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Plein-air painting: A pastime as big as the outdoors on Long Island

Elaine Prager, right, from Bridgehampton, participates in the

Elaine Prager, right, from Bridgehampton, participates in the Parrish Art Museum's plein-air class, instructed by Barbara Thomas, left, held at a farm in Bridgehampton on July 24.  Credit: Gordon M. Grant

“You must be right under the sky,” the 19th-century American painter William Merritt Chase is quoted to have said, firm in his belief that the only way to effectively interpret nature was to be in it.

As the founding director of the Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art, Chase could be seen roaming the flat countryside of eastern Long Island in search of inspiring views. “I want all the light I can get,” he explained. “When I have found the spot I like, I set up my easel and paint.”

The centuries-old practice of plein-air — or outdoor — painting hasn’t lost its foothold in the local landscape. In fact, it has even earned the epithet, according to the website PaintOutside.com, of being “the new golf.” While art classes continue to venture out into the sunlight and shadows that famously dance over Long Island’s varied terrain, the pastime is gaining both traction and enthusiasts — particularly among seniors — during the COVID-19 era.

Linda Davison Mathues of East Quogue said she found it difficult at the onset of the pandemic, and in many of the weeks that followed, to pursue her art-making. “What work? I didn’t do any,” she said. “I couldn’t focus.” Slowly, however, the longtime plein-air painter found her way back to her brushes and paints, and when spring came, the 69-year-old said she was quite eager to venture outside with her gear. “The virus remained, but I could breathe the fresh air and forget about all that and be lost in the wilds for awhile.”

“You can’t paint and worry at the same time,” concurred Jeanne Salucci, founder and director of the Plein Air Limner Society, or PALS, whose members have been dotting the rolling dunes, grassy knolls and lush gardens of the East End since 2009. “It’s a nice relief to hear the sounds of the birds and running creeks — to be living in the now.”

Supporting that sentiment, Salucci reported a recent rise in PALS membership. A late-blooming artist who also now runs her own teaching studio in Brookhaven Hamlet, she formed the group in search of camaraderie. “I started painting outside by myself,” said Salucci, a tailor best known for making window treatments before she ventured out into the view beyond the glass pane. “I felt lonely and vulnerable out there, so I reached out to others online.”

Tuned into nature

Now, a collective of some 25 plein-air enthusiasts (who pay a yearly $35 membership fee) accompany her on Tuesday morning excursions from mid-April through Thanksgiving. The participants are also invited to exhibit their works interpreting favorite Long Island locations and landmarks — Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Great River, Frank Melville Park in Setauket-East Setauket, Kaler’s Pond Nature Center in Center Moriches, to name a few — in PALS’ annual art exhibition mounted each December. The group, added Salucci, welcomes private garden invitations, too.

“We are always watching what’s in bloom,” she said, noting an outing to Lavender by the Bay in East Marion in early July, when acres of the purple plants were on full display. Likewise, blossoming wildflowers lining the walking trails of Stony Brook’s Avalon Nature Preserve, a PALS favorite, lured Mathues on a recent Tuesday. Tucked into a shady spot, Mathues set out to capture an expansive sunlit field of yellow daisies with trees in the far distance. A couple who frequented the route stopped to admire her effort. “It was a magic morning,” recalled Mathues. “My painting sort of painted itself.” Purchasing it right off her easel, the passersby clearly agreed her work was a convincing rendition.

Plein-air groups are also always watching the weather. “We are hardy folk,” the artist confessed. “We overcome flying and crawling things, blazing sun and sudden showers.” Now, Mathues and her ilk must contend with COVID-19 protocol to boot.

“Classes are kept smaller, students arrive wearing masks and are sure to keep a safe distance,” said Springs artist Barbara Thomas, who has been teaching plein-air drawing and painting on Long Island for about 20 years. “I tell them how to mix a color or make a shadow work, but I do so from a few feet away. People enjoy the proximity and doing something in the real world.”

“It gives me release,” said Randy Culpepper, a retired NBC news marketing and sales executive who has been taking outdoor painting classes with Thomas for the past three years. The 65-year-old Bridgehampton resident and self-declared news junkie said he is grateful for the escape. “I was dwelling on negativity, but once I started painting and gardening — giving myself head space — I realized I was going to be OK.”

