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En Plein Air
ART TIMES November 2006

THE CREATIVE LIFE — no matter the discipline — is often a lonely one. I’ve known periods of isolation as both a painter and a writer, the time spent alone as often jealously guarded, as it is often dreaded. For me, when I’m ‘creating’, I need the freedom of mind to be totally self-absorbed, completely unaware and unconcerned with my surroundings. And, although this is always true when I am writing, I’ve discovered one instance when it is not and that is when I am painting en plein air. I learned this from Sue Silverman, a painter friend who graciously agreed to bring me “back into the fold” after nearly a 40-year hiatus from holding a paintbrush. A landscape painter back in the heydays of abstract-expressionism, I felt alienated from the visual-art scene and, dropping out of a lifelong love affair of making visual images, devoted my creative energies to developing my writing skills. About ten years ago, the urge to return to depicting nature came on strongly (especially when writer’s block reared its ugly head) and Sue stepped into the picture. She took me outside to some of her favorite haunts and, planting her Julien paintbox alongside mine, taught me to once again see color, notice values, feel nature, and apply paint to canvas. True, the act of ‘creating’ remained an inner, private affair, the fact remains that painting side-by-side and out-of-doors presents a very special chance for camaraderie that artists — studio bound and of all stripes — rarely find the opportunity to enjoy. Sue persevered for many years, putting up with my questions, my need to occasionally look over her shoulder and, even with pressing family concerns, never complaining that I was taking up too much of her time. The daughter of parents who were both working artists and the wife of a husband who is an art director, Sue had a wealth of practical information to impart, but it was the lesson that I need not stand alone that I found the most encouraging. We haven’t dragged our paint-boxes out for some time now, but I’ll always cherish the time she gave me. I’ve since painted en plein air with others — in recent weeks with Linda Richichi at the Windham Fine Art Gallery’s “paint-out” and in the field behind the ART TIMES office, with Heinz Jarczyk in Switzerland’s French Alps, and just a few days ago with Cheryl Post and Annie Hoffstatter in the High Woods area — and the nearness of all of them not only did not interfere with the creative process, but somehow enhanced it as well. Even when hours pass without words being exchanged — as, for example, I recall once while painting with a group of relative strangers at Boscobel — the fact that you are not alone while struggling with whatever personal demons (or angels) are prompting you to express yourself is not merely encouraging but vastly curative. All creators experience those dark times in the wee hours of the night when the futility of our actions assail us, the grinning ogre of contempt leering down at us to joyfully reduce our lofty thoughts and ideas to inane rubbish. Still, no matter how loudly or clearly we hear that “WHO CARES!” dinned into our conscious minds, we return to white canvas, untouched stone, blank sheet of paper, new script, or empty score to try just one more time to “get it right” — and all I can say is, that painting outdoors with a fellow artist somewhere within sight is a hugely comforting thing. It’s something I have not — cannot — experience while writing. I don’t know what it’s like for such twosomes as Rogers and Hart, Gilbert and Sullivan, Astaire and Kelly — or even Abbott and Costello — but when it comes to writing, it’s strictly a one-on-one affair for me and, although I’ve been at it for lo, these many years, have never found it otherwise. Thank God — and Sue, and Linda, and Heinz, and Cheryl, and Annie, and all those strangers — who’ve taken up plein air painting and set up their easels within hailing distance to let me know that the act of creating need not always be an isolated and lonely experience.

Raymond J. Steiner