Art NotesArts & Culture

Plein Air Artists Capture Beauty in the Natural World

For the past 24 years, the Athens Area Plein Air Artists have gathered once a month at some of the most interesting outdoor locations in and around town, canvases and art supplies in hand. Working quickly, as per plein-air tradition, they capture the beauty of nature through their media of choice: watercolors, acrylics, oil paints, pastels, colored pencils, photography and even fiber art. Fittingly, a total of 24 artists are sharing a few of their favorites through “Our Point of View: Athens Area Plein Air Artists,” an exhibition currently installed at the Lyndon House Arts Center.

Athens Area Plein Air Artists was founded in 1994 by Claire Clements, who felt inspired to form the group after personal research into how to grow new brain cells. Her curiosity led her to stumble upon the breakthroughs of Marian Diamond, a University of California, Berkeley anatomy professor who worked posthumously on Einstein’s brain and is widely considered one of the founders of modern neuroscience. Diamond and her team were the first to publish hard data confirming the plasticity of the brain, or the concept that the brain can change and improve through experiences and enrichment. She suggests that there are three major essential elements to brain growth: stimulation, challenge and service to others. Approached from this mindset, the Plein Air Artists group effectively offers an opportunity for growth; artists are stimulated by what catches their eye in nature, challenged to render it artistically, then given the chance to help other artists by sharing ideas, techniques and motivational encouragement. 

Clements has dedicated much of her life to the service of others. After pursuing degrees in painting and art education at Carnegie Mellon and Penn State universities, she took a faculty position in the field of disabilities, finding ways to incorporate art into the programming. After 18 years of working at UGA, she decided to pursue her own artistic goals full-time.  

Currently, the Plein Air Artists meet on the second Thursday of each month from 9 a.m.–12 p.m., then head to a nearby restaurant to relax and socialize. The sessions are self-guided and do not involve any teachers or dues; artists are free to explore and experiment at their own whim. The group also holds paint-outs, critiques and discussions of specific themes throughout the year. 

“All ages can do art! All levels of competence are welcome, as each of us has experienced life and sees with their own eyes,” says Clements. “The joy and satisfaction we see this bringing to others is very motivating. People helping each other through—encouraging at the sharing time following each session—is meaningful to all and motivates everyone.” 

Proposed by artist Jack Burk, “Our Point of View” seeks to offer a unique perspective of Athens through the eyes of artists. The exhibition focuses on four main subjects: gardens and parks, historical buildings, charming neighborhoods and surrounding countryside. Several pieces are grouped thematically, demonstrating just how different artistic interpretations can be. 

Appearing on the cover of this week’s Flagpole, Betsy Barth Withington’s “Iron Horse” hangs in between two paintings by Levon Register of the iconic sculpture, an abstracted close-up of the head at sunset and a golden-bodied horse nearly camouflaged within the yellow field. Several landmarks and familiar businesses grace the walls, like paintings of Stan Mullins’ sculpture studio on Pulaski Street by Mia York and Mark Hodges, and paintings of the old gas pumps outside of Automatic Pizza by Dortha Jacobson and Mary Ann Cox. Yvonne Studevan contributes wonderful angles on Hot Corner institutions Brown’s Barber Shop, Wilson’s and the Morton Theatre. Other popular locations include the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, Ware-Lyndon House parterre garden and Sweet Olive Rescue Farm. Of course, there are also plenty of eye-catching landscapes and botanicals, like Bob Clements’ “Far Away Dreams” in a canola field and Lola Queralt-Gazda’s hyper-realistic “Tropical Hibiscus.”

The Plein Air Artists are an official art group of the Lyndon House, belonging to a diverse lineup of over 15 other groups and guilds who are currently showcasing their full range of interests and talents in the concurrently running exhibition “Full House.” Though everyone typically meets at outdoor locations, the group will occasionally hold sessions at the Lyndon House during cold weather. During these events, members will bring interesting objects to make still lifes or take turns painting portraits of each other. 

“To many of us, there is nothing as good as working directly from nature,” says Clements. “I personally begin in nature, working very quickly, and later, in the studio, contemplate the plastic elements, line color, shape, texture—all those things make up a powerful artistic statement while finishing the work.” 

Just as the artists find inspiration outdoors, “Our Point of View” encourages viewers to seek a deeper connection with nature and to look more closely at the world around them. The exhibition will remain on view through Saturday, Aug. 4.