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Aug 3, 2011

Plein Air Easton, the Epilogue, the Paintings...(long)

The Pacific Northwest contingent inside the Easton Museum during the Gala Soiree. 
From left to right, Eric Bowman, Mike Kowalski, and me...

Well here you go. The paintings from Easton Plein Air. Some of them at least. I ended up producing 16 in all, but exhibiting only 15 because late in the week one of them crashed and burned.

Plein Air  Easton did something this year I thought was a terrific idea. Something I will recommend to the event I work with as a consultant. Easton initiated a pre-paintout week and offered free hosting if we showed up early to paint. This was nice because it removed the disadvantage to newbies, as we could come early to get the lay of the land. It also allowed us more time to produce better work for the show. I sold three paintings off the easel before the event actually started, which was great since it meant most of my out-of-pocket to get to Easton was covered early on.

The second day of the pre-paintout early arrivals were encouraged to come paint at the Peery Inn Cabin Resort, a historic landmark near St. Michaels, and I decided to spend the day painting from a single spot. Literally the same spot. I decided I'd paint from the same point all day, turning to the left or right if needed,  and I got two nice works out of it. 

This was the view straight out from the main building. Across the water of the inlet there was a dock but not much else. Occasionally a sailboat would pass by but not stick around. They either go in or out, which suggested a story to me. I liked the minimalism of this view and accepted it as a challenge. I wanted to see if I could make something out of nothing. Around noon I thought I was finished and went to lunch. When I came back I felt the water below the horizon line was floating  so I picked up my palette knife and started scraping the paint off, and laying it back on, mixing a little wax into the paint to shorten it, and ended up with an interesting texture.

The painting was purchased by a couple from Pennsylvania who tracked me down 4 or 5 days later in downtown Easton. Apparently they saw it while I was walking back to the car at the end of the day. My friend Mike Kowalski was walking with me and they bought one of his as well. Now that's a fine collector. One who will find you days after the fact. Right, Mike?

'Waiting to Go Out"
12 x 9  |  oil on linen panel

Later that day I started working this other little painting. I wasn't really into painting it when I started because I was hungry, hot, and tired, and had decided my idea of painting from the exact same place all day long was stupid. Dumb. What an idiot, was I thought as I absently-mindedly pushed the paint around. But to the left of Perry Cabin was a small yacht club and these young kids were sailing Lasers out from the dock to a point in front of me and ditching their boats. They were laughing and yelling at each other as they capsized their boats and uprighted them again. They were having so much fun I started to enjoy myself too. So I started paying attention to what they were doing, and became engrossed in the process, and ended up with one of my favorite little gems of the week. Kids. Put them on or in the water and they are going to have a good time. I gotta remember that whenever I feel a little cranky.

"Learning the Ropes"
10 x 8  | oil on linen panel

Okay, this next painting might require a little explanation: There are two famous oyster-bed boats moored on Tihlman Island everyone on the eastern shore knows about. They belong to the Crowe Brothers, who are two well-known watermen. The boats were worked for years until they could no longer could be run, or became unprofitable to do so. I never got a straight answer on that part of the story. So the Crowe Brother Boats were parked by the Tihlman Island drawbridge and over the years became rust-bucket icons for local painters and collectors. (Last year a painting of the boats won the "Vanishing Landscape" category in Easton.) It is practically a pre-requisite for the Easton newbie paint these boats so naturally the first thing I did was go paint them. Only, I showed up and there was just the one. It turns out the other boat broke up and sank a couple of months ago and this one is the only one left. Which explains the title, "Last Brother Standing". (More on the Crowe Boat later...)

Study for "Last Brother Standing"
12 x 9  |  oil on linen panel

Next is the Crowe Boat again. Only this time I'm painting it larger because I decided to make it one of my competition entries for the gala opening night. We're allowed two paintings to be judged for awards and recognition and I thought I'd found a terrific angle to paint a local landmark from. Only, I ran into a little problem that morning. I had happily completed the blocking in, and deeply committed to the finish, when the "Dockmaster" comes running up to me and starts yelling in my face, saying...


Which kind of took the wind out of my sails, for that wasn't the usual reaction I got when a person stops by to check out what I am doing. Clearly this was a man who was annoyed with me. So I tried to explain what I was up to and it went nowhere because apparently artists who like to paint the Crowe boat are a dime-a-dozen and he's having none of it on his dock. So off the dock I go and into office where I try to plead my case. Or try to get a read on who this dockmaster-guy is because I really want to finish the painting - I need to finish the painting - and I feel it's definitely worth finishing the painting, or so I thought at the time. And while I'm in the harbor office trying to sweet-talk myself back onto the dock, essentially making an end run around the the guy, he walks in. Well, after the shouting died down again we worked out a compromise: I leave right now, this instant, and tomorrow he won't be around so if some yacht causes me injury by accidentally spraying fuel on me, orI get  drenched with whatever toxic effluents being pumped out of a work boat – well, he won't have to worry about it. It won't be his problem. So I sign the waiver form and come back the next morning when he's off-duty.

