Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Painting in "Plein Air"

Since we became part-time residents of the Finger Lakes region of western New York, Ponczka has become part of the arts community there. In particular, she has become a regular participant in a couple of “Plein Air” festivals, which celebrate the practice of painting in nature, out of the immediate experience of a time and place. Plein air painting requires an element of surrender to the elements, however they might manifest, and challenges the artist to convert an experience directly to canvas.

This week, Ponczka and I have been in Geneva, on the northwestern shore of Seneca Lake, where the Seneca Lake Plein Air Painting Festival is drawing to a close. It’s a great time for the two of us, who have come to regard this region as part of “God’s backyard”, to borrow a Polish expression. It also feels more and more like home, like the place we’ll be coming to when working for a living is not so much our focus, and when what we do will be measured more by the satisfaction it brings than by the size of a paycheck. Painting is what Ponczka is likely to be doing when that time comes; I aim to be writing.

And this Plein Air painting festival offers a tantalizing glimpse into the potential of such a future. First – it’s astonishing to see what gets produced in a mere two days, by a bunch of artists enduring sun, wind and rain for two days, trying to capture scenes despite constantly shifting light and shadows, and with the challenge of managing easels and paints, heat and cold, distractions, tiring eyes and muscles, transportation, the need to eat and sleep, uncertainty and self-doubt, and the relentless passage of time, which transforms the subject of the painting between every brushstroke.

It’s dazzling and inspiring to see the range of conversations that take place between artist and environment – how this one speaks to the vegetation, that one to the hills, one to the waters, another to the rich earth; one communes with buildings, another with the sky; this one catches the movement, another the deep, solemn stillness underlying all movement. Some paintings aim to capture a single moment, while others are steeped in timelessness. Some dance with color and light; others forego all sparkle or shine and emerge from some weighty place, singing the language of gravity, transcending life and death. So much beauty, seemingly from nothing. But that they exist at all says so much about the fertility of that apparent nothingness.

It’s a fun and exhausting and thrilling and fearful two days. Ponczka is studiously attentive to what she sees and transposes to canvas. But her painting – to my eye – can seem almost aimless and without care. It’s fascinating to watch her quick hand, swiping and stabbing the brush almost recklessly it can seem, while her eye darts from subject to canvas. I sometimes cringe inwardly as she smears on dabs of color – “NO, not that! Not There!” I’m thinking, as she gets it all wrong. But of course, I’m not seeing what she’s seeing.

So I turn away, or wander off for an hour or two, find a place for a beer, or sit and write for awhile. And when I come back, there are no more dabs of paint on a canvas, but instead, three dimensional life. But not exactly life, because... well, there’s so much on the canvas that it calls me to look again at that street scene she’s painted. It doesn’t look quite the same anymore. I see more now, feel more, want more. Connect more…? Something. There is something more now, between me and this street, that I draw from this canvas that has her eyes and her energy all mixed in with it, and with the brick and the grass, and that wall rising up, and that window, and that vague walking figure.

And everyone sees something different. In every painting. At the gala this evening, the awards are given out, and all the works are up for silent auction. Many pieces are sold, most to a solitary bidder. But others are hotly contested. And quite a few get no bids at all. One of the top prize winners has no bids on her work, but it is rich and detailed and evocative of time and memory, and the awards are clearly deserved. And while no one has yet bid to have one of the works adorn a wall in a home, one of the awards comes from a musical association that will use her work to style its programs and announcements for the coming year. And Ponczka gets no bid on her piece that both she and I like best, but another is purchased by the same couple that bought her work last year, and who happen to be the festival organizers.

It’s Art. And every eye, every taste is unique unto itself. And, as Ponczka likes to say – every painting has its rightful owner, but it can take mere moments or many years for the two to find one another.

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