The Landscape—Real/Recreated/Reassembled/Imagined

We understand the draw of the outdoors in Maine, which is perhaps even more enticing after a long winter. This summer issue of the Maine Arts Journal features artists reflecting upon the meanings working en plein air holds for them—but with a twist. We didn’t want plain plein air; instead, we asked our contributors to think Beyond Plein Air. The simple addition of “beyond” was meant as an invitation to reflect upon the process with which a real landscape is transformed.

Sarah Faragher’s practice is entirely dedicated to painting en plein air, fueled by her desire “to be out in the middle of everything.” The immediacy of her work is such that she paints without preparatory drawings (“alla prima,” sketching with paint) and doesn’t wait for her oils to dry to apply a new coat (“wet on wet”). The process also determines her format: only when the painting requires several days does she work in the studio. Ultimately, her plein air work is about herself, about her experience and her connection to nature: “I paint nature and myself at the same time.” Although her titles express the precision with which she renders a certain place, she achieves a balance between faithfulness to what is in front of her and what she calls “the requests and demands of the painting.”

As Tonee Harbert photographs his New Mexico surroundings, he “considers human intervention in the landscape” capturing fleeting moments along with “signs/signals,” ghostly marks that document past presence and endow the sights with magical and oneiric undertones. He, too, responds to “[p]laces [that] have an emotional resonance,” to which he feels “called.” For Harbert, photographing the environment is about collecting and paring down, a quest for “a scene’s essence” that opens up a path for the viewer to enter it and to project onto the image their own interpretation.

Sisters elin o’Hara, Madeleine, Sarah, and Susanne Slavick, share work from a traveling exhibition titled Family Tree. The Slavicks offer their interpretation of the natural world, each in their chosen medium, but all expressing their concern for our world. All four focus on trees, which they compare to humans as they stand as witnesses, victims, and survivors” (elin o’Hara Slavik). Trees teach us how “[t]o be full of grace, resilience, wisdom” (Madeleine Slavik). Sarah Slavick’s series of watercolors and paintings, Elegy to the Underground is fueled by her fascination with root systems and other remarkable phenomena that take place below ground. For her as well, trees are models, providing “metaphors for our survival and how we should act to protect our home and our species.” For Susanne Slavick as well, in the face of the environmental devastation brought by deforestation and its different sources (forest fires, logging, pollution, effects of climate change), trees offer exemplars of resilience, which “stand up in persistence, refusing to be felled, burnt, or exterminated by toxic conditions.”

Even though not done “directly from an actual landscape en plein air,” Anna Dibble’s paintings are the result of “a lifelong congruence with the land and water and what we call the ‘natural world.’” Informed by childhood memories, her work affirms our connection to the natural environment, how, as Dibble states in her text and in the title of one of her works, we are All in This Together. She too asserts her concern for the environmental situation, which she sees as a result of human alienation from the natural world. Instead of delivering preachy warnings, Dibble’s landscapes are dream-like visions simultaneously external and inner, present and past.

Carl Little writes about Melanie Essex and the importance that observation holds for her and how it offers a key to connecting with a place. Essex’s expansive landscapes burst with color harmonies while maintaining a balance between a romantic and objective observation, the picturesque and the threatening (such as nuclear power plants or figures engaging in strife), eschewing any sentimentality. A series aptly titled Inside and Outside structures a tension between the observable outside landscape and a visionary innerscape.

For Richard Keen, painting is a reflective process with which he makes “sense of the world.” Based on observation of the external world, it is then submitted to a process (“I can’t help but flatten the planes and translate my surroundings into geometry, line, and color”), which aims at clarity through abstraction. Keen’s goal is to better see a place, in a more holistic manner (“by removing the detail, I see a place much more fully”). He also aims at understanding his own emotional state so he can communicate to his viewers “that experience and relationship with the place.”

Kris Lanzer talks about the “overlap” between “inner and outside worlds” and her pursuit of “creating a sense of harmony” in her installations. There’s the pull from the outside and its sensory stimuli and the “imagined landscape” she summons in the studio. Lanzer’s installations negotiate these tensions and indeed intervene in the urban environment, creating new experiences for the viewer. Interstitial areas and transitional moments are central to her work, which often has ritualized dimensions, exploring dichotomies such as public and private, city and nature, inside and outside, beginning and end, life and death.

