Passersby often mistake Susan Wellington for a surveyor, standing there on a roadside or in a field near Vaiden, with her easel and her intense concentration. But, she’s not making measurements. She’s making art. And that’s where her models—the hay bales, the trees, the creeks and the woods—are, out in the open air.
Like many artists drawn to nature, she paints en plein air—the French term for “in the open air”—relishing the immediacy and spontaneity of painting a scene live, on the spot.
When Keri Davis opened Pacesetter Gallery in Flowood, Miss., a year and a half ago, she remained focused on Mississippi artists and cultural events, with an eye out for more ways to put art in the public arena.
“I started learning a lot about Mississippi plein-air painters,” Davis said, who is also an artist. “There’s a lot of them out there that love to go paint live on location, to pick up the light of the day,” Davis disclosed, just as the French Impressionists did, more than a century ago.
The French Impressionist movement popularized plein-air painting in the 19th century following the introduction of paint in tubes and box easels. Artists such as Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Pierre Auguste Renoir and more embraced the practice, contributing to its esteem.
Other U.S. states have large, long-established competitions devoted to plein-air painting such as Plein Air South in Florida, En Plein Air Texas in the Lone Star State, and Louisiana’s Shadows-on-the-Teche where artists can place in contests and earn money, prizes and prestige, Davis explained.
Gautier, Miss., has previously hosted a Paint the Town Plein Air Art Competition, but organizers have yet to restart it since the pandemic canceled its fourth-annual edition in 2020. Gautier is re-evaluating the event, which may return in the future after a local amphitheater is completed, Gautier City Recreation Director Chassity Bilbo said.
“Compared to other states, we don’t have that for our plein-air painters,” who have to travel out of state for plein-air art competitions, Davis admitted. “That’s all some of these artists do, is paint outdoors.
“I wanted to have a competition that not only features those artists, but it also ties in with the parks and being outdoors and people learning how to appreciate plein air,” Davis continued. “(I want to) turn it into an event that is great for families and for collectors to get to meet the artists and get to see these paintings come to life.”
The idea fell on eager ears when Davis ran it past Jennifer Shows, marketing coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks at a Mississippi Tourism Association conference last fall.
“She told me what it was, how much people loved it, and how there wasn’t really a spot for it in central Mississippi,” Shows said. “LeFleur’s Bluff State Park is gorgeous—tucked away, right in the middle of an urban area. I thought it was a fantastic idea and really wanted to do it.”
Purpose met place. Plans quickly followed, with the event primed to launch just in time for the following spring. On Saturday, April 22, 2023, the inaugural En Plein Air Paint Competition puts artists on the grounds of LeFleur’s Bluff State Park, an event organizers hope evolves into a new annual fan-favorite on the Jackson-metro calendar.
Capturing Light and Shadows in Real Time
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and Pacesetter Gallery co-host the competition, which will showcase 27 Mississippian artists who will paint on-site in the natural surroundings of Mayes Lake, the cypress swamps, woods, nature trails, Pearl River and other features at LeFleur’s Bluff State Park.
In a serendipitous stroke, this competition debuts on Earth Day, a celebration intended to raise awareness of Earth’s natural resources and the benefits of protecting the environment for the future. “I love that it’s Earth Day, because it gets people outside and enjoying the day,” Davis said, with the park setting serving as a prime draw for attendees. “It’s the perfect time of year for it.”
Watching artists focus on a single outdoors scene—capturing details, light and shadows in real time on canvas—may urge spectators to appreciate their surroundings anew.
“You make us see the beauty in what we pass every day and don’t even think about it,” a farmer once told Wellington after spotting her painting in the Vaiden countryside and seeing posts of her art on Facebook.
“Whenever anybody sees you painting outside, they’re drawn to you, they ask questions,” Wellington said. The Flowood artist often paints the hay bales, creeks and more near her cabin in the woods in Vaiden. “I’m just trying to capture what intrigued me in the scene. If I get that capture right, hopefully it speaks to somebody else.”
