En Plein Air:
Exploring the canvas of a woman’s life.

Ms. Mary Ann
Oct 13 · 10 min read
Photo by Kai Oberhäuser on Unsplash

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a really cool festival. A plein-air painting festival. An old friend, whom I had recently reconnected with, texted to see if I wanted to go with her, and enthusiastically, I agreed. The term “en plein air” is one that originates from France in both name and in practice. The phrase, which is French for “in the open air,” dates back to a time when French Impressionists first wandered around cobblestone streets, looking to immerse themselves within unique combinations of light, architecture, nature, and humanity.

These excursions would proceed to inspire each individual artist to capture and record a scene which lived somewhere between the reality of where the artist stood at the time and the preconceived picture carried within the artist’s heart and mind. The results of these venerable strolls into outdoor spaces now fill the walls of famous museums across both Europe and the United States.

Today, plein-air most notably refers to a trendy and hip movement of outdoor art festivals which are popping up around the nation. A rendezvous point for artists and art enthusiasts alike where the artist can escape his or her studio for a while, while the public gets to enjoy having an up close and personal window into their creative processes.

Also, a welcome diversion and enriching experience for someone like me, who usually gets her more romantic, “cultural” experiences from a trifecta of Netflix, PBS, and the Hallmark Channel.

Photo by Esther Driehaus on Unsplash

So, my friend and I set off on an adventure. An arts road-trip harkening back to the days when she and I, former college roommates, used to embark on short jaunts together. Only, where the agenda back then had been mostly beer and boys, our new agenda had morphed into one of deeper substance. A field trip suited to a time in life when we were each seeking meaning and clarity.

We took her car — a good choice seeing how the air conditioning in my minivan wasn’t really working — so, I became the designated navigator. Our third companion, the recognizable voice of Google Maps, accompanied us and assisted along the way. We chose the “avoid highways” option on our devices, switching off between her cell phone and mine for guidance, as the battery-life of each warranted. This was not a journey to be rushed. The journey, as is often the case, was the whole point. We were not ourselves artists (or at least not yet), but we were out exploring the world together through the medium of our own lives.

We drove across and out of the city limits where she lived, and onto less familiar country roads (I had driven to her place the night before in preparation for the following day’s events). We talked and laughed and took our time, driving for well over an hour past the time which our directions had first indicated that it would take us. Detours were made. Music was cranked. Songs were sung without regard to proper key.

Photo by Sam Burriss on Unsplash

As the miles and minutes stretched out before us, on our way to the event’s location, we shared and recounted old dreams and current realities. We talked of college days past, and about our kids, now on the verge of being grown, with their own collegiate experiences at hand. But we talked less about these things than about where the two of us were now. What the road ahead looked like for us, a couple of middle-aged moms who had opted out of the workforce years ago to care for our families full-time.

We discussed jobs we had once held down, the contributions we had made, both at home and in the world of work, and also the disciplines we had studied in school. My engineering degree. Her masters degree. Specialized skills and theses once written. Relics from the past revisited.

These skillsets we held inside us — the things we could still offer to the world — were discussed at length. Then, as if coming off of an adrenaline high, we plunged into more sobering talk contemplating what possibilities and opportunities the world may or may not offer to people such as ourselves, “older” women who had once-upon-a-time taken “a break.”

As we traveled along, the scenery eventually came to a point of change. The road evolved into a series of switchbacks up a mountainside. My chest tightened as we approached the apex. Admittedly, I’m not the best passenger, being originally a flat-lander. I struggled to keep my mouth shut and my eyes averted from the steep drop-offs on either side of the road as we ascended.

Finally, we reached our endpoint, a mountain town steeped in history and frozen in time. Preserved, it seemed, for the very benefit of tourists such as ourselves. A gift really. And, not only was the area beautiful, but it seemed also that the leisurely pace which had been our theme of the day had orchestrated for us a perfectly appointed arrival.

The directions we had been following had seemed somewhat vague. The virtual flyer which served as our personal invitation had told us only that our first event was to be an artist demonstration which would be held at the site of a historic mill in the town. Not being familiar with the area, we had thought we would just stumble along until we found the right spot. It was quite a surprise, however, when we found ourselves pulling into a parking space directly in front of an artist with her tripod nestled beside a lovely stream. A group of onlookers and a few folding chairs were also present. Clearly, the fates had carried us to the exact place we had set out to find.

Photo by Stephen Walker on Unsplash

As we parked on the well-kept patch of asphalt which butted up awkwardly next to the pastoral scene, wouldn’t you know it, my friend somehow managed to hit the panic button on her key fob. A jarring fanfare cried out to announce our arrival. All eyes which had previously been glued to the artist turned in our direction. We were like a pair of forty-something debutantes descending the grand staircase into the ballroom, only outdoors, and with more noise.

It seemed we were not to be merely onlookers of the day’s events, but notable participants, the scene itself changed by our presence.

We settled ourselves down, the car alarm having been quieted, and our fellow art-aficionados invited us to join them, one gentleman getting up to offer me his seat. The other onlookers, it seemed, were mostly older than us, retirees with the luxury of being able to attend events such as these. There was one woman, besides the artist, who seemed to be a little younger. I later ascertained that she was an artist herself, as were some others who were present. The fact that it was a privilege to be out and about exploring the arts in such a way as this was not lost on us. We would discuss that later.

