they’ve kept the original feel. I spent a week in this house two years ago. It is located on 80 acres of farmland, a beautiful old house on an estate called Grafton Manour. Silence. Beauty. I don’t believe in ghosts, but there ARE three in this house. I’ve sent word ahead to my hosts, Doris and Bill Nielsen, to let them know their old friend Robert is coming. Don’t want to surprise them too much!
There are so many good artists in this competition that it can be disheartening. So, I try only to compete with myself or, should I say, against myself. I have said often that the biggest challenge of plein air painting, the art of painting outdoors, is not the environment but the mind. But that’s another essay.
The first day was a disaster, though I was elated to be back in Maryland. But I had arrived at 10:30 the night before and was up in the morning to hot and humid weather. I made the classic mistake of driving around looking for places to paint. I mean, driving and driving. The thing is, just pick a spot and paint! Get into it right away. But no, I wasted too much time and couldn’t really make the connection with the landscape that I had hoped. I won’t share the two paintings that I managed to do. They will never see daylight, I’m sure.
But I am staying in a lovely place (see the photo at right). I have this old farmhouse to myself. Well, me and the ghosts. They remember me from two years ago and so we are old friends now and they pretty much leave me alone. That was not true the first year. But that’s another story (see below).
The weather in Maryland in July is a challenge. 100 degrees and 100% humidity. You learn to “swim” in the air. Unfortunately, the air is populated with biting “sheep flies”. A good dose of Off! sprayed all over yourself and you are good for a while. They are persistent. The first day I didn’t have any spray and so just tolerated the heat and the biting flies.
Today is the third day of painting and I am taking a break for a few hours to recuperate from hours of standing in searing temperatures. My back hurts, my feet are throbbing. The only reason I don’t stop painting completely is that there are about 40 top artists out there, scattered across the Talbot County landscape, not that I see them. Generally, one paints alone, but not always, as I will tell you later. There is much commaraderie but, make no mistake, this is a serious competition.
Here are the paintings I am willing to show so far:
It’s been a recurrent theme here in ancient Maryland: Ghosts. First, the house I am staying in has three. Now, before you lose respect for me and tune me out, hear me out. First of all, I don’t believe in ghosts. I repeat, I don’t believe in ghosts. That’s why, when I first stepped into this house three years ago, I was shocked at my response. A serious chill ran down my spine and I had a clear feeling that I wasn’t alone in the house. I kept feeling like someone was stepping up behind me. Going to the bathroom in the middle of the night was terrifying, I crawled along the wall looking both ways. Finally, I took drastic measures after the second day. I talked to the ghosts. I swallowed my sense of stupidity and I introduced myself and told them what I was doing in their house. We established a truce and, believe it or not, there was no more sneaking up on me while I slept. Whenever I would come back from painting, I would open the door and shout “It’s only me!”. They seemed comfortable with that arrangement.
My fiance joined me later in the week that year and I said nothing about the ghosts, knowing that she is very sensitive and, if there really were ghosts, she would know it. So I decided to test her. Later in the evening, as we settled in, I very casually asked “So, what do you think of the house?” She turned to me with a very sly look and said “You mean the ghosts? There are three.” Chills down the spine again! “Why didn’t you say anything?!”, I asked. She said she didn’t want to freak me out, but since I had asked…
That was three years ago, and here I am in the same house again, surrounded by 86 acres of empty farmland, an old cemetery from the 1800s, and my friends. When I arrived Monday night at almost 11pm, I opened the door and said “It’s only me!”. Then I immediately had a long talk, explaining that they could help me by letting me get a good night’s sleep and not sneaking up on me while I slept. In fact, as a token of my trust, I told them I would sleep with my back to the room. It was their choice, they could sneak up or let me get my rest. They left me alone and we are all quite happy.
Today, the artists were required to paint within the town limits of Easton. Personally, I hate painting in town, especially on these blistering days, surrounded by the brick buildings and on narrow sidewalks, with tourists huddling around you. I just find it hot and tiring and relentless on the feet. I headed to town and to the plein air headquarters, a coffee shop called Cafe Easton, where I could get internet access. Feeling very exhausted and in pain from standing for so long, I just sat on the couch in the coffe shop and updated my website. Meanwhile, artists who I have met came in and joined me. They were also escaping the heat. They had painted in town and were fried.