“As artists, especially when painting en plein air, you train the eye to see more color, to see more deeply,” she continued. “It makes you take a breath, take a minute and just pass along to the viewer what captured you.”
Wellington, whose work has been juried into local, state and national shows, is among the more than two dozen artists participating in the competition. Carol Roark, cover artist for the Dixie National Quarter Horse Show from 1995 to 2005, joins the contest as an eager plein-air competitor as well.
“Going to new places and getting to paint new areas is always fun, but I love to paint and interact with the public as well,” Roark, who lives between Charleston and Batesville, said.
“When you plein-air paint, as far as the experience, there’s nothing like it,” she added. “You’re out in the open, being immersed in nature. If it’s in a public street scene, it’s the sounds, it’s the smells, it’s the conversations. It gives the artist an opportunity to involve spectators and the public into their process, which brings more attention to the art itself.”
The competition’s roster also includes Karen Bennett, Beth Dean, Wes Arrington, Wade Stevenson, Albert Samthers, Ari Atarji, Luce Wren Cooper and many others.
Painting With Immediacy and Spontaneity
Organizers encourage spectators to meet the participating painters and watch them in action during the competition as they work with oil, watercolor, acrylic and pastel media to commit the scenes of their choices to canvas. Artists will paint live from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with judging beginning at 2:30 p.m.
Park visitors can watch an entire painting come to life before their eyes, or they may walk around to see multiple artists’ works in different stages. At any point during the event, visitors may buy artwork from these creators—either while the painters are actively working on their pieces or during the Wet Paint Sale taking place from 3:15 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sales are first-come, first-served.
Patrons can purchase artwork “at any time once the first brush stroke hits the canvas,” Davis instructed. Customers must take a tag from the artist to the pay center booth and purchase the piece before returning to watch the painter finish and subsequently claiming the product after the competition’s close. “It could be halfway done, and someone could see it and just go, ‘I have to have that.’ … People just have an emotional reaction to paintings,” Davis continued.
Onlookers are often amazed that artists are able to paint as fast as they do, Roark said of her experiences. “The more you practice, the better you get. Most of us have been doing this for years. I think it’s almost magical to people, to see it actually taking shape.”
“There’s an immediacy, a spontaneity to a plein-air piece,” Wellington assured. Artists work quickly to catch the light before the sun moves and shadows change.
Linda Peters of Oxford, Miss., founder of Mississippi Plein Air Painters, is among the participating artists at the inaugural event. Her organization has planned annual paint-outs around Mississippi for artists to come together and share the experience, sometimes with five to seven states represented. Peters said she believes a competition like this one can pique curiosity.
“Maybe some spectators, maybe some collectors will come out, and they can put names with faces,” Peters said. “I think it’s just going to be a fun event.”
Some artists have already staked out the state park, to see what’s growing and will be blooming at competition time. “So, they’re already thinking far ahead because as soon as it’s time to go find their spot, most of them are going to know where they want to go,” Davis explained. “It’s very strategic. It’s very interesting.”
All the artists start the competition with a blank canvas, at least 11 by 14 inches, brought to the front so that a facilitator can sign the back to ensure it is the same one painted that day and returned for judging. Mississippi artist Bill Wilson will serve as this year’s judge. The top prize for this first year includes framing, a half-page article in the sponsor’s magazine, Mississippi Outdoors for Best of Show (second, third and fourth place finishers share a page), and a feature in the organization’s newsletter.
Davis and Shows have plenty of ideas to build into future events. “We’re just getting it off the ground this year,” Davis said. “Next year, we want to keep growing and growing it.”
Park admission for visitors to the competition is the normal day-use rate: $2 per person. Up Da Bayou, a local food truck, will be on-site selling shrimp and burgers. Event sponsors include Community Bank, Nebletts Framing, Flowood Chamber of Commerce, and Rooster’s and Basil’s restaurants.
For more information on the En Plein Air Painting Competition, go to visitjackson.com/events/en-plein-air-painting-competition. To learn more about Pacesetter Gallery, visit pacesettergallery.com.