Hints 'n' Tips: Plein Air
Plein Bear Painting
2014 Summer Plein Air Adventures
This summer was busy as always, filled with several noteworthy plein air adventures. As a member of the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters group, I spent two weeks in Grand Teton National Park, painting for our yearly show in the Craig Thomas Visitors Center. The way this show works is that members and guest artists gather in July to paint every day out in the park for a week and a half before bringing their creations in from the field for display and sale. The event raises thousands of dollars each year, which benefits the park directly. In these times of shrinking budgets it’s a win for the park as well as the artists and viewing public.
The thing I love about this event is that I don’t have to be anywhere for days on end, which gives me the freedom to roam to my heart’s content. My method for picking painting spots on any given day is dictated only by which way the wind happens to be blowing. Typically, I will set out in the morning with my painting gear, lunch, cooler of water and lounge chair (in case I want to nap under a tree) and set off with no particular destination in mind. This procedure works well for me and suits my personality quite well. One day I might get three field paintings done and on another maybe only one; it doesn’t matter, the main thing I am after is to have the painting sessions filled with a give and take with nature that is inspiring and rewarding in a visual as well as emotional way. If I can accomplish this, I feel that the painting produced will speak to others as well as myself. Put another way, the painting, as a product, will take care of itself as long as I remain in the moment, and enjoy the process more than I worry about the outcome of the work.
This year was notable due to the abundance of bears in the park. One day after finishing a painting session down at String Lake I noticed an artist friend, Wes Newton, off to the side of the road, painting near a thicket of trees. I pulled over and went out to talk to him, when all of a sudden we noticed some people waving to us. Thinking they were just interested in painting, we waved back, but didn’t pay much attention until we heard a cracking noise coming from behind the trees where a bear appeared just a few feet away. Of course, we backed off and let Mr. Bear have plenty of room to do what he pleased. His first stop, you guessed it, was Wes’s easel with his field study still attached. By that time I figured that Wes’s painting was toast, especially when the bear got up on his easel. Amazingly though, even after pushing down on the palette and taking a lick of only the blue paints, the whole setup survived along with the painting!
After that we decided to take a walk down to Leigh Lake to find some painting locations, and on the way back to the parking lot we were cut off on the trail by another bear. This time we stayed back, but followed, stopping along the way each time the bear stopped to dig under a log or turn over a rock. We stayed with him for about a half mile until he veered off the trail right before we reached String Lake. As we came out of the woods into the open, I noticed a family having a picnic dinner by a campfire and went to warn them that a bear was approaching in their direction. They thanked me, but I didn’t get the impression that they thought my warning was credible, until I noticed them all scattering in different directions a few minutes later when you-know-who showed up! Funny thing was he walked right through their camp and into another family’s picnic. The last time I saw Mr. Bear he was laying on the ground eating a bag of potato chips! Someone told me later that about 15 minutes after that, a ranger came roaring down the road in his truck and turned into the String Lake parking lot like he was going to a fire. Wonder what that was all about!
After the Rocky Mountain Plein Air event, I was off again to the Wind River Range for a week of painting in some amazing country. It was a small group, just Wes Newton and me, since a couple of others had to drop out at the last hour. Clayton and Mitzy Voss of the Lazy TX Outfitters were understanding about the low numbers and worked with us anyway.
First of all, we’re talking about a nine-hour horse ride into base camp near Gannet Peak (ouch!). But the good news is that we made it. One of the wranglers explained it to us this way: if the stirrups are too short your knees will ache, if they are too long your hips will ache, but if your whole body aches, they are just right. Yup, they must have been just right! I was actually amazed at how well we did since neither of us was used to riding, especially that far. We soon became accustomed to life in the saddle though, and made daily trips out into the backcountry with Chuck our guide, our horses and another pack horse to carry our painting gear. Chuck was great company, quite a historian on the local area as well as an expert on the terrain. Each day after a great breakfast that Mitzy cooked up for us we headed out to paint in the pristine environment. She would also pack us a lunch and Chuck would lead the way until something caught our eyes to paint. At that point we would unpack and paint for hours on end while Chuck would sit back and spend the day reading a good novel or just enjoying the scenery he loved so much. Life was good, and we had everything we needed. All week long I rode a horse named Peanut and became accustomed to his ways. One thing I caught on to early was Peanut’s habit of trying to brush me up against a tree or a bush that was near the trail. After learning his quirks, it was easy to anticipate a situation up ahead and overcorrect before it became a problem. Peanut was part draft horse and was a powerhouse who did a lot of the heavy work like dragging logs when he wasn’t on a pack trip. On the last day just before our return trip back to Dubois, the Wranglers decided that Peanut should stay behind so they could get some of the heavy work done. Consequently, I rode out on another horse that I wasn’t used to. About a half hour into the return trip we hit a sandy area on the trail that seemed routine until my horse went down to his knees. At first I thought she was sinking in, until she went all the way over on her side with me on her back! I didn’t know what was going on and wondered if she was dying. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground with the horse on top of my leg. It was a tense few moments to be sure, but because of the sandy ground, I was able to pull my leg out from under her with no apparent injuries. Chuck rushed over right away and pulled on her reins until she was able to stand back up. The only thing he could figure was that she liked the sand and decided to roll on her back with me riding her! It was a close call for sure and one I am grateful for not being on rocky ground when it happened.
