ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
July 22, 2004


En plein air: Painting outdoors with nine women artists

On the cover: En Plein Air, painting in oil by Linda Mitchell



en plein air French for "in the open air," used chiefly to describe paintings that have been executed outdoors rather than in the studio.

Artlex Art Dictionary


TERRY OATS SAW THE MOUNTAIN LION a heartbeat or two before the animal saw her. She had just stepped back to study the painting on her portable easel when the creature appeared around a bend in the road, heading straight toward her on his descent to the Mad River. When he realized she was there, the lion froze in mid-stride 30 yards away, his eyes dark and wary. "I knew the wind was still blowing, the birds were still chirping, but I couldn't hear any of it, not even my own thoughts," Terry said, describing a "column of silence" that enveloped her after the first jolt of shock.

The two remained immobile for an indeterminate time, eyes locked, simultaneously awaiting a first move. "The fog had settled in and time felt -- different -- so I don't know how long it really was," she said.

[Terry Oats at easel]This close encounter took place on the final day of our five-day "ladies' plein-air painting trip," in a wild and remote region of Humboldt County up and over Kneeland, and under the Iaqua Buttes. Nine visual artists had come together to work directly from nature, and on previous days of this excursion, others had been working in the same vicinity. On this day, Terry was alone.

Since I had been painting a few yards away just the day before, down a rocky embankment closer to the river, it's easy for me to picture exactly where Terry was standing. The lion would have been slightly uphill from her, well within pouncing distance. Her dust-coated white truck would have been parked downhill, to her right. She was standing at the edge of the man-made, almost vertical dirt road leading up to the farmhouse -- and safety.

In fact, it was around the dinner table at this very farmhouse the night before that we had all been discussing that dreadful story about the woman in southern California who was mauled and very nearly killed by a mountain lion a few weeks before. "The lion had her head in his jaws and was dragging her into the bushes..." the story had gone, told with dramatic flair by our hostess, Liz Pierson. Was Terry thinking about that story when her own mountain lion later appeared? "I wasn't aware of thinking or feeling anything until it was over," Terry remembered. "It was just a matter of act and react. Act -- react. I was operating on pure instinct."

The memory of something she had recently read flittered through Terry's consciousness: A person should never crouch down or run, but should instead try to appear larger than the animal. She extended her arms up and over her head. The cat bent his neck low to the ground. "Uh-oh. Not good," she interpreted (perhaps incorrectly), and slowly lowered her arms. The animal lifted his head. "Better," she decided. She waited. Finally she took a cautious step to the side, toward the protection of the truck. The lion raised a tentative paw and took an equally slow step backward. They continued on, step for step. Side step, back step, side, back.

By the time Terry reached the safety of her vehicle, her mountain lion was disappearing, backwards, into the forest. As she scanned the woods for movement, her heart pounding furiously, the animal poked his head out from behind a tree, quickly tucked it back, then peeked around the other side of the trunk. He retreated further into the forest, popped his head up over a bush, then finally vanished for good.

Above left, Terry Oats. [Photo by Linda Mitchell]
Below right, Terry Oats at her palette. [Photo by Carrie Grant]

Women en plein air

[Terry holding brushes, an dabbing paint from pallet on easel]It seems completely fitting to me that Terry's wildlife encounter happened on the final day of our painting trip. Her story provided a grand finale for an excursion dominated by compelling, often spine-tingling plein air stories, lived and shared around the Pierson farmhouse dinner table each night by this group of mature (all 50ish) professionals. Artists who work in a variety of media with vastly different styles and methods, these women were no strangers to direct and primal encounters with nature.

In addition to our hostess Liz, included in the trip were Kathy O'Leary, Ingrid Nickelsen and Judy Evenson, all oil painters like Terry Oats and myself; Carol Stafford, a watercolorist; Carrie Grant, a photographer; Joan Dunning, an accomplished painter as well as a published author and illustrator of three books on nature subjects; and Becky Evans -- recently featured in The 30,000 Salmon Project: a Concurrence and Water/Shed, dual exhibits at Humboldt State University's First Street Gallery in Eureka -- whose mixed media art is more difficult to pinpoint.

