Plein Air Art - Looking Back (Part 5) by Jeannine Cook

When John Singer Sargent painted this scene of Claude Monet working en plein air, he recorded the heyday of the Impressionists' love of working outdoors to record and celebrate nature.  Ever since, there has been a long list of wonderful plein air artists on every continent, and we artists, living today, have a rich heritage of landscape art from which to be inspired.  This is the final Part 5 of my blog entry on Plein Air Art-  Looking Back.

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An Artist's Musing on Hurricane Matthew by Jeannine Cook

From Europe, following the progress of Hurricane Matthew up the United States East Coast was all-consuming in time this week. For quite a while, it looked as if our home was going to be full, fair and square in the centre of the hurricane's track. Ouch! Thanks to wonderful friends, the house was shuttered and after that, I decided that the only course of action was fatalism. Nonetheless, I had time to muse on some of the implications of being severely hit and have the house badly damaged.

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When the Subject chooses the Artist... by Jeannine Cook

For a long time, I have found that in many instances, what I draw is seemingly dictated to me by happenstance. So when I read a quote from Maggie Hambling, one of Britain's leading figurative artists, about subjects choosing her, it resonated! She said, "I believe the subject chooses the artist, not vice versa, and that subject must then be in charge during the act of drawing in order for the truth to be found. Eye and hand attempt to discover and produce those precise marks which will recreate what the heart feels. The challenge is to touch the subject, with all the desire of a lover."

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Celebrating the Aerial Arts by Jeannine Cook

So often, as a visual artist, I am looking down - at my paper - orlooking out at whatever I am drawing or painting. I don't find myself looking up very often. So it was a lovely change to spend an evening, last night, at Marsh Studio in McIntosh County, Georgia, looking up and delighting in aerial arts. Caroline Calouche had brought her aerial and contemporary dance company, CC&Co, to perform an evening of cabaret dance, "Rouge", for a lucky audience.

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Landscapes by Jeannine Cook

The snow had fallen all night, but the morning dawned clear and sharp. To the south, as I topped the first rise of the hills, lay the Pyrenees, higher, more intricate in form and peak, more immense in span of horizon than I remembered. My second time as an artist in residence at Bordeneuve was beginning in beauty. Some of the peaks were blushed pink-apricot, others were subdued in greys and pearls. The foreground of rolling, energy-filled hills was their prelude, dark with winter filigree of trees. This massive display of seemingly timeless mountain ranges, so memorable, so old, so sacred and so wildly beautiful, left me with mixed emotions. I could understand why early man used the Pyrenees mountain caves and dwelt in these abodes close to their food sources and to their gods.

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Places that Inspire by Jeannine Cook

Some while ago, I read a comment by a British watercolourist, Tony Foster, who had been painting on both the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon.  (He managed to paint six-foot wide pieces on location, quite a feat in of itself!)  What he said was, "My thesis is that despite a world overloaded with imagery, certain places still retain the power to inspire awe and wonder.  All of my work is based on the philosophy that our planet is a gloriously beautiful but fragile place, and that as an artist, it is my role to deliver a testament to the fact that wild and pristine places still exist."

He is right. Art is one way to remind people that we are still able to visit places that transcend our normal humdrum lives, with beauty and grandeur that humble and inspire us.  But the subtext of such reminders is that we need to be vigilant, thoughtful custodians of such places.

This past weekend, when I was out along the Georgia coast, drawing, I felt myself to be in such a place of inspiration.  There is something about a natural environment that has not been much changed nor manipulated by man: it has another feel, another rhythm.  More primal, perhaps, but infinitely more powerful, subtle, complex and yet, very fragile.  As you settle down in such a place to try and create art plein air, the magic of the place begins to seep in - the lay of the land, the movement of water, the breezes, the sounds, the play of light.  It is hard to access how these influences show up on the art one is creating - perhaps only others can see them.  Nonetheless, there is an alchemy, an inspiration that keeps one going.

Even when the art one is creating is on a small scale, unlike Tony Foster's, the dialogue between place and artist is very much there.  Perhaps one is working almost instinctively, but the influences and inspiration of the place seep into what one is doing. 

Marsh wrack, silver/gold/copperpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

Marsh wrack, silver/gold/copperpoint, Jeannine Cook artist

This metalpoint drawing, Marsh wrack, is about the wonderful, but seemingly chaotic patterns left by the dead Spartina grass swept up onto the high water mark by spring tides and left there to decay and re fertilise the salt water marshes.  Having spent time drawing a tenaciously majestic dead red cedar tree in Prismacolor, it was interesting to focus in on the marsh wrack lying in rafts along the shore at high water mark.

Last Days for the Cedar, Prismacolor, Jeannine Cook artist

Last Days for the Cedar, Prismacolor, Jeannine Cook artist

Both these drawings were, in essence, about the cycle of life in such natural, wild places.  The dead cedar was decaying, slowly and inexorably, host to lichen and insects, just as the marsh wrack was home to innumerable small crabs and insects who helped break down the grass stems.

These places of inspiration owe at least some of their power, perhaps, to the implicit reminders that, untrammelled by man's intervention, nature continues its exquisitely balanced and logical cycles of birth, growth, decay. We are straying into a world that should, and can when allowed to,  continue to evolve and exist in amazing, elegant sophistication.

As artists, we are privileged to get glimpses of these wonders.

Dutch Utopia exhibit at Telfair Museum by Jeannine Cook

Savannah's Telfair Museum of Art has just opened an unusual and most interesting exhibition, Dutch Utopia. Using art already in the Museum's permanent holdings as a springboard, curator Holly Koons McCullough and her team have assembled a large number of works by American artists who worked in artists' colonies and small unspoiled villages in the Netherlands during the second half of the nineteenth century.

There are plenty of canvases large and small by artists who remain well known today, from John Singer Sargent to Robert Henri and William Merritt Chase. Then there are the delights to be savoured thanks to many artists whose names are less familiar today, from George Hitchcock to accomplished women artists like Anna Stanley and Elizabeth Nourse. Traditional compositions of landscape or interiors suddenly change to daring works which feel much more contemporary to us today. Watercolours hold their own with oils on canvas, some huge. It is an interesting mix of works and takes one to a totally different time and place, in a tight society living beneath amazingly luminous Northern skies, where wind and sea dictate every aspect of life and, according to one contemporary comment, there is a great deal of the colour blue in sunlight. The American artists lived there for varying lengths of time, but they all seemed to concentrate on eliminating from their work any hints of the changes that Europe had been undergoing as the Industrial Revolution reached its zenith. The Holland they portray had barely changed from the work Rembrandt and Franz Hals knew.

I found myself contrasting many of the scenes of Dutch women, be-coiffed and be-clogged, monumental and utterly Northern, with those by the Pont Aven school of artists who were depicting the Breton women with their typical coiffes and, yes, clogs too, on occasion. Working at about the same time, Gaugin, Sérusier, Emile Bernard and a host of other French artists were working in the sleepy little Brittany towns of Pont Aven or Le Pouldu. They were, to my eye, far more adventurous in their approaches than the Americans in the Netherlands, but each community produced some wonderful art.

The Ghost Story , 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

The Ghost Story, 1887, Oil on canvas, Walter MacEwen , (Image courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio)

In Holland,  1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

In Holland, 1887,Oil on canvas, Gari Melchers
Gari Melchers Home and Studio, Fredericksburg, Virginia

The Telfair's exhibition runs until January 10th, 2010, before moving to the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Singer Laren Museum in the Netherlands.
It is well worth seeing at one of its venues.