Claire Millikin writes about Cole Caswell’s wet collodion photographs. By using this historical process, temporal dichotomies are bridged. Informed by environmental concerns, Caswell memorializes places before they are altered forever. Past, present, and future are connected in “elegies of now,” images at once “elegiac” and “apocalyptic.” Here, too outside and inner views meet. Outside conditions, for instance inclement weather, impact the actual work while the medium itself, with its distinctive liquid fluidity, becomes emblematic of rain and wind. The process is also a meditative and cognitive one (Caswell declares: “I try to understand the environment of a place”) and in so doing, he asks his viewers to become “readers” of his poetically allusive images.

Chris Crosman takes his cue from a recent exhibition of early paintings by Neil Welliver to reflect upon the artist’s formative years. These paintings, dating to the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, are filled with figures and offer a startling contrast to what we know—his “mature, monumental paintings of Maine’s northern forests and streams.” Crosman refuses to read this early body of work as transitional and adopts instead the image of the chrysalis, recognizing in it key elements of Welliver’s art. Sketching the social, historical, and cultural postwar context, Crosman traces possible sources of inspiration that inform these remarkably fluid, improvisational, humorous, and iconoclastic works.

Stuart Kestenbaum reflects on being in the landscape through the mundane task of mowing the lawn. As he enters that space (to paraphrase his title), he engages with its topography, the plants that grow in it, the colors, the vistas beyond his yard. Although his activity doesn’t result in painting an actual canvas, Kestenbaum relates to his environment in pretty much the same way as an artist does en plein air. In the relationship thus established, inside and outside meet: “The landscape is outside of us, and lives within us as well.” As he observes the landscape, Kestenbaum is also reminded of other, faraway sights and, as a result, travels in space and time.

Carl Little takes us on a romp through Maine landscape painting. In this tour de force, he mentions over 200 artists, bearing witness to an enduring tradition central to the arts in our state. We read about the wide range of subjects, not limited to the coastline, islands, and sea, but also including mountains, woods, meadows, and rivers, along with settings marked by human presence, both rural and urban. All these locales are captured throughout the seasons and in different light conditions. Also remarkable is the stylistic range (“realism to abstraction and back again—and everything in between”). As we read about locations where artists reside and/or congregate, a map of the state emerges, with clusters of like-minded people.

In this issue’s “Art Historical Musings,” Véronique Plesch considers the tension between faithful rendering of a vista and artistic practice and license and, along with it, the motivations for capturing a particular landscape. The homophonic words that in English echo “plein”—plain and plane—summarize some of her arguments. To the notion of being out of doors, en plein air, there’s the idea of plainly reproducing the motif in front of the artist, with the choice—or not—to render the world in its three-dimensional reality or, instead, to acknowledge the canvas’s planarity.

The inside/outside duality that so many of our contributors evoke in their landscape work, is also present in Linda Aldrich’s poem about Jack Yeats’s painting of an Irish mythological island. Aldrich conveys the painter’s immersive observation (“looking at nothing and everything at once”), how the artist is in the landscape (“the grass growing over and around him”), the resulting temporal elasticity (“how when absorbed, time expands the moment”), and how his senses are solicited—all of them, not just sight. Temporality is also layered in Susan Cook’s poem as dramatic events in the news, the natural world (butterflies), its representation (butterflies sewn on a dress), and those who create that representation intermingle in a meditation on life’s fragility.

The inside/outside dichotomy is, for obvious reasons, very present in the minds of those in prison. Olivia Hochstadt considers the paintings of an inmate and what this practice means to him. The artist makes a point of stressing his freedom in subject matter and expression. He further declares, encouraging others to emulate him, “you’ll find that art will give you total freedom”, and indeed his works reproduced here are mostly imagined outdoor views.

Edgar Alan Beem writes about Jenna Pirello and what he calls her “Landscapes of Contradiction.” Pirello’s art, “a physical manifestation of working through ideas and information to produce a complex of imagery,” challenges hierarchy while creating a balance between figuration and abstraction, “fine art” and craft, words and images, speed and painstaking layering of marks. Similarly, her frequent use of shaped canvas “subverts the convention of the rectangle and frame.”

Carl Little writes about fellow art critic Edgar Alan Beem’s novel The Russian Lesson. In this story of a man in exile who tries to write his memoirs, historical periods intermingle and the question of place is crucial. Real, observed life and artistic creation merge as well. The main character, an artist, is based on a real figure, whom Beem actually met in Portland.