We discussed options. There is an old, derelict house on the outskirts of town that haunts a great grove of sycamores. The house is a three-story mansion Mulberry Hill, the third story in the style of a mansard roof. Very derelict and very grand and very, very spooky. This lovely place, falling to ruin, could star in a ghost movie. I took my time and walked around the outside of the house, trying to find a shady spot with a good angle of the ruin. Out of curiosity, I turned the knob of the back door and found the house was open. I opened the door and there was that chill again. I shut the door immediately. Part of my wanting to go in and explore the three floors, part of my terrified of more ghosts. Besides, we weren’t supposed to enter the house. But there it was, open…
One of the excellent artists, Frankie Johnson, said she would go into the house with me. “Really? Are you serious?” Yes. “Well…uh…o…k…, I think.”, I said, thinking she has more guts that I. So we went in. Imagine grandeur with ancient peeling wallpaper, arched doorways, beautiful floors, marble fireplaces, and a three-story winding staircase. We made our way up the stairs, still carpeted with the remnants of persian style runners. No signs of “life”. My initial chill was just my imagination. I didn’t feel any presence.
On the third floor, the floor that is behind the slanting walls of the mansard roof, with it’s little attic window, we entered an empty room with peeling beige wallpaper with faded red roses imprinted on it. The room was not totally empty. The closet was open and there was one thing hanging in the closet. A wedding dress, with veil, and a pair of shoes.
Now, here was one of those moments when, as a painter, you are presented with a choice. To paint or not to paint. I can not explain the rollercoaster that was my mind at that moment. I told my friend that she could leave me there alone, I wanted to think. Now, why would I paint this odd scene? The human drama it implies is enough reason. There are many reasons not to, but I chose the fact that, this afternoon, it was stifling hot in this upper floor, and it was spooky, but mostly it was hot.
I’ve told other artists about this and everyone believes I must paint it, and I plan, as of now, to do that in the morning before the heat of the day turns the wedding dress room into an oven. We shall see if I have the nerve…
Last Day of Painting
Aside from Saturday’s Quick Draw, and the possibility of painting Sunday, where only the winners are allowed to paint in a mini-competition, the days of competitive painting at Plein Air Easton are over, for me. Like many other painters, I am exhausted, sore, dehydrated, bitten, burned, and filled with a sense that I did everything I could do. I gave it my all. At least I have convinced myself that this is true.
This morning I was still undecided about painting in the attic of the old Mulberry Hill mansion, however. All night I thought about the wedding dress. By morning a sense of the inevitability of painting the dress had set in. Not particularly happy about this, I nevertheless decided that I must do it or forever regret not doing it. So I decided that I should approach the building with a sense of respect. Respect for any lingering spirits, for old memories, for the many lives passed within these walls. So with this deep and conscious sense of respect I entered the tumbling down building and climbed the spiral staircase to the third floor attic room and the closet with the wedding dress.
I set up and painted for a few hours with a fine feeling that I was doing the right thing and that it was going well. Though a greater painter could have done justice to this sublime subject , still I felt I had risen to a difficult challenge. By the time I ascended these stairs to accomplish the painting, the wedding dress had become known among the competing plein air painters. A rare sense of joy arose somewhere mid-way through the painting. Conscious of the strange situation and yet the utter peacefulness of it, I knew that, no matter what the results, it was worth standing in this unused room for hours. As I looked at the dress, so many possible stories rose and fell. And I pictured the bride, her lovely face, her lipstick, her bridesmaids. I pictured the day that someone walked into this room and hung the dress in this closet and walked away.
See more about this painting at http://www.robertlewisart.com/catalog/554.html .
Friday is the Collector’s Exhibit. All of the paintings done in the competition will be hung at the Academy Museum of Art and collectors, those who have paid the entrance fee, will get a first look and a first chance to buy. Saturday the show is open to the public. Sunday is the Sunday Brunch, a big party in honor of the artists. It also features the mini-competition I mentioned above.
The Collector’s Party
The Academy Museum of Art, an accredited museum in Easton, Maryland, is host to the Preview Party and the Collector’s Party, held back to back tonight beginning at 6. At the Preview Party, the competing artists can view the exhibition of the competition pieces and vote for an Artist’s Choice award. Each artist has submitted two pieces for the competition and more pieces for replacements. Only the two competition pieces are hanging at the beginning and these are the only pieces that are judged.
