Story by Michelle Brosco Christian
A plein air artist's plight might be compared to the postal worker's unofficial motto: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers [artists] from the swift completion of their appointed rounds [paintings]." Painting "en plein air," a French term meaning "in the open air," is a tradition still popular and practiced today in Southern Maryland, but it's not for the weak of heart.
"We stay put for a while," said plein air painter Sally V. Parker, who grew up in Indian Head. "We stand for two to three hours and see turtles and beavers … there's a lot to see. And I've only been blown away [by wind] once!"
Parker is part of a threesome who call themselves "The Intrepid Painters" because they paint outdoors no matter the weather - "in wind, rain and 100 degrees," said Parker. She, Barbara Stepura and Lynn Mehta painted every week starting in the fall of 2009 on the relatively new Indian Head Rail Trail. Their collected works, "Rail Trail Impressions," will be on display this spring at the Mattawoman Creek Art Center.
White Plains resident Stepura said, "You have to paint it today because it won't be there tomorrow," meaning that the seasons drastically change each scene and things are never quite the same from year to year.
While many plein air painters seek company for security reasons while out in nature areas, it remains a solitary pursuit, said Mehta. "We're mainly quiet while we're out and we paint furiously," she said. Rapid painting is almost a given since an artist must capture the scene and its particular light at that moment. While Mehta is often able to complete a painting in two to three hours, Stepura and Parker said they many times have to come back another day, or finish in their studio.
Besides being quick, the outdoor painter must be plucky as well. First, there's the carting of their materials out into nature. For oil painters, that includes canvas, paints, knives, brushes, an easel, water and other solvents. Stepura also says they've learned to protect themselves against the elements, warding off attacks of bugs, the wind and the sun. "I always have a big white umbrella," she said.
All three found sites along the rail trail pleasant and fairly accessible and they've discovered a wide variety of scenes to paint. "The wildflowers were spectacular this year," said Parker. "There were some beautiful pink wild roses and black-eyed Susans."
The Indian Head to White Plains trail is 13 miles long, according to Tom Roland, chief of Charles County Parks & Grounds. There are approximately 16,000 miles of converted rails to trails in the U.S., he said. St. Mary's County has begun its own Rails-to-Trails project. Three Notch Trail will be constructed along the 28-mile, county-owned railroad right-of-way, which runs from Hughesville in Charles County to Lexington Park at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station. Part of the trail is already complete. And in Calvert County, proposals exist for at least two different rail trails.
As for the Intrepid Painters, their next project is to paint Southern Maryland waterways - of course, en plein air and despite the weather.
To learn more about plein air painting and regional outings, visit the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association's website at www.mapapa.org
Upcoming Plein air events
"Rail Trail Impressions," on display April 29-June 4, with an opening reception on May 1 from 1-4 p.m., at the Mattawoman Creek Art Center. www.mattawomanart.org
Solomons Paint the Town, a plein air painting event at Solomons Island and Annmarie Garden. Artists paint May 12-14, with a "Quick Draw" competition (part of the Solomons Plein Air Street Faire) May 14 from 2-4 p.m. on Solomons Island. Exhibit/sale at Annmarie Garden May 15-29. Regular admission fees apply. www.annmariegarden.org/annmarie2/content/solomons-paint-town