Frankly, I'm glad I came back because the painting garnered the award "Best New Artist to Easton" from Steve Doherty, editor of Plein Air Magazine. Not an insignificant recognition an Easton newb. (Actually, it's an award only open to the Easton newbie, right? Ha!) So thank you Steve, and Mr. Dock Master, whoever you were. I wouldn't have received this award without either of you!

"Last Brother Standing"
24 x 18  |  oil on linen panel

A few days into the pre-paintout we were ask to come up to Queen's county and paint in the Kent Narrows. While there (With my friend Mike again) a father and his 17 year old boy came by and we all chatted for quite a while. Pretty much about anything and everything. It was clear the boy was enjoying his morning with his dad and they were quite playful with each other. It was nice to see a teen and a dad hanging out. So I put them in the painting. Hence the name...

"Father and Son"
16 x 12  | oil on linen panel

Next up is my favorite painting of the event. I know I should tell you the award winner is my favorite but this is the one instead. One morning I drove down to Oxford with some friends to paint in a wooden boatyard owned by two brothers named Ronnie and Ed and while I was at work I realized painting a sailboat was just like painting a female nude. Not to go sexist here, but one of the things it is essential to do when painting a nude is to search for the expressive contrapposto curves and lines. Once you locate them everything else becomes more clear. Hit those contrasting lines and curves and the figure will stand, sit, or lay convincingly on the ground. And your boat will sit or float on the water.

"Good Harbor Stow"
16 x 12  | oil on linen panel

('Good harbor stow' means the boat has been properly prepped to remain at the dock. And without knowing that, this was what drew me to the scene in the first place. The tidy nature of the furled sails and rigging. The owner of this ketch was also the owner of the boat yard and he built this boat himself. He also named the painting. The things you learn in this crazy business! He and his brother also offered to take me out for a sail on the Chesapeake in this boat after the event was over but I couldn't fit it in. Next year for sure.)

This next painting was also painted in Ronnie and Ed's boat yard. Mike and I were struck by the red boat building in the background, where boats get stripped and refinished, and interested in the rails that come out of the water. The owners liked what we were doing the day before so they offered to move a Catboat into the frame to help create a better composition. So Ed basically composed this painting for me. Ed and Ronnie also named this painting. Both Ed and Ronnie were both great help–to Mike and me–and all the other Easton painters that swarmed around the boatyard like ants. I guess over the years Ed and Ronnie gotten used to us.

"Waiting for Haul Out"
16 x 12  | oil on linen panel

Next is a famous "Buy Boat" that once worked the bay. It is now moored at the Chesapeake Maritime Museum in St. Michael. The temperature was running over 100F with + 90 degrees humidity while I worked it and I had difficulty handling the paint and mineral spirits as I worked So I decided to go for an Edward Seago effect of using very minimal color. (Again, apparently only mad dogs, Englishmen, and me go out under the noonday sun...) During the last few centuries, a buy boat was used to run out to a Skipjack (more on skipjacks later) to off-load oysters intended for Baltimore and Annapolis fish markets. Kind of a short bus, or taxi, or ferry so the skipjack wouldn't have to come in. Very cool history with these boats. While I was painting this boat the daughter of one of the last buy boat captains came by and shared some stories. She wanted to buy the painting then and there and I believe she came into the museum after the show opened and bought it out of the back room. Never got a chance to meet her after our first chat. I hope to meet her again someday so I can ask her more about her father because there were more stories to be had. 

"Old Point Buy Boat"
16 x 12  | oil on linen panel

This next painting brings us to the subject of Maryland's Watermen. Here are a few of their oyster boats docked at Claiborn Landing in the early evening light. Each spit or neck on the eastern shore has a bunch of little out-of-the-way landings and that's where the watermen leave their boats when they are done for the day. Until 1974 there wasn't an easy way for mainlanders to get to 'The Shore' so the region had three hundred years of isolation to develop an internal fishing culture. And today's watermen still continue the culture apart from the rest of the community. I met several watermen while I was out painting and not one of them was the least bit interested in giving me the time of day. Or interested in acknowledging my presence. Some friends Mike and I made in Oxford showed us Claiborn landing late in the day on their way back to Virginia and when I walked down towards the boat launch there were two old watermen (in their seventies if they were a day) chewing the fat, hanging off an old truck parked down at the water line. I couldn't tell if they were going to be a while so I politely inquired, "comin' or goin'?" and they just looked at me as if I was speaking Martian. And went back to ignoring me. Thinking maybe they hadn't heard me I gently asked again, "In or out?" At which point they both looked at me again without a response before turning back to their conversation, which due to their accent I couldn't follow. What a newb I was! To think they would deign to reply. Ha! When I shared this with the Easton folks that night in the bar they all just laughed.

