I spent a fabulous nine days in early June in Juneau, Alaska. In addition to seeing old friends, visiting the 13 ft. diameter wooden yurt that Missy and I lived in back in the 1970's, and running on trails that have been greatly improved since those days, I juried a show for the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, gave two public talks, and did three radio interviews. But the real focus of the trip was two 3-day workshops I taught at the invitation of a hardy bunch of terrific painters who work out of doors in all weathers year-round in Juneau, who call themselves "Plein Rein." Cristine Crooks, who organized the workshops, and who with her husband Dean Guaneli put me up in their beautiful home on the Gastineau Channel in Douglas, limited the enrollment in each to 13 participants, and almost all of the artists took part in both sessions.
I did a similar stint with the Plein Rein painters in 2007, with many of the same artists, so I knew it would be fun and that I would be impressed with their energy, ambition, and their work itself, but it was even more of a delight to be back with them than I'd anticipated. We worked each day in gorgeous locations all over the limited Juneau road system, from Auke Bay Recreation Area to Amalga Harbor, Eagle Beach, Auke Lake, Eaglecrest, and Fish Creek--some of my favorite places anywhere.
As four years ago, I was impressed by the group's willingness to embrace the crazy things I asked them to do--all aimed at getting them out of their comfort zones as plein-air painters, keep them from relying on techniques and approaches they already knew and were comfortable with doing, and think about making work in new and different ways.
I seldom do workshops, since I retired to paint full time eleven years ago, after two decades of teaching painting at the University of Alaska. The outdoor painting classes I do teach are, I always say only half-jokingly, "anti plein-air painting workshops." I work out of doors myself often, and I think that painting from life is important for a landscape painter, but what I emphasize in my infrequent classes is almost the opposite of what most plein-air painting workshops preach. Instead of tips and tricks for getting things down quickly, recognizably, with everything comfortably in its place, I try to get artists to think about what they want to say. Not so much "What does it look like here?" or "Isn't this place pretty?" but "What do I want to say about this place?" "What does this place mean to me?" "What does it feel like to be here?" I emphasize making art, not pictures, and insist on treating the participants in my workshops as serious artists, not as weekend painters.
That's easy with this group, as they are not only dedicated, but an adventurous lot, not just in terms of weather, but in terms of their art. It's a delight to work with so many artists who are eager to try something new, confident enough to get outside their comfort zones, and dedicated enough that I know they will take from whatever experience I provide what's useful to them, incorporate it in their ever-growing toolbox, and continue making original work of their own.
The wooden yurt in which Missy and I lived, 17 miles north of Juneau, in the 1970s. Still in the same spot, it's now a storage shed in the backyard of a suburban Juneau home, but then it was not only a little less mossy, but was nestled in four acres of pristine woods. We hauled in our water on a picturesque trail that wound through the forest, then up a giant spruce tree that had been felled perpendicular to the steep slope, with steps cut into it to ascend. When we found it again a few years ago, I was sad to see it so forlorn and disheveled. Missy simply harrumphed, "Huh...just about the way I remember it!"