At 7pm the doors are opened to the collectors. The collectors have paid good money to attend this party and have a chance to buy paintings before the public show on Saturday. There are many volunteers standing by in case someone want to purchase a painting. The collector lets the volunteer know his choice, a red dot is placed on the painting label, and the volunteer escorts the collector to the cashier. Within minutes, the sold painting is removed and a replacement is hung. This all happens very fast so as to maximize sales. The organization is something to be admired.
As this is going on the artists are milling about in the crowd schmoozing as best they can. Generally, I think every artist is full of doubt at his/her choices of competition pieces. After all, there are forty some artists who have hung very good pieces. Some of these pieces are clearly superior. You think, I should have done that! Oh, this is so much better than mine. Ugh, I’m a failure. There you are, hung up for all to see. All the choices you made are there for everyone to see and judge. Every choice of color, every stroke, every choice of subject. This is the moment when you think to yourself, “What was I thinking?!” But it’s too late. Now is the moment.
The wedding dress, which I renamed “Left Behind” raised a question, would it qualify for the category called Vanishing Landscapes. The Vanishing Landscapes category requires depicting certain historic properties that are slated for demolition or removal. Eventually the painting was allowed in that category. One of the artists, Larry Moore, had talked about the dress. He suggested leaving out the bit of white carpet in the foreground. When I woke this morning I realized he was right and so at 6am I scraped off and the painting was complete.
Later, during the Collector’s Party, after the collectors have had plenty of time to buy up some work, the awards ceremony takes place. This year’s judge was well-known artist Gay Faulkenberry. She announced the winners. First place went to my old friend Greg LaRock, an artist I met a few years ago in San Luis Obispo at their plein air contest. Greg and I were put up in the same host house. Other winners included some new friend’s, including Scott Tallman Powers, a young man with a bright future who certainly would have painted “Left Behind” better than I, and Jill Carter. Tim Bell, one of my favorites, won the Vanishing Landcapes award with his painting of a skipjack. He is the master of skipjacks, that’s for sure.
I did not win any awards but two of my paintings sold immediately. It was nice that the first one to sell, “Garden of Arbors” was painted at the house of the mother of a woman who purchased a painting from me three years ago. Her brother bought this one. And later in the evening a friend of his purchased the “Sunflowers”. Both of these paintings removed, my “Cornfield through Pines” was put up. No interest so far in “Left Behind”, other than just a curiousity. I doubt that it will ever be purchased, being such an odd subject.
It was a grand evening of meeting new artists, visiting with old acquaintances, and catching up with staff and collectors from previous years. A precious time that is gone so soon. Now back now at Grafton Manour and tucked in cozy at the guest house, I look forward to recovering from so much work. For some reason, perhaps just age, this has been particularly physically painful. All joints and muscles ache and the aspirin and ibuprofen barely make a dent. One gets a sense of one’s mortality.
I took the day off today though, after delivering my pieces to the museum this morning, spending the day napping, reading, and, at one point, exploring the little cemetary that my host has uncovered nearby on the property. Bill Nielsen has spent a small fortune removing an overgrown tangle that strangled the stones. He’s exposed about twenty graves from the 1800s. But some of the stones are broken and lie about like a jigsaw puzzle scattered on the floor. Sallie Kilmon’s is lying embedded face up, toppled over decades ago, seperated from its base. I sat on the base of Sallie Kilmon’s grave and meditated on the place and the saying on her headstone, “Cherished in life, in death thou art remembered.” I wondered if Sallie is one of my ghosts. Sitting there in the quiet, the heat, and the humidity, I said aloud “Sallie, you’ve been gone 128 years now…thou art remembered.”
Tomorrow will be taken up packing, shipping, and attending the final artist brunch on an estate hear here.
As I said earlier, I woke up Friday morning with a change in mind for the wedding dress, which is now called “Left Behind”, a name suggested by the Nielsen’s.
This was a wonderful journey in which I learned a number of very important things that I can share later. Throughout the week I was in pain. My joints and my back hurt a lot and I lived on ibuprofen and aspirin just to be able to do what I had to do. This was not fun. On top of that the heat was relentless and so was the schedule. By far, this has been the toughest competition of all. And not just because of that. There were a lot a fine painters in this competition, some I know well, others I know better now. It was a lot of fun to compete as professionals. A lot of support goes around and we manage to put it all into perspective, I think: You win some, you lose some. But most importantly, you show up.