"I haven't found a term to categorize my work," said Becky, a longtime associate professor at College of the Redwoods. "I'm not exactly a painter or sculptor because my work entails both. Maybe you could call me a `land' artist -- I don't know -- but my work is very dependent on having a direct experience on site. I go out into the land and respond to what I see and observe."

This direct experience with nature is at the heart of creating art "en plein air." Generally associated with the French Impressionists, the practice of completing a painting on site (more or less) actually originated much earlier, seen most notably in work by 18th and 19th century English artists like John Constable and Richard Parks Bonington, as well as painters from the French Barbizon School. The development of more easily portable equipment, especially paint sold in collapsible tubes, enhanced the popularity of the practice.

Plein air painting, like every other area in the arts, has traditionally been dominated by men. The American West, however, has a long, rich heritage of women who have found their inspiration in nature, starting with early Native American and Mexican artists who created extraordinary pottery, baskets and weavings from materials found in the natural world.

Beginning in the 19th century, female artists with pioneering spirits, including several of the California Impressionists, Georgia O'Keefe, and later modernists, left more male-controlled art communities in the East to forge new identities for themselves in the less-structured West, contributing significantly to the cultural development of the region in the process. I like to think the women who worked together at the Pierson Ranch are carrying on that pioneering tradition.

It was Becky who originally came up with the idea of a trip for women only, after she heard of a similar event for male artists, and Terry took up the banner and organized the excursion. The Piersons offered the Ranch and Terry invited the artists, all personal friends of hers who enjoy working out in nature.

A 'classic California' landscape

Thrilled to be included in a trip with artists I've known and respected for years, I arrived at the 110-acre Pierson Ranch on Saturday, the day before the summer solstice, that time of year when, according to Kathy O'Leary, "the earth is at its fullest and ready to grant wishes." It was easy to believe. The long days, intense blue skies, and a wild landscape described by Joan as "classic California," provided more than enough inspiration to fill all the canvases I'd brought with me.

Even though it wasn't yet 9 a.m. when I got there, many of the women had already taken the treacherous, four-wheel-drive-only road down to the river in search of painting spots. Judy Evenson, a painter from Redway who was eagerly awaiting word on the imminent birth of her first grandbaby, had remained behind to paint the view surrounding the farmhouse.

[Liz Pierson with clippers, arbor in background]Judy's easel was facing a multilayered landscape, all of which she was valiantly attempting to capture on her small canvas -- lawn chairs in the foreground, followed by Liz Pierson's sumptuous flower garden, a golden meadow with a pond, an oak knoll, and an infinite vista of blue mountain ranges beyond.

Right: Liz Pierson in her garden. [Photo by Carrie Grant]

"I don't have a focal point, that's my problem," Judy told me when I took a peek at the painting. She sat on a picnic bench and started drawing the scene in pencil. "I don't know what I was thinking. I should have sketched the composition first, but I got overeager."

I lugged my painting gear up to the top of the oak knoll featured in Judy's landscape, and started a painting of the 100-year-old Pierson farmhouse below, trying, like Judy, to fit too much of the surrounding landscape into my too-small canvas. After an hour or so, I abandoned the painting, packed up my easel again, and headed down to the river with Kathy and Carol Stafford, whose watercolors involved much less gear than we oil painters carry.

Liz ferried us down the hill in her dusty Suburban, bouncing over ruts in the road with one hand on the wheel while cheerfully sharing news of recent bear and rattlesnake sightings. When we reached the river, I set my easel up in a precarious position near the water's edge and set to work painting three canoes, working quickly in an attempt to catch that maddeningly elusive, iridescent Pacific Northwest light. Several other women were working along the river, each following her own pace and inner rhythm.

