By Scott Campbell; Photography by Donna Barlup
Artists who like to produce work on location, a practice referred to as en plein air, owe a debt to their 19th century antecedents. With the invention of paint in tubes and the contemporaneous introduction of brighter colors, paintings began to acquire unprecedented immediacy and luminosity. It continues today.
Following this tradition are the Susquehanna Valley Plein Air Painters (SVPAP), officially established in 2010 following an August “paintout” at Ashcombe Farm and Greenhouses near Williams Grove.
The seed was planted several years earlier, with a small group who had taken to rendering Susquehanna Valley landscapes, Ralph Hocker, Pat Koscienski, Jim Henry, Dick Neff and Mary Beth Brath comprised the troupe. Hocker became the SVPAP’s first president.
“We have about 40 members now,” says current president Julie Riker. “The $15 annual membership dues are used mainly for promotional purposes, like cards and posters that announce our shows and demos.”
City House Bed and Breakfast, 915 North Front Street in Harrisburg, will host an SVPAP exhibition during September. “It will be in place for Gallery Walk on September 8, and for the 3rd in the Burg event on Friday, September 20,” says Riker.
“Then, from October 4 to 27, we will present a display at Gallery 2318 on Market Street in Camp Hill,” she continues. “A portion of the sales from that show will go to benefit the Camp Hill Economic Development Group, a major sponsor of the Camp Hill Plein Air competition.”
SVPAP is a lively and productive organization. One of its missions is to educate the public about plein air painting.
“We teamed with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, contributing to their project called Susquehanna Documentary,” says member Cecelia Lyden. “The Foundation underwrote a student canoe trip on the river. The students stopped at Fort Hunter and joined with some of our members to paint the river and adjacent landscape. We were able to give them a better understanding of the plein air process and fresh ways of looking at the Susquehanna.”
Although the group’s name might imply a myopic devotion to the river, SVPAP members range well beyond its shores. The region’s farms, state parks and wildlife reserves provide abundant subject matter, as well as historic structures in riverside towns like Millersburg, Liverpool and Lewisburg. The York Garden Show is another imagery source.
To appreciate art of the past as well as current work, the group organizes trips to various museums and galleries. Included in the list was a visit to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, where an exhibit of Pennsylvania Impressionists was of interest to the members.
Painting on location is not particularly easy or comfortable, with weather and light two major considerations. Donna Barlup, Vivian Brandler, Susan Begnini Landis and Larry Lerew are among the SVPAP cast that deals positively with the elements as they create pieces, some of which are blends of various mediums.
During winter months, Cecelia Lyden and Madeline Reilly spend time in Florida. There, they continue plein air efforts in a more agreeable clime and keep in touch with their Pennsylvania colleagues. Most SVPAP members are either professional artists or have substantial training and experience in various mediums. A number are, or have been, teachers.
Member Claire Beardon Carnell expresses the group’s core sentiments. “The sun moves, shadows change; there is only a short period of time for the artist to capture the shifts of light and color when painting outdoors. But it is this desire to distill the energy and freshness of nature that drives the plein air painter. SVPAP was formed to bring together artists who share this passion.”