Culpepper was among eight students attending one of Thomas’ recent plein-air classes, offered by the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill where she has taught for more than a decade in addition to conducting her private studio classes. Armed with sketchbooks, portable easels, hand sanitizers and masks, the group sprawled out across scenic countryside belonging to classmate Lynda Wesnofske and her husband, Raymond, who descended from a long line of farmers on the East End. A spacious studio-barn was available for cover in case of rain.

“The weather is very unpredictable,” said Jeanne Linnes, a retired arts consultant who is relatively new to the discipline. “It’s all part of the process. It does take effort but it’s a labor of love.” While Linnes said that painting at home has helped get her through these past few months, she is grateful to be able to participate in the plein-air workshops. “It has been a great success,” she contended, “congenial but safe.”

Creativity wins

While galleries and museums have been forced to close for many weeks during the pandemic, the emotional desire to make artwork does not shut down. “You can’t stop people from being their creative selves,” said Thomas, who hails from a family of artists (her father, Fritz Siebel, is the illustrator of the popular “Amelia Bedelia” children’s picture book series).

Laura Platt, a psychotherapist in her 60s who has been revving up her other interests as she has slowed down her practice, agreed. “It is not about talent; it is about expressing yourself.” PALS’ Salucci shares her view. “People say they have no skills, but I don’t believe them,” she added. “I really feel they have expression that needs to get out.”

To that end, the Southampton Arts Center has reintroduced plein-air workshops into its programming.

“It made perfect sense,” the center’s artistic director, Amy Kirwin, said of their return during the pandemic after a three-year hiatus. The outdoor, COVID-friendly activity — taught by Thomas one Sunday every month through October — has been made even more attractive with the temporary installation of artworks by the likes of Bryan Hunt, Laurie Lambrecht and Eric Fischl (who co-curated the selection) dressing up the center’s manicured grounds. Newbies are welcome and materials supplied.

“With life now more fragile than what we assumed, people seem to have a greater appreciation for nature,” noted Thomas. “Nature is a very loyal friend — always there for you. It makes you feel more alive. Art can distill that feeling into something that we can hold onto.”

'World can open up'

While seeking connections with nature, students are also yearning for connections with one another. “They want to be together in-person, especially older students who live by themselves,” said Lisa Grossman, executive director of The Art Guild of Port Washington, located in the historic Hewlett-Munson-Williams House on the Elderfields Preserve in Flower Hill.

With prior experience in risk management in the world of finance, Grossman noted she was well-equipped to help The Art Guild meet the unique challenges brought on by the COVID crisis and to keep its community engaged.

“Safety is our priority,” she said, noting the Guild’s adoption of best practices, including temperature-taking, smaller classes, and the provision of an outdoor sink and large tent for its two summer offerings, Stephanie Navon-Jacobson’s drawing class and Howard Rose’s “Painting the Dunes.” The latter included a trip to Jones Beach. “We cover shadows, the placement and calligraphy of the beach grass, where to put the horizon and understanding the focus and light of the scene,” Rose explained. More outdoor painting opportunities are planned for the fall.

“It logically feels safer outside than in,” said Anthony Davis, a plein-air painting instructor and lifelong Long Islander who believes that truth in re-creating the landscape exists only in the open air. His class at the Atelier at Flowerfield in St. James, offered through the fall, focuses on the broad sky, shingled cottages, scrub-covered shores and other distinct features of the region, while providing a safe social opportunity for like-minded individuals during this trying time. “People were so happy to hear other voices and swap stories about what they did during lockdown,” noted Atelier staff member Briana Sheridan.

“Your whole world can open up,” added Salucci. “You can come alone, but you’ll never be alone. You just have to try it.”

Now, indeed, seems the perfect time to dig out those old conté crayons or invest in a watercolor paint set. “As we know, there are a lot of things to be afraid of,” said Thomas, “but don’t be afraid of making art.”

The outdoors beckons

Plein Air Limner Society (PALS), jeannesalucciart.com, 631-241-3749

Parrish Art Museum, parrishart.org, 631-283-2118

Barbara Thomas Art, barbarathomasart.com, 917-560-3150

Southampton Arts Center, southamptonartscenter.org, 631-283-0967

The Art Guild, theartguild.org, 516-304-5797

The Atelier at Flowerfield, atelieratflowerfield.org, 631- 250-9009

— Deidre S. Greben

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