“It’s always nice to be out in the air,” says watercolorist, author and teacher Frank Webb of Mt. Washington, the juror for this year’s Plein Air Mt. Lebanon, September 29 through October 6.
Part of the allure of paintings created “en plein air,” meaning “in the open air” in French, is that people are thrilled to recognize beloved sites— a house of worship, a favorite garden or a familiar street scene. “It probably tends to bring art close to home, when they see their local area appear as a model,” Webb says.
The concept of Plein Air is simple: professional artists converge on a town for about a week and paint what they see—people, landscapes, architecture, animals or the waterfront. They must work quickly in the changing light of day and finish the painting within the allotted time. At the end of the week, the artists choose their best work to be displayed and judged, and the winners leave with $5,500 cash, the esteem of the juror and peers and, if they are lucky, some sales.
Plein Air Mt. Lebanon, which debuted in 2012, is being expanded this year, with painters venturing from local yards and sidewalks—at least for one day—to take their inspiration from the larger venue of Mt. Washington and the City of Pittsburgh. The festival will show a growing commitment to outreach and education. The municipal building’s lofty rotunda will feature a large-scale installation of colorful kites created by children from all Mt. Lebanon elementary schools. Throughout the week, a palette of lectures and demonstrations will cover every topic from how to paint to films about art. (“Girl with a Pearl Earring,” anyone?)
“After only one year, it is clear that the event is an effective way to bring the community together around the arts,” says Municipal Manager Steve Feller.
Modeled after the highly successful Plein Air festival in Easton, Maryland, Mt. Lebanon’s version brings 25 national, regional and local artists together for an opening reception in a local home the evening before they fan out and choose subjects to paint. The public is welcome to watch them work. To find out where the painters are situated or to follow a favorite artist, visit the Plein Air Concierge, which will be set up daily at Orbis Caffe, 675 Washington Road, from 8 to 3 weekdays during the festival.
“I was amazed at how accessible the artists were and how interested they are in what we do,” Feller says. “For a week, the artists (many of whom stay with local residents) really became part of the community. There are events that appeal to a wide variety of art enthusiasts, and the result is a huge inventory of reasonably priced paintings that celebrate the beauty of our town.”
Feller was so pleased that he purchased a painting from last year’s exhibition by Washington, Pennsylvania, artist Kit Paulsen, which depicts children crossing in front of Clearview Common. A similar painting, showing Washington School students and donated by municipal solicitor Buchanan Ingersoll, hangs on the second floor of the municipal building near the manager’s office. The choice of the painting was fitting, for this year many of the Plein Air artists will be visiting local schools to talk with student artists.
The week of events culminates in the Plein Air Mt. Lebanon Gala and Artwork Sale Friday, October 4, in the municipal building from 7 to 9 p.m. Tickets are $125 and include beverages and food from Atria’s, as well as a $50 credit towards the purchase of a painting.
The highlight of the evening is the announcement of the winner. Last year’s top prize went to Ellen Gavin, a Millvale, N.J., artist who perfectly captured a rainy day of motion and bustle on busy Washington Road. Lucky is the person who purchased it before the winning announcement was made—there’s little chance to score a winner later.
On Saturday, October 5, would-be painters as well as those with experience can try Plein Air painting themselves at the Uptown Paint Out, from noon to 2 p.m. on Washington Road. Organizers will set up boundaries, and the wining painter will take home $500. The children’s version is at the library from 10 a.m. to noon and carries a $150 prize. Juror/children’s book illustrator Mark Bender will judge the Paint Out. The Paint Out is Feller’s favorite event. “It’s a festive way to spend a fall morning with the family,” he says.
After some more Uptown partying, including a talent show from noon to 2 p.m., a celebrity Paint Out from 2 to 3 p.m., a performance by No Name Players Theater Company from 3 to 4 p.m., the Uptown Block Party will feature live music from the Tumblers from 4 to 8 p.m. in Clearview Common.
The exhibition and sale will continue in the municipal building on Saturday from 9 to 4 and Sunday from 10 to 2.
Presented by the Mt. Lebanon Partnership and planned by board member David Csont, a plein air painter, his wife, Linda, and other board members and volunteers including artist Dan Pipitone, Erin Hart, director of Farm to Table Pittsburgh, and Steve and Wendy Denenberg, owners of Create A Frame/Handworks Gallery, the festival brings both new art and new people to Mt. Lebanon. Planners expect many more people from around the region to attend this year.
“Plein Air allows residents and guests to see Mt. Lebanon in unexpected and exciting new ways,” says Eric Milliron, Mt. Lebanon’s commercial districts manager and staff liaison to the Partnership.
But Plein Air has another, equally important purpose—to raise money for the Mt. Lebanon Arts Initiative, a fund set up to bring even more art to Mt. Lebanon. The $1,500 raised last year was matched by the Partnership and used to purchase a subscription to Plein Air Magazine for the library and a new gallery system to hang paintings in the municipal building. If the event continues to grow, the possibilities are unlimited.
For Juror Webb, a professional painter since 1958 whose work has been published in books and hung in museums for decades, this is his first role as a Plein Air judge. But he says it’s no different than judging any of the many other competitions he’s handled. “When I jury for artwork, I just choose the best painting,” he says, noting the artist gets no points for the quick manner in which Plein Air painting is done; it simply has to be good: “It has to stand on its own merits.”
Originality is important to Webb, whose own watercolor style is bright and vibrant. “I believe that creative painting is never really a copy,” he says. Webb credits his background as a teacher—he’s run seminars in all 50 states—with his ability to appreciate many styles of painting. “People who have done a lot of teaching have a wider range of the various aesthetic categories,” he says.
Webb will demonstrate his watercolor technique 7 p.m., Tuesday, October 1, in the Municipal Building’s Commission Chambers. Details, gala tickets and tickets to the Paint Outs at www.pleinairmtl.com.