The Plein Air Scene
by Sarah Beserra
The Plein Air Colorist Tradition
Plein air painting is making a huge comeback in California some 75 years after the Early California Impressionists dominated the California art scene, Following in the tradition of the French Impressionists and Post Impressionists such as Monet, Cezanne and Van Gogh, painters are dragging their boards, canvases, and French easels into the hills in record numbers.
There are six established art organizations and numerous informal groups in the State promoting plein air painting and holding paint outs, competitions, fund raisers, workshops and exhibitions: the California Art Club , the Plein Air Painters of America , the Laguna Beach Plein Air Painters, the Oak Group , the BayWood Artists and the newest group - the Outsiders, Each group reflects its origins in early California traditional and representational art. Painting for the sheer joy of it, the new plein air painters have added another component - they use their art to promote environmental and historical preservation. Left below: founding "Outsider" member Nikki Basch Davis of Lafayette, California
The Outsiders are seven top San Francisco Bay Area plein air painters. Their name reflects both the form of painting they do - outdoor or plein air - and also their placement away from more traditional landscape and scene painters. They are: Nikki Basch Davis, Warren Dreher, Pam Glover, Ray Jackson, Judy Molyneaux, Bill Rushton and Jerrold Turner. Colorists first, their bold brush work and liberal use of paint echo the Fauvist style of their precedents - The Society of Six - who were active in the Bay Area in the early part of this century. Founding Outsider member, Pam Glover, painted with the last surviving member of the Society of Six - Louis Siegriest and his son Lundy - in the 1970's. Like the Six, the Outsiders often paint together for camaraderie and feedback while they rapidly capture in paint the rural scenes and funky old towns just minutes from the bustle of San Francisco. The Outsiders will promote plein air painting through group shows and fund raisers to preserve open space in the San Francisco Bay area.
Outsider Influences: The Society of Six
Who were the Society of Six? The Six were a group of East Bay plein air painters who joined together in 1917 to form a dynamic and mutually beneficial painting association that lasted until the Great Depression. Members were Selden Gile, Louis Siegriest, Maurice Logan, August Gay, Bernard von Eichman and William Clapp. Their work was characterized first and foremost by bold color, unpretentious subject matter and a spontaneous and generous application of paint. They were more Fauves than Impressionists and were definitely "outsiders" to the mainstream of Northern California landscape painting at the time which was dominated by Arthur Mathews's classical, tonalist paintings and William Keith 's rather dark, romantic landscapes.
Who influenced the Six? The Panama Pacific Exhibition of 1915 at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco jump-started the Six. For the first time, they saw the paintings of the French Impressionists and also the American Impressionists who had been painting on the East Coast in the new style since the 1890's. Selden Gile and the others were dazzled by the bright colors and spontaneity of the brush work. Northern California had been isolated from the currents of modernism because of its remoteness and the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 which saw many artists move to Southern California.
Rambunctious, fun-loving and mostly self taught, the Six sloshed through the mud flats of Oakland and scrambled over the hills around the East Bay to practice their new-found techniques. Days often ended at leader Selden Gile's house where they critiqued each others' work and ate his home-cooked meals accompanied by abundant brew.
The Depression signaled an end to the productive years of the Six as a group, and each went his separate way. Their first major recognition by art professionals and the general public wasn't until 1972 when Terry St. John curated a retrospective at the Oakland Museum, Like Panama Pacific in 1915, this show had far-reaching consequences throughout the painting community.
Up until the mid 1980's, one could purchase a good Society of Six painting for under $1,000. Today, at auction, a Selden Gile can easily sell for $65,000.
For an in-depth study of the Six with extensive color reproductions of their work see The Society of Six: California Colorists by Nancy Boas, 1988.
The Second Generation: Terry St. John and Pam Glover
Bay Area painter Terry St. John has often been credited with reintroducing the dynamism and spirit of the Society of Six to Northern California landscape painting. In 1972, while a curator at the Oakland Museum, he organized the milestone "Society of Six " exhibit. Their paintings had not been shown together for over 40 years. At that time, the only surviving members of the group were Louis Siegriest and Maurice Logan, who was no longer painting due to a stroke. Siegriest had long since changed his style, turning to abstraction.
In conjunction with the show, St. John expressed an interest in seeing how plein air was done, and Lou once again headed to the hills, this time with a new group of painters. This was the beginning of the re-emergence of the colorist tradition in Northern California. The painters were Lou, his son Lundy, Terry St. John and Peter Brown. Initially, Lou insisted that only male painters accompany him. The Six had been all men and Siegriest wanted to keep it that way. However, Pam Glover soon broke the gender barrier and joined the men on their painting jaunts. Up to this time, Glover had been doing abstract, mixed media works. She remembers asking Lundy how to sell these new plein air paintings. He said, "You have enough room in your house for 3,000 paintings. Why worry?"
The Third Generation
A decade later, in 1983, founding Outsider member Jerrold Turner was converted to plein air painting in much the same way the Six were struck by the Impressionists at the Panama Pacific Exhibition. An exhibit of Selden Gile's paintings in Walnut Creek changed the course of Turner's painting career. Left: Jerrold Turner, Terry St. John at Diablo, 12 x 16 inches, oil on board
"I met Peter Brown in 1983 during the Selden Gile show at the Walnut Creek Civic Art Gallery which Peter curated. I couldn't stop coming to see those incredible little plein air gems of Gile who was the spiritual leader of the Society of Six. It seemed like I'd seen them all before in my dreams. Peter introduced me to Terry St. John and Lundy Siegriest, and I started painting with them - also with Pam Glover and Paul Carey (Maurice Logan's business partner) and a small dedicated plein air art group. The audience for contemporary plein air painting hadn't taken off yet. Even Terry and Lundy weren't selling many works then. It was after the 1984 retrospective show of Lundy and his father Louis Siegriest at that same Walnut Creek gallery that things changed. The art world got a chance to see work of the last surviving member of the Society of Six and his son Lundy who died a few weeks before this show. People started to buy those new plein air paintings of Northern California, including mine."
In the years that followed, the Civic Arts Gallery in Walnut Creek, with Outsider member Warren Dreher curating and the William Sawyer Gallery in San Francisco promoted the new plein air painters through group shows. Eventually, a whole new generation of plein air painters was spawned when Pam Glover and Jerrold Turner began teaching dozens of students who flocked to their workshops. Glover has taught plein air painting at the Orinda Art Center for the past 15 years. Her students, some 25 of them, have spun off into their own group - The Glover Group - and exhibit together throughout the East Bay. Their paintings depict the historic towns and rural back roads of the East Bay.
Thus, a tradition which began in the 19th Century is undergoing a renaissance on the eve of the 21st. Plein air painters like the Outsiders and others are capturing a disappearing California in paint for future generations.
© Sarah Beserra, 1999
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Sarah Beserra is Editor and Publisher of The Plein Air Scene - a monthly newsletter on plein air painting in Northern California. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (707) 645-7361
For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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