Photo by Yale Cohen on Unsplash

The demonstration ensued, the artist backing up a bit to rehash some key points regarding her techniques for our benefit (and that of some other latecomers).

The poise and confidence she exuded while speaking communicated to us that she was somebody in the world of art. We were quickly entranced. Clearly, this artist had been hand-picked due to her expertise in teaching and her ability to present a timely overview of her painting process.

She offered up tidbits which were a unique combination of her own quirky style and more mundane best-practice guidelines which were perhaps shared by most all landscape artists. Her personal brand of invaluable advice for creating a beautiful landscape piece.

Her position had been set up (a wooden artist’s box attached to a camera tripod, along with canvas, paint, and brushes) to face a babbling stream, so subsequently, “how-to-paint-water” became the theme at hand.

She said that most people, when first thinking about painting water, tend to jump right into worrying about how the surface appears, and how to achieve that look. She warned that this is a mistake. The water’s surface is no doubt important, but the real impact, she said, comes by first giving careful consideration and attention to the painting of the stream bed.

As a general rule apparently, the body of water in a painting will always be darker when compared to its lighter surroundings on the shore. This is common knowledge among even amateurs. However, the mistake which most newbies make, our sage teacher imparted, is forgetting to add in color below the surface. In order to create a truly beautiful and believable body of water, she instructed, one should always start by painting a colorful bed beneath what would later become the surface of the river or stream.

Photo by Karim Sakhibgareev on Unsplash

My grandmother was an artist. And really, so was my mom. My mom would never come to identify with this title, however. The hours Mom spent performing her day job, as well as the time spent driving back and forth to said job, were far too many to ever afford her the freedom to pursue and develop her skills in oil painting. She didn’t take her painting seriously. Didn’t think she was any good. Or maybe she did, but just didn’t think it was any use to throw herself into something so frivolous as painting when she had real work to do and real bills to pay. But, even if she didn’t see her talent in this area, I did. The memory of her working at this sometimes pursuit fills me still.

My mother and grandmother are no longer with me, but I still appreciate the skills and knowledge it must have taken for them to produce the art which they did. Thankfully, I still have a few of these paintings in my possession. I don’t have the same skills (not that I know of, anyway) that they did, and I definitely don’t have the know-how. But I suppose that I did inherit enough of the artist’s heart from my fore-mothers to be able to listen to and truly appreciate the words of an exceptional artist when I hear them — “remember to add color below the surface” — expert advice, which we had received free of charge.

After our trip was over, I meditated on those words which the artist had spoken during the plein-air demonstration. The writer within me, it seemed, couldn’t help but assign a deeper meaning to the tutorial we’d been given.

The analogy which my mind instinctively grabbed onto and couldn’t seem to release went something like this: The artist had taught that one should initially focus on painting the bed of the creek. To begin with rich and vibrant colors. Colors which would later contribute to the complexity and beauty of the finished product. But wasn’t this also true, I contemplated, where my friend and I were concerned?

Wouldn’t or shouldn’t our colors, our multi-layered dimensions, also shine through to the surface? Shouldn’t all of our past experiences — our educations, the jobs we once worked, the awesome children we raised — contribute to our worth, thereby increasing our value?

The analogy wasn’t a perfect one, but as I continued to mull over this idea, I added to it a bit, breaking down my comparisons as follows:

  • The casual, untrained onlooker assessing a piece of art just notices the surface of a painting, not really knowing much at all about what it took to create it. Likewise, people only see how my friend and I appear on the surface.
  • When people look at a middle-aged woman who has spent time at home, away from paid employment, they assume that this is all the woman is capable of. They often don’t seem to understand that skills, knowledge, and competency to do new things lie beneath the surface.
  • In a landscape painting — one where the subject is water — reflections of the surroundings make up a big part of how the artwork is perceived. Blurry, mirror images of trees, buildings, and structures along the shore are translated by the artist onto the water’s glassy surface. Likewise, society’s images of women can overshadow whatever realities lie below. The watery images painted over us cause our complex depths to remain a mystery.

Alright. I could go on here, but I think you’ve got the picture, so to speak. Sorry for the pun. Sorry also if my comparisons may seem a bit over the top. But, are they really?

Or, rather, do these analogies paint an all too accurate picture of a situation that I, my friend, and countless other women have found ourselves in?

A situation where — after a woman has taken significant time out of the workforce to raise children — she later finds that the doors to re-enter the workforce in any meaningful way have been closed to her.

One final thought. What about the buyers of art? The professionals. Those classicly trained to have an eye for such things? Won’t they be able to ascertain the true value? That’s the answer, right?!

The sad truth is that even most connoisseurs (and, by this I mean employers) will have a tendency to walk right by us — the female, midlife works of art that we are — without so much as a second look. More modern works favored in our place.

We are propped up against walls in dusty storage spaces, no longer being found suitable for the exclusive galleries we once inhabited. Our worth, it seems, is too great to exchange for mere money.

What would such noble women as ourselves want with money anyway? We starve for our art. Our motherly instincts of the past must sustain us.

Ms. Mary Ann

Written by

Mary Ann makes her home in the Appalachian Highlands, has a Bachelor’s in Industrial Engineering, and is nearing retirement at stay-at-home motherhood.

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