This issue’s Members’ Showcase brings us a plentiful trove, with 19 artists sharing their work and thoughts on the notion of plein air and its practice. We see works by John Knight, who brings the outdoors inside the studio as he carefully studies plants (“roots, stalks, leaves, flowers, and seed pods”) while providing them with an environment. The plants become emblematic of our place in nature, for Knight sees in them “connectors of land and sky as they are rooted in the ground and reach up above the horizon.” Greg Shattenberg, as well, zooms into plants. For him, as other contributors note in this issue, the practice of working en plein air involves simplifying (“Working plein air simplifies the maze”). Anne McGurk talks about her gouaches and echoes our theme—there is more to plein air painting: “Rather than just recording the scene . . . there is always the opportunity to push beyond mere recording to find an analogy to something in yourself and something that others will also find relatable.” June Kellogg aims at achieving a balance between “the realism of landscape” and “abstract improvisation” as she combines “painting references” (quick sketches or photographs taken out of doors) in her studio work. Her quest for a harmonious balance is informed by her “conviction that all things are connected and that the earth must be honored and treated well.” Alan Fishman focuses on the seasons and aims at creating “a synthesis of the visual sensations which have impressed themselves” in his memory. Although his paintings are done in the studio, they are the result of “hours of careful observation and absorption.” For Louise Bourne, “[p]ainting is a physical action that has to be done if you are afflicted with it as a way to respond to, deal with, and live in this world.” When she explains that “[l]andscape painting appeals to me because I love the feel of air on my skin,” she confirms the original meaning of “plein air”—“open air.” Because air moves freely, what Bourne engages with is in constant flux, as are light and color.

Several members discuss what the idea of landscape means for them. Valera Crofoot depicts landscapes altered by war that she calls “landscapes of displacement” and in which she incorporates elements from Apocalyptic iconography. Katherine Cartwright’s India ink Mindscapes series are the product of her quest for “the simple essence of the elegance of nature.” In Maggie Fehr’s graphite and charcoal drawings, the observed reality is only a starting point of a process in which the “objective landscape” leads to abstract images, the goal being to reach “an essential vision.” Photographer Dave Wade considers his relationship to the landscape: how you can either be in it or look at it but how, from either vantage point, one establishes a dialogue with it. In the way Wade describes the effects of a landscape on him, we hear echoes of what the Romantics called the Sublime, that awe-inspiring feeling: “[n]ature has a way of putting us in our place, and it often shows us just how insignificant we humans are.” Jean Noon matches her works—paintings and photographs, all inspired by the natural world—with verses of poetry. Mark Barnette photographs what he calls “human landscapes,” which are, “in some measure about the effects of economic violence.” What Ruth Sylmor calls the “interspace between realism and imagination,” is a recurring theme in this issue, and she considers how it plays out in photography. For her, photographs are “a starting point for thought.” Kelly Desrosiers recounts her lifelong relationship with nature, from the magic of her childhood, adult scientific pursuits, and her work as an artist. She shares watercolors in which fascination and knowledge meet: “[m]yths intermingle with the long view of the history of life on earth.” Leslie Woods gardens and paints gardens, which she sees “as overlapping shapes with increased intricacy.” Abbott Meader talks about his choice to make collages, which function as “extensions of plein air drawings,” “calculated structures built in the studio.” Using digital media, Ann Tracy creates “Emotional Landscapes,” “based on real feelings at the time.” Greg Burns talks about his turning to landscape and about the artists who helped him in this transition, so he could “break free of the representational draw” and create what he calls “abstract landscapes.” Nancy Benner talks about her “concentrated series of the same island over a four-year period,” using a wide variety of mediums.

Every quarter we hear from ARRT! and LumenARRT! and see some of the banners and video projections that were created since last issue to support different progressive non-profit organizations. UMVA’s Portland area chapter reports on its activities and in particular about past and future exhibitions. Pat and Tony Owen note with surprise that “there is very little mention of landscape painting in any of the UMVA newsletters in our possession,” which they ascribe to the fact that “the Union’s trajectory has remained somewhat progressive and cutting-edge.” That would concern straight-forward plein air painting (the “plain plein air” mentioned at the beginning of this introduction), but as this issue shows, there is much more to it; there is indeed a diverse and multifaceted process Beyond Plein Air.


Image at top: Maine Arts Journal Summer 2022 cover (Neil Welliver, Skeletons Party, c. 1950s–early 1960s). Neil Welliver: Chrysalis (1954–1964) at Dowling Walsh Gallery, Rockland, Maine, All photos courtesy of the Dowling Walsh Gallery, All Welliver images copyright the Estate of Neil Welliver.