Kathy and Terry, old friends of mine from our decade together at Eureka's "C Street Studios," were set up nearest me, but while Terry was meticulously layering her oils in a slow, translucent buildup of paint that would take days to complete, Kathy was knocking out one small study after another. Becky immediately took off her clothes and jumped in the water. "I can't help it," she said. "I see a river and I have to be in it." She spent the day swimming, sketching, and "getting a feel for the place." Joan also took some time exploring before beginning a bold river painting downriver from us.

Ingrid Nickelsen, a wildly original modernist who has worked on-call as a courier for Eureka's Blood Bank for the past 30 years to make ends meet, painted upriver all day on a river painting of her own. "I don't change canvases throughout the day, chasing the light the way most painters do," she said. "I like to spend all day at the same spot, working on the same painting -- I want to get a sense of a site in all different conditions."

Carrie Grant, a fine art landscape photographer from Petrolia who helped form the North Coast Regional Land Trust, was more inspired to photograph the women themselves on this trip. "It's wonderful to see artists using nature in a noninvasive and respectful way," she said, adding, "I can't think of a higher or better use of the land."

In between intense periods of work, the artists tended to wander, studying one another's paintings, offering advice and technical information. Kathy O'Leary had just returned from a plein air workshop in Jackson, Wyo., with painter Scott Christensen, and shared his secret of working in nature on small canvases with a limited palette: just Rembrandt red medium, cadmium yellow light, ultramarine blue, two shades of gray and a white. "In a 10-day period, I completed 29 paintings," she said. "Some were crap, of course, but I'd say 14 to 16 were successful. They were little canvases, but still." Kathy finished 10 paintings during her five-day visit to the Pierson Ranch.

Most of the artists headed back up the hill late in the afternoon, with the exception of Terry, who stayed each day until there was no light left by which to see her canvas. "She's completely obsessed," laughed her old friend Joan. "I love the way, when everybody else has already come in for the evening, she's still out there. It makes you want to extend yourself."

[woman with camera on tripod, woman at easel, on deck of house]  [woman at easel, other woman watching]
Left: Carrie Grant and Joan Dunning. [Photo by Becky Evans]
Right: Kathy O'Leary paints as Dunning looks on. [Photo by Linda Mitchell]

Solstice 'offerings'

On Sunday evening, the solstice, we hunted around the river bed for interesting branches, lichen, moss and twigs, hauled them up the hill, and played around with their arrangement until we had something that resembled an old, yet jaunty, flat-chested woman. We posed her in a reclining position on a big rock at the edge of Liz Pierson's vegetable garden. "She has sort of an anti-Odalisque pose," noted Ingrid with amusement.

This "solstice goddess" was Kathy's idea, not surprisingly, since, as her husband, Greg, puts it, she has an appreciation for all things "woo-woo." "I always try to celebrate the changing of the seasons," she explained. When the goddess was complete, Becky suggested setting her on fire as some sort of completion to the ritual, an idea Liz rapidly squelched in defense of her property. We settled for toasting our creation with Joan's homemade sangria and retired to the farmhouse to help our hostess prepare dinner.

The white and blue-trimmed two-story farmhouse had a timeless feeling to it, as if it might have looked and felt exactly the same when it was built a century ago. Joan was enchanted with the ancient wood cookstove and kept it faithfully stoked. "I used to live on a farm," she said nostalgically. "It's so amazing to be cooking on one of these again."

[women picking up wood]  [women sitting near assemblage of nature]
Assembling the goddess. [Photos by Becky Evans]

The old, long dinner table, set by Liz with a combination of her grandmother's linens, flea market china and gourmet fare, made a cozy venue for extended nights of conversation about anything and everything -- from spirited debates about political and environmental issues to Liz's devotion to the Blood Type Diet and Joan and Terry's addiction to American Idol.

And then there was the storytelling, centered on our experiences in nature and told with easy humor by, as Joan put it, "women firmly grounded in both art and nature." Oddly enough, at seemingly critical points, the lights in the farmhouse kept going off, even though the electricity was generated by solar power and the days had been long and sunny. Frequently, the candles in the old chandelier above the table provided our only light as the women spun their tales.