"Watermen at Rest"
16 x 12  | oil on linen panel

Hope House is a old eastern shore 'Manour' out on a neck that someone in town in directed me to. I arrived uninvited, unannounced, and unexpected, and as I drove up the place seemed drawn out of a Jane Austen novel. I kid you not, I clocked two miles from the gate to the portico I painted, and passed plenty of deer, free-ranging sheep. and a peacock ambling around on the grounds. When I knocked on the kitchen door to introduce myself Peter, the owner, welcomed me warmly in nothing but some old beat up khaki shorts and boaters. (Again, it was over 100F and quite humid that day. I'd have done the same in my own house.) I'd interrupted Peter while he was canning and preserving vegetables from his country garden, a green space which looked like it could have been painted by NC Wyeth or Howard Pyle. Canning preserves in over 100F heat. Wow. Peter was great fun and insisted I take a jar of his honey with me – of course he's a beekeeper too. Why wouldn't he do that as well? – and I decided to take no risks with it and have it shipped home. I mean, it's not like we don't have honey around here ourselves, but it isn't Peter's honey, is it?

"Hope's Portico" (aka, Peter's Portico)
12 x 16  | oil on linen panel

(I knew this painting wasn't going to be a guaranteed-seller at the end of the week but I was so struck by the Sargent-like pillars as I drove up I just had to give it a go. I think I did okay with my attempt but it clearly ain't no Sargent. I did, however, learn something interesting about how JS painted as I worked it and will share what I learned in a future post...)

And finally, the Skipjack. Or perhaps I should say 'skipjacks', since much of the time I was in Easton was spent trying to find a few to paint. The skipjack is a particular kind of boat once widely used by the shore oystermen to fish (harvest?) the beds. These boats are a thing of beauty, a consummate melding of practicality and elegance. And the skipjack speaks deeply to the maritime history and lore of the region. There are not that many skipjacks on the water now and very few of them are still in private hands. Most are relegated to hauling tourist around or sit as museum pieces here and there, but one or two may still be found at work. This one is privately owned and harbors in its own port far from the madding fiberglass powerboat modernity of other moorages. When I was brought here by my friend Hai-Ou I felt I had walked into the 17th century. I never met the boat's owner but I understood he was in the house, watching, behind us as we painted. In a southern antebellum-style house that looked somewhat haunted after the sunset, when we quit. A spooky place complete with hounds baying indoor, glowing fireflies trapped in spiderwebs on the porch, a dazed looking mule at the rail. And a puffy little unidentifiable duck/rooster that chased me around for a while. A Disney-like haunted house without the Disney...

18 x 24  | oil on linen panel

And finally, since I was awarded the honor of "Best New Artist to Easton" at the gala opening, I qualified to paint during the Sunday Brunch Paint Out, an elite event which rotates from one grand manor, to another each year. This meant I was given another opportunity to paint again, and only of 16 of us would be competing. And the work we produced would be live-auctioned off to the shore's society crowd -- the institutional supporters of the Avalon Foundation. All very desirable things. 

So I crawled out of bed at 4:00am (eastern time) and was on the grounds by dawn, where I and the other artists were squired around the estate in golf carts so we could choose a painting site. (It was fun to see who picked what to paint...) After seeing everything on the estate I chose an old run down cabin a couple of hundred yards away from the mansion, a raw wood shack tucked under an old bent elm tree. It was a quiet and humble place and easily missed. That shack was a slave cabin and it just exuded a sense of place. There aren't very many slaves cabins left in Maryland anymore so I decided this would be my subject. I went inside to open the windows and doors, and walked around looking for an interior view, but decided I should paint it from the outside instead. 

Painting the cabin...

The air conditioned tent...

And as I painted folks who were arriving for the brunch came by to check me out, before the rising heat drove them into the air-conditioned tent. (Yes, air-conditioned!) I had no idea what to call this painting as I had certainly picked a controversial subject. You see, during the Civil War Maryland was considered a free-state but the Eastern Shore not so much. And earlier in the week I'd learned from a local that during the Civil Rights Era the Shore was rife with all sorts of very bad things. Things nobody wanted to talk about now. So I understood what I was painting would be a tough sell. So as the brunch party came over to see what I was doing I asked them to help name the painting and I received all sorts of good suggestions, but the one that stuck just before I finished was, "Part of Our Story", and I think it came from the daughter of the current estate owner. I almost burst into tears with gratitude because that name fit what I set out to do perfectly. It couldn't have been more appropriate. It lent my painting gravitas without burdening it with cheap political overtones, and frankly, the title made one reflect. I believe it was her title that made the painting go hot during the live auction. And I am grateful to her for it.

