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Garden Party En Plein Air 

RAA to gather artists, art lovers, garden lovers for a big weekend kulturfest

It's not easy being a plein air painter. You have to haul your materials to remote locations, struggle with changing weather and shifting light, and finish as much of the painting as possible in one go, since it may be hard to return to the same scene and the same conditions day after day.

And you have to do all of that in front of an audience: a talkative homeless guy one day, a busload of schoolchildren the next, tourists who see you as part of the scenery and want to take photos of you while you work. There's probably a reason why so many plein air paintings are done in remote countryside locations, with only cows and seagulls for an audience. As someone who works alone most days, I appreciate the need for solitude.

But as an art lover, I’m grateful to whatever brave painter came up with the idea of a plein air paintout. These events have been taking place around the country for the last few years; typically what happens is that painters gather together at a particular location on an appointed day, set up their easels, and paint all day long in front of an adoring public.

I like to imagine that there are outbursts of spontaneous applause for particularly brilliant brushstrokes. I picture bidding wars taking place easel-side, with wet paintings being carried off triumphantly by the winner before the artist was completely sure that she was finished.

All this and more is possible this weekend, when the Redwood Art Association hosts a plein air paintout in the garden of Lynne and Bob Wells on Sunday, Aug. 24, from 12-4 p.m. Tickets are twenty bucks at the gate; the garden is located at 2331 Graham Rd. in Bayside (off Old Arcata Road), and details are posted at www.redwoodart.org.

The event is a fundraiser for the RAA; they’ve managed to persuade almost 30 artists to show up and paint. Each artist will also bring a few completed works to sell, and if you want to grab a wet painting off an easel and sprint away with it, well, that’s between you and the artist. The idea behind the event is to raise some money and also to let patrons of the arts (that would be you and me) watch artists at work. And it just so happens to be in a big, beautiful garden, so you can engage in a little garden envy at the same time.

I spoke to Kathy O’Leary, one of the artists who will be painting in the garden on Sunday. She’s planning on going out to the Wells’ ahead of time to scope out good painting sites and see where the pretty light’s going to be at that time of day. She participated in a plein air paintout weekend in Alameda and is excited to see one happening in Humboldt. “It lets the public learn and appreciate what artists do when they’re out there painting,” she said. “I show my work in galleries and in my studio, but it’s really great for people to watch the process. People enjoy seeing what an artist might go through to come up with a painting. If they buy the painting, they feel like they were there for the beginning of the process, and it means something to them.”

She usually works on small canvases or boards -- 9 by 12 or 8 by 10 -- and plans to try for two paintings in the afternoon. “I can’t believe how many painters we’re going to have in one place,” she said. “I don’t know if people appreciate how many great painters we have this community. I don’t do a lot of paintings of other painters, but sometimes we do paint each other. With this many people setting up easels, I may have to!”

I decided to visit the Wells garden early myself, so I stopped by last weekend. Like most gardeners, Lynne was apologetic about the state of her garden and sure that the artists would have been much happier a month earlier, or a month later, when the garden wasn’t in the middle of its August doldrums. But that’s just how gardeners talk. In fact, her place is lovely right now: there’s a sturdy perennial border along the road; cheerful yellow rudbeckia in borders around the house; a pond and a freakishly large gunnera; plenty of interesting architecture and sculpture, and a cool, shady creek.

Lynne stood at the top of a hill and surveyed it all with a sigh. “I waited too long to cut it back,” she said. “I’m trying to look at it the way painters will look at it, to clip some overgrowth and clear some vistas for them. I’ll be curious to see where the artists gravitate to.”

I asked her if she was nervous about having a couple dozen artists scrutinizing her garden for good color and composition. “Not really,” she said, laughing. “We try to hold a fundraiser here every year, so I’m used to people looking at my garden. The only danger for us is that we’ll want to buy up all the paintings for ourselves!”

Now, that’s the kind of competitive spirit I had in mind. It’s a lovely time of year for a garden party, and this one promises wine and treats along with the likes of Judy Evenson, Jim McVicker, Kathy O’Leary, Stock Schlueter, Alicia Treadway, and others. See you there.

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Amy Stewart

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