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Guestwords: En Plein Air No Longer

Wed, 08/19/2020 - 20:35
Barbara Thomas at work.
Geoffrey Drummond

Painting en plein air — in the open air — has long been a tradition in the beautiful Hamptons, with its wide-open vistas, idyllic mix of flora and waterways, and the magical light that has been the inspiration of artists since the 17th century, when our community began to flourish.

I have been a plein-air painter out here for more than 30 years. For the last 10 I have been teaching this outdoor painting activity to others. But over this decade, my own feelings about painting the landscape of the East End have changed.

There is virtually no open landscape left. This societal and topographical change has led my art in new directions. A few years ago, I went back to school to get a Master of Fine Art degree. It was in my graduate school environment that I first became aware of a new political thread running through landscape painting. “There is no real landscape anymore,” one professor said. “All land in America has been commodified, privatized, and made almost inaccessible to citizens.”

“This is not new,” others added. “Thomas Moran [who lived and painted in East Hampton] and other Luminist painters were hired to paint scenes of the beautiful West to lure land buyers. This is why their paintings were so transcendent and so beautiful. They were ads.”

Tosh, I thought. We’re all still looking at the landscape and using its inspiration in our work because it is so natural and so beautiful.

But perhaps not. A few recent painting experiences have brought me around to a new way of seeing more clearly what contemporary art — throughout history a soothsayer of what is political truth in society — is beginning to tell us.

I made a date to meet my group of four plein-air students at a scenic location. The first thing I realized as they began to pull over was that there were now more No Parking signs than I had previously seen. After some hunting, and juggling of the cars, we managed to fit into a small area where there were no signs. I chose this particular location because it is one of the only ones left that offers several of the beauty highlights of our area: wide-open fields, barns, water in the distance, open sky, and, an added plus, a farm stand.

These days, to find a stretch of pretty land without the carbuncles of McMansions jarring the eye is pretty difficult. McMansion landscaping has all but obliterated any open views with fences, gates, and the planting, close together, of hundreds of trees that would never naturally be there.

As I usually do, I gave the farm stand people a heads-up that we would be setting up nearby and that some artists might even want to paint the scenic stand. In all my past painting experience, the quaint idea of someone painting has always had a positive reception. Not so here. The “farmer” told me in no uncertain terms that we better not get too close, “We’re running a business here,” and we’d better not block the way of the cars arriving to buy his wares.

Chastened, and a little sad — the sweet farm stand now looked uglier to my artist’s eye — I shepherded my flock to an appropriate distance away to set up to paint.

No wonder he mentioned the cars. The traffic was horrific. I was nearly shouting my pointers and comments over the engine roar. We suddenly felt very vulnerable, sitting carefully not on anyone’s private property, but keeping to the roadside, several feet of which I’ve learned is public space belonging to the state, county, or town responsible for the road. (Though in the past I have been wrongly accused of trespassing by property owners as I’ve painted on this narrow swath.)

My students and I all agreed, you don’t realize the sheer brute machine force of a moving automobile until you are a few feet away from one. Or hundreds. Scarier still was the drivers’ absolute indifference to our presence. Several S.U.V.s just pulled up and parked, blocking a student from the view she was painting, with absolutely no regard.

Painting near the farm stand for a good three hours, we did notice a few things. One, several delivery trucks drove up and brought out boxes of tomatoes, fruits, and vegetables. Maybe, one student pointed out, that’s why he didn’t want us there, to see that his farm produce actually arrived from Riverhead, not from the fallow field coming to life in our paintings. On closer inspection, his buckets of bright sunflowers looked just like the ones factory-bound with rubber bands you find in a Korean deli in New York City. There was actually no sunflower field in sight.

But the farmer (or land speculator, as so many have had to become) is not at fault. He’s just as much a victim of the politicized landscape as the rest of us. I couldn’t blame the farmers when, amazingly, a car pulled up and a man with a giant video camera jumped out. “Can I film you? I’m making a video about the idyllic life of the East End artists painting this beautiful landscape!”

“Are you kidding?” I almost shouted, getting hoarse by this time. This time the farmer’s wife came out. “You can’t park there and set up, you’re right in the driveway!” This really happened.

Last winter I went to Palm Beach, Fla., where I had a commission to paint a house portrait. I waited for the early evening to bathe the glamorous mansions in golden light. They glowed like jewels. I pulled my rented car over and was standing, camera around my neck, sketch pad in hand, for approximately 10 seconds when a police car pulled up beside me. “What are you doing?” the officer asked me, in about the same tone as the farmer’s.

“I’m sketching the views, for a painting I’m doing,” I replied sheepishly, suddenly feeling awkward, and as if I were doing something wrong. “You can’t stop here, no standing, you can’t stay here,” he said, and waited for me to drive away.

Whoa. My professors were right. Even the coasts, the last bastion for artists to express open, free vision, are in ever-increasing danger of being removed from public access. There is no free view, no open land, no open air left. Can it be true that Nature herself, the ultimate philosophical vehicle for contemplation of our human existence, and all it has afforded the artist to express, has been closed to the public?

Barbara Thomas lives in Springs.

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