I’m not really a plein air painter, but I love to paint outdoors. I mostly avoid those competitive plein air events where artists scramble to produce and frame a landscape painting worthy to display and sell. But I found my comfort level at the annual gathering of WOW – Women Out West, Professional Artists of Utah – in Mount Carmel, Oct. 5-8.
It’s not a plein air event at all, declares the group’s founder Kathy Cieslewicz, curator for the Sears Art Museum at Dixie State University. It’s for all professional women artists working in any medium and any subject. Indeed, at this, my first WOW event, I met photographers and sculptors as well as painters. Though we did show some of our work to each other on the second evening just before dinner, we were not judged, awarded, or critiqued; just friendly “oohs” and “aahs” among friends.
I became aware of WOW several years ago when one of my women artist friends posted something on Facebook. I asked how I might get involved and was told the group was “invitation only,” but my friend offered to arrange an invitation. I was then put in touch with Cieslewicz who told me to email her a bio, artist statement, head shot, and several examples of my work (in high-resolution jpg files). This year I finally was able to put the annual event on my calendar.
I knew only two of the 30 women who attended: Sherry Meidell and Becky Hartvigsen, from the Utah Watercolor Society. Meidell advised me on where to stay and what to expect, and invited me to go out and paint with them. She had been there once before and was my fount of all knowledge.
First stop upon arrival in Mount Carmel about 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday was the Maynard Dixon Gallery, owned by Susan and Paul Bingham, who, along with Sears Art Museum, sponsor the event. There, I picked up a schedule of events, a booklet with possible painting locations, and watched as other artists arrived and met up with old friends from past years. As an introvert, I imagined a lonely evening ahead, but that was not to be. Maryann Free Smith and Carol Dunford Jackman introduced themselves and invited me to join them for Mexican food in Kanab.
Back at the Mount Carmel Motel, a small but clean strip motel with about seven rooms and an RV park, I was settling in and thinking about sleep, when there was a knock on the door. Sherry and Becky had arrived and we made plans to meet the next morning at 9 to find our first painting location. After they left, there was another knock and I opened the door to Valerie Orlemann and Lisa Huber who said they were looking for other women painters. I invited them in and we quickly shared our “art histories.” Wow! I now knew more than eight of the women in the group and didn’t feel alone at all.
After painting Thursday morning, the group gathered for a potluck lunch at the Maynard Dixon home adjacent to the gallery. The property has been beautifully restored and maintained by the Binghams. We were encouraged to look through the home and nearby studio and to stay on the grounds to paint that afternoon. I expected to see artists anxious to run off and make more art, and some did. But I also heard others say they were going to take naps.
As I looked around the grounds, I could imagine still life, or even abstract, painters finding inspiration throughout the patios, gardens, or inside the buildings. There’s definitely more than landscape to paint here.
Cieslewicz told me that there are currently more than 125 women who have joined the group. Those who do not attend the event are missing a great opportunity for a low-cost art retreat. The very modest $45 registration fee includes a dinner on Friday night, prepared by Paul Bingham and served at the gallery. Local motel rooms can be had for as little as $50 a night. And with refrigerators and microwaves in the rooms, it’s possible to eat cheaply, too.
Cieslewicz emphasized that the retreat time is for “whatever you want to do. You can paint outdoors in any medium, or you can sit in a lounge chair the whole time, or go around and watch and talk to other artists.” She adds, “We like photographers to come too. And it’s a great place for painters to gather reference photos for studio paintings.”
Now in its fifth year, WOW continues to attract new artists and some of the best-known women artists in the state. Sharon Gray, who taught art education at BYU for 33 years, came for the first time this year. “It’s wonderful to have camaraderie with women who are making art and to see the creative juices flowing and gaining from one another’s insights and experiences,” she says. She used her time there to “take about 3,000 pictures.” Some of these may be part of a sequel to an art installation she created earlier this year for the Sears Art Museum at Dixie State University. Called “Shadowing Sharon, Shades of Gray,” the exhibit includes large photographic prints as well as several projected slide shows of images she took on a trip to Europe, each of which includes her own shadow. Gray and her husband now serve as academic volunteers during the winter term at BYU Hawaii.
Gray noted the diversity of the women at the event. In addition to photographers and painters, there were sculptors as well. Anne Gregerson displayed a clay sculpture as the group gathered for dinner Friday night.
Arlene Braithwaite, a well-known landscape painter and art educator, was at WOW for the second time. “I’m sad it took me this long to discover [WOW] because it’s a wonderful experience,” she tells me. “To be with people who love to do what you love to do. We’re all here to paint and we just love to be outdoors, and to learn from each other. At the end it is so wonderful to see all the different interpretations of the same landscape,” she says.
You can learn more about Women Out West: Professional Artists of Utah at their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WOW-Women-Out-West-Professional-Artists-of-Utah-348856688518397/