"Part of Our Story"
20 x 16  | oil on linen panel


I've done a lot of plein air events in the last two years, some large and some small, even repeated a few. And I have yet to finish out my 2011 season. (Curacao and Laguna are coming up shortly...) But Plein Air Easton goes down in my mind for being the one that connected to my heart the most. With people and subjects of the great interest to me. The stories that came out of these past two weeks were most affecting. 

So even though I just got home I am already eager to return next year. Without hesitation or questions. Assuming I get judged into next year's event... Ha!


5 reader comments:

Celeste Bergin said...

well that was an enlightening and entertaining report! I wish I could choose a favorite of all your paintings--they are all so good! You created such a "variety" !

J. Kevin James said...

What a great report! I was so wanting to see the Last Brother Standing up close. Was definitely well worth the hassle...plus you got a great story out of it. I think my favorite though is Hope's Portico! Those white pillars just jump out at me against the reds of the building.

Frank Gardner said...

Great post Thomas. Totally enjoyed reading all of the back stories that go along with your pieces.
Sounds like a fun place to paint.
Do the pre week paintings get offered with the rest of them or are you free to do what you please with those? Seems like it would take sales away from the event if everyone is selling off their easels the week before the show.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Thanks Frank.

Was away on a short trip (California commission) but am back home and in the studio.

You have some terrific work from Door County yourself. I was invited this year myself but couldn't since it overlapped with Easton. I hope this won't happen next year as I'd like to do both. I assume DC was good for you and Marc Hanson.

And readers: If you don't know Frank Gardner's work, you should. It's rock-solid painting. Enjoy:


And Marc Hanson's:

But to return to Frank's question...

I thought Easton's pre-paintout was great. It offered an opportunity to scout around, log some sites, and warm up a bit. It took some of the manic aspects off the table.

Yes, paintings produced during that week could be sold during the public sale, but no pre-event art could be entered for prize judging.

As for selling off the easel, I don't think it affected the next week's museum sales at all. In fact, having artists around painting the week prior probably raised the event's profile. (Not that Easton seems to need it's visibility to be raised. Everyone within 60 miles knew all about Easton and was thrilled to have us artists around. I have never participated in a plein air paint-out where so many folks were so interested and kind to us artists, and I've done all the biggies on the West Coast except for SLO. Not that I'm knocking the West Coast for our offerings are great too. I just found Easton to be on a different scale.

Mike Kowalski ( http://mikekowalskifineart.com ) Hai-Ou ( http://www.haiouhouart.com ) and I sold most of the work during the pre-event and we were fortunate to meet a lovely couple who later bought a few more from us during the official show -- who, at the end of the week also decided to endow Plein Air Easton with a cash award for "Best Out of State Artist" to help defray travel expenses for the recipient. (A $1K yearly prize. Nice!) This was a couple who would not have become involved, or even attend the show if they hadn't met us. Of course, we got them into the Friday Night Gala Soirée and into the Sunday Brunch as well. They also bought a fine Bryan Mark Taylor upon my encouragement at the live auction on the last day. I believe none of this would have occurred without Me, Mike, or Haio-Ou working the pre-week.

Later on, there was one artist who complained to my face during lunch that the pre-week was unfair, but frankly, while I was hard at work in Easton he was busy making money at Crested Butte, so I failed to see his point. Besides, he could have decided to come early but made a different choice instead. Everyone loves this guy (including me), and I bet you know him too because he is the sort of fellow who willing to say out loud what everyone in the room is thinking, but on this issue I couldn't see it. It came across a bit as sour grapes...

I am a consultant for another West Coast plein air event and I have already recommended the organizers offer a pre-paintout period as well. How they decided to set it up, offer hosting, or encourage pre-sales, I cannot say yet. But a pre-week for their event will allow any artist who opts in more time to finish work, and, if official canvas stamping doesn't happened until the actual kick-off, it will still allow for a sense of equal competition for late arrivers. Which works out well in the end for everyone, IMHO.


And Frank, I've wanted to put a group together for a workshop down in San Miguel Allende for a long time and would love to do so in the near future. As you know, my wife I have visited the area a few times and we love it, and it offers so much to paint. May I have my wife call you to discuss how you promote and run your 'shops? Details and stuff? Or, just let me know the next time you will be in the States and I will try to connect.

Thanks man,


Frank Gardner said...

Hi Thomas, that reply is a blog post in itself. Thanks for giving such a detailed response. Door County was great. It was my first Plein Air event. I'd love to try Easton too one day. They have been the same dates though. I think the 2012 Door Co. is later in July. If Easton is earlier maybe I could try both.
You or your wife could email me about workshops in San Miguel.