Owning a Piece of the Place
In a recent conversation, someone mentioned that they don't understand this fascination with plein air painting. I get that; it certainly is not for everyone, and even the majority of us who do love it, paint in the studio as well. Still, there is something that happens to me when I paint on location. I am immediately connected to it, even feel a bit of ownership of the place, and it doesn't seem to matter whether it is a new area I have never visited or one that I have been to many times before.
Because I live in Nashville Tennessee, people often ask me if I love country music. The truth is I do not. I can take some of it, leave most of it. But the moment someone comes to town, I cannot wait to share what I know about my area. I love giving them the tour. Whether we are looking in the honky-tonks, buying cowboy boots, driving past the symphony hall, seeing an exhibit at The Frist, visiting the Parthenon, looking up at the Tennessee State Capitol, or eating at our favorite bar-be-que joint, it is always a pleasure to share my hometown. If the person is a painter, we usually travel out in the countryside as well. We take a day-trip to Leiper's Fork, a tiny speck of a place were many great artists paint and exhibit their work in one of the area's finest galleries. We travel to favorite farms of mine and paint together. We visit an area called Germantown to paint the interesting architecture of the older homes there. And, of course, no tour would be complete without driving down one of the wealthiest boulevard's in the area to gawk at the $8 million+ homes there.
When I travel, I try to engage with the locals. Mark and I always do this, even if we are on a trip that I am not painting. We will strike up a conversation with the gas station attendant, or the person at the local pharmacy, grocery store, or coffee shop. We learn so much more about the place then any guidebook can ever share. Most people are very proud of where they live and enjoy talking about it, just like I do when visitors come here. They are eager to share their favorite hiking spots, hole-in-the-wall restaurant, and scenic views.
Often times I have the great pleasure of being hosted in someone's home when I am traveling for work. I am so grateful to everyone who has welcomed me into their homes, toured me around in their cars (or back of the pick-up, or on their golf cart, or loaned me their gator or boat), and shared their stories with me. Not only does it help me scout out painting locations, it also helps me when I begin to interpret those scenes on canvas. Sometimes I learn all about the town's history, I hear local legends (mixed with a little gossip), and by the time I paint an area three or four days, I feel personally connected to it. I have not just visited as a tourist, and I feel my own sense of pride of ownership there too.
I am reminded of the scene in Under the Tuscan Sun where Diane Lane's character, writer Frances Mayes, is sitting on the wall outside of Il Loggiato, a wonderful restaurant inCortona. Mayes helps a tourist write a post card to send to his mother. Her language is beautiful, but to him it seems too flowery. He simply bought the postcard; he did not experience the place. I have the fondest memory while painting in Cortona on one of my first trips there. There was fresh bread baking, and I could hear the woman singing in her kitchen as it baked. That painting was not a very successful one, but it holds a special place in my heart anyway. All of my location paintings have stories behind them, and when I return to the studio and begin to use these paintings to influence larger studio pieces, I am taken right back to the place, its sights and sounds, and people there.
You don't have to be a professional artist or plein air painter to experience this feeling I am trying to describe. You don't have to be an artist at all. The next time you travel, take a chance and talk to a stranger, bring along a sketchbook (yes, even if you are not an artist). Try to get to know the place you're visiting, sketch or paint your interpretation of it. Put fear and ego aside, and just try it. Sitting in one place for a while and watching the people pass by, hearing the sound of a distant train, or the smelling fresh bread baking as you sketch, fills your heart and soul. It gives you a personal connection that buying a postcard or souvenir simply cannot do.