Joan told us about being sniffed by a coyote from her toes to her nose while she slept out on the desert floor in her sleeping bag one night; Becky described an incident where she played tug of war with a nighttime bandit for her purse, a thief who turned out to be a raccoon; I told about the time a gun-toting man in camouflage cornered me at my easel on a cliff's edge in Trinidad and remarked that he used his gun as an tripod.

The most intriguing story by far was Ingrid's tale about an "offering" that kept our overly active imaginations engaged throughout the entire trip. Several years ago, Ingrid backpacked alone into a remote location in the Trinity Alps Wilderness and camped out on a rocky outcropping overlooking a meadow. Twenty-five feet in front of her was a tall snag with a hidden nest of mountain chickadees, and she watched the parents flying back and forth each day, feeding their chicks.

On her third or fourth day there, Ingrid woke up sensing something was wrong. She sat up in her sleeping bag and saw five baby chickadees next to her legs, lined up in a perfect row from her knees to her feet. "They were perfectly intact, not mangled, just dead. It was very curious."

Searching around, Ingrid discovered a single bear print near where her head had been as she slept. So had a bear lined the birds up next to Ingrid? Unbearlike behavior, insisted Liz. The others agreed. It sounded like the behavior of a cat, someone said, but more a domestic than a wild one. And how had the creature, whatever it was, gotten the birds out of that tiny hole in the tree? It was a puzzle that fueled endless speculation, the most entertaining of which was Liz's conviction that the offering must have been the act of a "maniac" who had been stalking the artist for days (somehow avoiding detection by Ingrid, a savvy tracker).

The oddest part of Ingrid's tale, as far as I was concerned, was that she didn't immediately pack up and hightail it back to civilization. "I found it curious, but I wasn't frightened," she insisted. "It seemed magical somehow -- wonderful, really."

It may have been the talk of maniacs or dead chickadees, or possibly the lights going on and off, but Terry decided to sleep inside the farmhouse that night instead of outdoors like she had been. She bunked upstairs with the other women, in a big open-beamed room with the aura of a Girl Scout camp, complete with camp cots and flashlights. We continued talking even after everyone had settled into their sleeping bags, assigning imaginary merit badges.

Kathy, we decided, would definitely receive a badge for "most paintings created"; Ingrid would be rewarded for the "spookiest story"; Terry was deserving of an award for "longest painting endurance" -- but this was a few days before the mountain lion incident, for which she'd undoubtedly earn another award for "bravery."

Terry said she doesn't see herself as brave, even though she continued painting in the same spot after the animal disappeared into the forest. "I think we all have these parts of us -- hidden, primitive parts -- that we don't have to access to except in times of extreme importance," she said.

Like Ingrid, Terry expressed a feeling of wonder over her encounter with a primal force of nature. "I could sense his intelligence. He was so perfect -- if only you could have seen the color of his coat."

If she were to paint that coat, Terry said she would use raw umber and a little blue. She'd pose him as he was when they first met, with one massive paw suspended in mid-step.

[woman at easel on river bed]
Ingrid Nickelsen, who will be featured at Eureka's Piante Gallery in October, paints the Mad River. [Photo by Carrie Grant]

[Kathy O'Leary at easel on oak hillside]  [O'Leary painting of oak hillskde]
Kathy O'Leary, a top-selling artist at The Gallery in Burlingame and the Elliott Fouts Gallery in Sacramento, paints 'The Oak Knoll,' right. [Photo by Carrie Grant]

[Dunning painting at easel]  [painting of Mad River]
Joan Dunning, author ande illustrator, paints with Kathy O'Leary. [Photo by Carrie Grant]
Right: Dunning's finished painting, 'The Mad River'

[painting of wooden chair in garden setting]  [woman walking on rocks along river bank]
Judy Evenson's 'Beyond the Garden.' Her work will be featured at Eureka's Gallery Dog in August.
Right: Becky Evans explores the river. [Photo courtesy of Becky Evans]





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