WHEN I MOVED FROM NEW YORK CITY to Orange County in 1986, I was excited about painting the local landscape, so refreshingly different from the tall buildings and crowded streets of Manhattan. I got right down to work painting the farms and fields of my new neighborhood. Many of my early paintings had cows in them: Holsteins, Herefords, Dutch Belted Galloways. Often, I painted the barns that dotted the rural landscape. This turned out to be a timely undertaking, perhaps even a prescient one, since within a decade, there would be far fewer barns to paint, and far fewer cows. The rural landscape was fast disappearing. Now twenty-four years later, much has changed but Orange County can still boast some beautiful scenery. Even after living here for so many years, I am often surprised at how many hidden scenic treasures lie beyond the immediate view.
On four Sundays this June I found myself painting at the Lower Bashakill Preserve, in the Town of Deer Park, with 18 other artists. We were painting en plein air (a French term that simply means painting outdoors), on-site. The views there were varied and lovely: The Bashakill itself is lush this time of year with thick marsh grasses and tall cattails winding along its banks. Birds flew overhead, dragonflies flitted by, herons fished along the shoreline.
The plein air workshops are taking place each Sunday for six months. The project was conceived by Shawn Dell Joyce, founder and director of the Wallkill River School, in partnership with the Orange County Land Trust. The paintings done on-site will be auctioned in November to benefit both the school and the Land Trust equally. While one goal clearly is to paint nature, another is to raise the consciousness of artists and non-artists to the issues of land preservation. In fact, The Wallkill River School refers to itself as “Orange County’s first grassroots art movement—a fusion of art and activism.” The Orange County Land Trust is an accredited conservation agency. Its mission is “to preserve the fields, forests, wetlands, ridgelines and river corridors in and around Orange County through voluntary land conservation for the benefit of the people.” To date, nearly 4000 acres of land have been preserved—nine nature preserves and 24 privately owned properties with conservation easements on them.
Several of the sites selected for the plein air painting group were chosen for their protected status: the Bashakill Preserve, Snake Hill Preserve in New Windsor, and Moonbeams Preserve in Wallkill. These lands are open to the public and are maintained by the Orange County Land Trust. The other locations are privately owned, working farms, each with a conservation easement on it: Keith’s Farm in Greenville (which I own, with my husband, Keith Stewart), the Brown-Felton Farm in Warwick, and the Kezialain Farm in Minisink. (These three farms were originally dairies—Keith’s Farm now grows organic vegetables and herbs; the Brown- Felton Farm produces grass-fed beef; the Kezialain Farm, in operation since 1768, produces organic beef and hay.) The Kezialain Farm is one of the oldest farms in the county, dating back 240 years to Art Lain’s great, great, great grandparents, William and Keziah Lain.
Most of Orange County’s dairy farms have gone, many in the last 10 or 15 years. The loss of farms affects not just farmers themselves, but also the communities in which they operate. Dell Joyce has said that “Losing a farm impacts the whole community. It’s like losing a living legacy, losing a family’s hopes and dreams, and losing a comforting and familiar view.” Barbara Felton and Will Brown chose to place a conservation easement on their farm when they realized the threats to the property and its heritage were very real. “What led me to think about preservation was my love of farms and farming—the open fields, the barns and equipment, the animals, the activity,” Felton says. ”Since almost all farms are prime buildable land, farms will vanish very quickly in a rapidly growing area unless something is done now to preserve them.”
It’s the fourth of July and the plein air artists have come to my place, Keith’s Farm. This project seems like a fitting way to celebrate the holiday. We are scattered about the farm, painting alone or in groups of two or three. Some of us are painting the flowering buckwheat; others are painting fields of vegetables. Still others are painting the farm’s iconic symbol, the barn, with its elemental structure and rural American character. Everyone is immersed in nature. Painting en plein air has a meditative quality about it. In this environment, the concentration, solitude, and the sounds of nature heighten awareness and perception, enabling the artist to delve deep into creativity. The senses— sound, sight, smell—influence the artist’s state of mind. Even the weather exerts a strong influence. Weather conditions help determine the light and atmosphere in a work. As a painter I always look for inspiration in the constantly changing light: the steady morning light, the intense raking light of late afternoon, the quickly changing drama of light at day’s end. The painters work quickly in the intense heat—it is over 90 degrees—and in the bright sunlight everything is in high contrast.A good painting creates a sense of how it feels to be in a particular location. For Dell Joyce, plein air painting “is a way to be firmly in this moment and place.” About that experience, she says, “I sink my roots in the rich black dirt each time I paint. I feel a real connection to the place and time, and capture it in the moment through my artwork.”
The Wallkill painters do not adhere to a formula for painting—nor is the impetus for painting landscape the same for each artist. Each Sunday session begins with a 30-minute demonstration by one of the school’s teachers or a guest instructor. The artist gives expression to the beauty of the natural world manifested in the material he or she uses: paint, crayon, pastel, charcoal, pencil. In this short time, each artist offers a glimpse into his or her philosophy and a brief lesson in technique. For Nancy Reed-Jones, one of the school’s instructors, landscape painting served initially as a healing art after a devastating personal tragedy. Knowing how it helped her, she moved outside herself and began making murals for terminally ill cancer patients—paintings of a memory, another time and place, before the patient became seriously ill. George Hayes spent his working life as an industrial designer and illustrator; the laws of perspective that ruled his technical drawing are played out in the depiction of barns and houses, treelines and hedgerows. For Susan Miiller (sic), who works in oil paint, the goal is to make an old painting tradition fresh and original. Her plein air works are richly painted, direct observations of nature. For Gene Bove, mainly a studio artist, getting out into nature offers beauty and complexity in the variation of colors, especially within the shadows. For him, these rich subtleties are absent when painting in the studio. Likewise, when Steve Blumenthal paints nature, being outdoors is the whole point.
The Wallkill River School echoes the American art of the past; its 19th-century antecedent, the Hudson River School, flourished in the mid-1800s. The Hudson River School painters tried to capture the awesome and majestic wilderness of the new, relatively virgin American landscape. Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Edwin Church, among others, wanted to introduce the untouched American landscape to both its own inhabitants and to the outside world. They developed an official Hudson River style, a realism based on truth to nature and an idealism based on the spiritual in nature. The perfect work was a balance of the two forces. Like the French Barbizon painters who left Paris for the woods at Fontainebleau, an hour’s drive from the city, the American painters left New York City for the Hudson Valley and places farther west. But by about 1900, a different movement emerged and eclipsed the Hudson River School—it was called French Impressionism.
Many of the works undertaken are completed in one session, keeping them fresh and exciting, but because there is often more than one visit to a location, it is possible to develop a work beyond that first encounter. After a few hours of painting, the group gathers for lunch and a critique of the morning’s work. Keeping with its mission, a picnic lunch is served with produce from Sycamore Farms CSA in Middletown. This puts the finishing touch on a productive Sunday morning.