The whole experience this summer was awesome! I met some really good people, made some friends and learned a lot from others. If Mitzy Voss ever makes a cookbook I told her I would be her first customer! If you are thinking of a trip into the Wind River Range I would recommend the Lazy TX Outfitters for their professionalism, knowledge of the terrain and friendly down-home ways.
Until next time… John-
Edie Roberson (1929 - 2014)
Edie Roberson was at work until the end. When she died on August 14th, 2014, at the age of 85, a large canvas with multiple figures sat on her easel. It was her latest work-in-progress, coming just a few months after a March exhibit at David Ericson Fine Art called Paintings: Old & New.
But since Roberson so enjoyed what she did, work might not be the correct term. Maybe we should say she was at play until the end. With her toys and friends, the historical icons, geisha girls, comic book classics and all manner of furry things that populated her paintings, as well as the tricycles, motorbikes and more than one old rusty bus.
Born in Wilmington, Del., in 1929, Roberson grew up wanting to be an illustrator. Her home was near that of famed illustrator N.C. Wyeth, himself a student of the equally famous Howard Pyle, and Roberson said she dreamed of studying with Wyeth. Before she could muster the courage to approach the artist, however, he was killed in a train accident and she ended up studying with another Pyle student, Charles McClelland, before moving on to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia when she was 18. Painting there every day, she soon forgot about illustration and focused on fine art. Though she was at the academy for four and a half years, she never took a degree (documents weren't required to paint in those days, she would remark). When she married, and had three children, her career was left to simmer, though she continued to exhibit, first along the East Coast, and later in the West.
In 1960 the family moved to Salt Lake City, where the sagebrush and redrock were a shock to someone raised amid rolling green hills; but Roberson quickly became addicted to the West, and enjoyed painting the formations of Canyonlands and Arches beneath her iconic floating vehicles.
As her family matured, Roberson became an increasingly visible member of the local art community. For years she showed with Dolores Chase Fine Art, and since Chase's retirement in the early aughts has shown with David Ericson. For four decades she has been a staple of the local scene, garnering awards at numerous major exhibitions. Her retrospective at the City Library during the 2010 Utah Arts Festival secured her place as one of the state's most respected and admired artists. The following year she received official recognition for her work with a Governor’s Mansion Artist Award from the state of Utah.
She could paint almost anything, from impressionistic landscapes to hyper-realistic still-lifes (and was amazingly adept in three dimensions as well). She is frequently called a trompe l'oeil artist, and she certainly had the skill to fool the eye, but there is more fantasy than realism in her works. The antique toys she painted were precisely rendered, but were usually seen flying across a whimsical cloudscape. She could reproduce Gilbert Stuart's George Washington or Botticelli's Flora with great accuracy, but the delight from her paintings was when she crammed these together with Betty Boop or Little Orphan Annie.
As Geoff Wichert has written in these pages, "Edie Roberson is the sort of painter who would rather not settle for one accomplishment when she can manage three, or six, or so many that viewers may never spot them all, let alone count them, even as she makes an audience feel that far from showing off, she just wants to share the fun she gets from looking closely at things and seeing how they fit together."
All Roberson's works are filled with a joie de vivre. She liked having fun, and saw no reason why there shouldn't be humor in art. She bristled, though, at the idea that her works might be considered "cutesy." Perceptive critics noted the difference. Frank McEntire, writing for The Salt Lake Tribune in 1995, said Roberson "gives the object in her paintings — mostly well-worn clothes and old toys — a different dimensionality than what is found in today's popular Magic Eye 3-D teasers. She dismisses visual-foolery painting techniques and her proficient skills target the observer's inner eye as she moves deeper into surreal territory."
The older Roberson got, the younger she seemed. Her last years were filled with vigor, and a glint illuminated her eye as she talked about traveling the country with her boyfriend, or took on one art project after another. In 2007 she was the oldest artist in the 337 Project, but you wouldn't have known it by her youthful embrace of the project. She painted two figures for the SLC Pepper Mural in Salt Lake City, and was one of the founders of the Call Box Project, a British telephone booth turned art venue that is on display in The Leonardo.
Her last years were filled with a spirit of adventure that animates many of her paintings. In "Tip Top Tours," a vintage bus spurts smoke out of its exhaust as it climbs a hill outside what looks like Capitol Reef. Inside, a host of characters including Mona Lisa and Felix the Cat stretch their heads out the windows, wave flags and snap photographs. It's a party van, the kind Edie Roberson always traveled in, and the kind we were lucky enough to catch a ride on for the past half century.