I spent last weekend in one of my favorite communities, Petersburg, Alaska, conducting a painting workshop for sixteen local artists of varying ages, backgrounds, and experience. Organized by the "Fresh Air" group of plein-air painters in Petersburg, the workshop was to introduce new ideas and methods for painting directly from life in the outdoors. These are just a few of the participants, posing with their paintings after a final critique at the end of the first full day of the workshop.
Most of the members of the Fresh Air group, who have painted together for years in all weathers and seasons, participated along with a number of other local artists. It was a wonderful weekend with an extraordinary group of people. I don't know whether I was most impressed by their dedication, talents, enthusiasm, and hospitality, their willingness to try new things, their flexibility in the face of changing weather and my crazy artistic demands, or their mutual support of one another.
As I usually do in these workshops, I talked about and showed images of my work the first evening, meeting them and letting them know who I am and where I'm coming from artistically, explaining that I don't do demonstrations (and think they're evil), and going over the plans for the next two days. On Saturday and Sunday, they painted all day long in two gorgeous settings--Blind Slough and Sandy Beach. I gave them challenging exercises/assignments, and then went from one to another, working with each individually on ways that they could think differently about outdoor painting, get beyond their comfort zones, discover new ways to connect to their familiar surroundings, make images that were more personal, more individual, and more responsive to that day, that place, that weather and light, and what they saw there and felt about it. As I told them over and over, it seems to me that most plein-air painting deals with eyes and hands, and I wanted them to work at least as much with their heads and hearts.
They did. They were so game--artistically and in every other respect. This is an image of Joe Viechnicki, perched and hard at work in the makeshift shelter he constructed from a branch and a tarp in order to paint the stream rapids entering the waters of the Inside Passage by way of Sandy Beach on a cold, rainy, blustery Southeast Alaska summer day. Other members of the group showed the same kind of determination (and good nature--notice the broad smile on Joe's face in truly uncomfortable conditions) as I gave them task after task designed to make sure they tried new things and worked in unexpected, unfamiliar ways.
I taught painting workshops in Petersburg 16 and 18 years ago, and now, as then, I was knocked out by the vigor of the town, the dedication of its artists, and the good will of the community. This year, as before, I stayed with our dear friend Polly Lee, one of Southeast Alaska's best known potters and painters, an early State Arts Council member and arts leader who has been an inspiration to Alaskans on artistic and other fronts for decades. She, some of the painters in this workshop, and many others in the Petersburg arts community are responsible for the growth of a thriving arts council, museum, an amazing amount of public art, and more in this island community of only about 3000 people.
I get at least as much from these experiences as the artists in the workshops I conduct. It is exhausting, as I work with them, talk with them, and explore art and much else with them from the moment I leave my room in the morning until I retire to it at night. But it's also exhilarating and energizing. I came home Monday feeling refreshed and renewed, having made new friends, full of gratitude for the opportunity to have been a part of this group for a few days, and so optimistic about Alaska's art, artists, and community.
You can see much more of the work of the Fresh Air group of Petersburg painters on the website of members Don and Karen Cornelius, at www.corneliusstudio.com. And you might want to check out the work of two other talented Petersburg artists that Polly Lee introduced me to while I was there. Fiber artist Sue Christensen has a great website at www.sjchristensen.com, and you can see some images of work by painter Pia Reilly at www.takugraphics.com/apreilly.html.
Roasting hot dogs for lunch over one of the fires thoughtfully built and tended all day, both days, by Pete Beckett--husband of workshop participant Carol Beckett.