Finding inspiration outdoors

Artists participating in this year's Paint Annapolis get the chance to leave their studios and work outside, while interacting with the public.

September 17, 2005|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

On a sunlit afternoon in Annapolis, Kathleen Kotarba painted a watercolor of the historic houses on Francis Street.

Gary Pendleton depicted the statue of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney that overlooks the State House grounds, while Abigail McBride caught the colors of a rose bush in the sun on Pinkney Street.

Plainly, to judge from the number of artists setting up easels by the water, State Circle and church spires, the main way to paint scenes of the picturesque state capital was in plein air -- a French phrase applied to creating art outdoors, a pursuit that has crossed over recently from the West Coast.

Since Thursday, 25 jury-chosen artists have been busy painting two plein air pictures apiece that are worthy of the 4th annual Paint Annapolis 2005. Pictures in oil, water colors or pastels are eligible. The event ends with a reception tomorrow.

A mood of friendly competition prevailed among artists -- some well-known, some not -- gathered from points around the Mid-Atlantic region. Before they dispersed throughout downtown Annapolis and the town's historic district, they were mindful that the best-in-show prize is $2,000, said Sharon Littig, 37, the lead organizer and a participating artist.

Artists are free to paint any subject within those borders and may cross the bridge to nearby Eastport if they seek the evening light from there.

Littig said the reception will show the week's art for sale, and will be free to the public. "We'll have 50 new works that didn't exist before," she said.

Artist A.J. Alper of Baltimore impulsively chose St. Anne's Episcopal Church as his subject because, he said, some birds circling the spire of the 1866 building made it seem more majestic. His art benefits from his being out in the open, witnessing the vagaries of weather and light and exchanging a few words with observers, he said.

"I get excited about spontaneity, when an artist has to make a decision on his feet," Alper said. "It's hard in the studio to capture light and subtleties.

"There's something intriguing, when it's exposed to the public at the point of contact," he added.

Several artists said it was healthy to depart from the state of "being holed up and introverted in our studios." as McBride, the 31-year-old rose bush painter, put it.

An artist and teacher whom several others regard as a paragon, Lee A. Boynton of Annapolis focused on a pink house on Fleet Street yesterday. Pausing from his work-in-progress, he said the event was his idea, as a way to break down the separateness between artists and society.

"Only rarely does the public have a chance to get involved in the magic," he said yesterday as he waited for the light to change on the narrow residential street.

However collegial, plein air painting is still an individual pursuit. So keen was artist Will Williams of Towson on seeing the sunrise on the bay that he rose at 4:30 Thursday -- a bit earlier than necessary.

In the early-morning light that was later clouded by rainfall, Williams painted a dinghy in the harbor near City Dock -- a cropped image, as if it was a photo in close-up.

Several hours later, as he displayed the work to some fellow artists who admired its angularity, the Maryland Institute College of Art graduate said, "It [plein air painting] is a pleasant experience all around."

Kotarba, serenely working under an umbrella, sat on the State House grounds for a clearer view of details, such as a weathervane shaped as a teapot. At 52, she said, "This is a good stage of my life to return to art."

The executive director of Baltimore's historic preservation agency, Kotarba said: "I've always been attuned to the aesthetics of architecture. I love the architecture here."

Not far away was Pendleton of North Beach, who had just finished a watercolor of Taney's statue in the State House shade.

Pendleton had mixed feelings about his seated subject, noting, "It's a great piece of statuary, but he [Taney] is a tragic sort of figure, ignoble." Taney's place in American history is as the author of the 1857 Supreme Court Dred Scott decision, which explicitly excluded all African-Americans from citizenship.

But beholding the September sun-dappled trees helped to overcome historical flaws. "Here the light vibrates," Pendleton said. "And I go into a painting trance."

Jean Brinton Jaecks of Millersville, a painter who teaches classes at St. John's College and workshops at the Smithsonian Institution and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, said painting outdoors is exhilarating, something all artists must try. "Once you paint plein air, you know. .... You just enjoy the day, feel the warmth or coolness and the emotion of the subject," she said, after spending the better part of a day painting a tea shop.

Tomorrow's show will be judged by Eleanor Jones Harvey, chief curator at the Smithsonian Institution's American Art Museum.

The reason for clustering all 25 artists in one fairly small outdoor space, organizers said, was to encourage plein air painters to strike up conversations with people passing by and vice versa.

Said Littig: "We want to be visible to the public. We want people to come see us paint and ask us questions."

Sponsored by the Mid-Atlantic Plein Air Painters Association, tomorrow's free exhibit starts at 4 p.m. at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase Street, Annapolis.

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