Okay, One More Thing…
Just showing up certainly is a lesson learned. And perserverance. Just rolling out of bed and doing what you ought to do. So, I’m showing up for one last entry in my Plein Air Easton journal…
The Quick Draw contest is on Saturdy morning, 10 to 12. That’s how long you have to paint in downtown Easton, then you pack up your gear and hoof it over a couple of blocks to the street they’ve blocked off. There you set up your easel again and put your framed painting on the easel. There is a big crowd of people looking at the work. This outdoor exhibition fills an entire block. And it is hot! Hot is not a good word for this but I can think of another word that starts with an h that would work. Here we stand for two hours while the public decides what to buy and the judges decide what they like. This is followed by another awards ceremony.
Here is why I showed up for this despite being sick of painting: if you win the Quick Draw you get a chance to compete at the Sunday Brunch. The winner’s painting at the Sunday Brunch competition gets his painting purchased by the Academy Museum of Art. So it is one last chance to make a sale and get some more glory.
The Sunday Brunch is an all out bash. Everyone is long white dresses and sailing buffs. So chic. These people have money. This year the Brunch was hosted at a 600 acre estate on the Chesapeake. See my photos. As I arrived the winners of the competition and the Quick Draw were scattered here and there, painting, over the 600 acres. Golf carts would take you from artist to artist. Or you could just hang out, drinking bloody mary’s, mimosas, or whatever you want, and eating from a buffet that stretched 100 feet. All very elegant and fun, because many of these people, including the Coca-cola heirs, you have met before. So it’s time to catch up.
Then it is time to say congratulations and goodbyes to all of the artist and patron friends you have made, and to take time to personally thank as many of the organizers and volunteers that you can.
My hosts from this year and two years ago, the Nielsens, were there, as were my hosts from last year, the Hamiltons. I made sure everyone sat together and we had a fine time. I will see the Hamiltons in the morning to say goodbye over coffee and to leave them with 6 large boxes of paintings, frames, my easel, and my paints. They will take them to UPS for me. The Nielsens, my hosts this year, asked me to come to dinner tonight. “We know you are busy, but you have to eat!” Lovely people.
A big surprise when I went to pick up the remaining paintings, “Cornfield through Pines” and “Left Behind”: the wedding dress had sold. It had honestly never crossed my mind that this painting would sell. I just wanted people to see it because of the stories it implied. But, there was a blank spot on the wall. I asked where the painting was and the museum said that if the wall is bland the painting is sold. A few volunteers had to convince me. This was like winning a prize, I was so happy.
After picking up my last pieces at the Museum and feeling very good, I went back to Grafton Manour and had dinner with the Nielsen’s, then finished boxing and packing.
At sunrise, I stood outside the sweet house and just absorbed the great, green expanse of the place, the soy fields, the distant cemetery with Sallie Kilmon’s grave, the near barn glowing orange in the morning sun, a light breeze, not hot yet, played over my skin, a distant bird called, and far over the fields I could see the little herd of happy deer. I was supremely happy and grateful, a true moment of joy, and especially as I looked at the rising sun, standing as I was in the very spot where three years ago I painted that red sun rising, and that scene seemed the perfect ending to it all.
I left Grafton Manour and stopped by the Hamilton’s on the way, leaving them my boxes to ship for me, and having a final cup of coffee with George and Christie Hamilton.
Joseph Campbell used to talk about the “hero”. In the archetypal hero story there are classic elements: the hero leaves the world on a quest, encounters magical helpers and struggle, and, in the end, brings back a “boon” to mankind. Presumptuous as it does sound, I have always thought of plein air painting as a hero’s story. I see myself as a hero when I go out into the world to bring back a boon to mankind, and this is true of every plein air painter. As you can see by the stories above, it is a struggle into another world, a world beyond the ordinary, where painters brave pain, insects, animals, tourists, heat and exhaustion to capture the beautiful essence of the world. We encounter magical helpers along the way, other artists, our hosts, friends, people who lend encouragement and help make it all possible, and all the volunteers and organizers of the event. We bring our experience and our vision back to the world on canvas. This is our boon to mankind. But there is a boon to us, the artists, as well. Plein air painting is a kind of furnace of experience that burns away unnecessary things, thoughts, attitudes, fears, burns them away and, at last, leaves us with the clear knowledge that the boon we bring back to mankind we also bring back to ourselves.