Merriam-Webster defines it as “of or pertaining to painting in outdoor daylight,” and you would be hard-pressed to find a more apropos term for a September competition taking place in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“Plein Air in the Smokies,” organized by the nonprofit organization Friends of the Smokies, will feature 20 artists from around the country, setting up and painting park scenery, offering on-site demonstrations and capping the week with a public sale of their works, the proceeds of which will benefit GSMNP.
“We’re very excited about presenting this in Blount County,” said Lauren Gass, senior special projects director for Friends of the Smokies. “We’ve had a small event for years in Blount County, and we love having relationships with our foothills partners, but we’re very excited about doing something in a big way. With the help of our presenting sponsor, Toyota/Lexus of Knoxville, and our work with the City of Maryville, Maryville College and Blount Partnership, we feel very welcomed.”
With offices in Kodak and in Asheville, North Carolina, Friends of the Smokies was founded in 1993, establishing several legacy projects like the Trails Forever endowment to improve conditions in and maintain the pristine nature of the Park. By 2020, the organization surpassed the $70 million mark for funds raised, and “Plein Air in the Smokies” spun off of an idea by Friends blogger Julie Dodd, Gass said.
“She reached out and told us that she had been to plein air events at the Grand Canyon, and how there used to be one at Zion National Park (in Utah), and why couldn’t we do one in the Smokies?” Gass said. “We talked to the board and (representatives of) the Park and decided to move forward and explore this possibility. We were fortunate to be able to attend a plain air event at the Grand Canyon last September, and (Friends member) Dana (Soehn, an employee of GSMNP) was able to talk with fellow park employees and see what the impact would be on the Park, the visitors and their employees.
“And what she discovered was that it wouldn’t be a high impact. Artists for years have used the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as the backdrop for their subjects, and this is just a different way to relate to the community around the Park.”
And so, at the end of September, 20 artists from 13 states will arrive in Tennessee to interpret a view and a vision so many East Tennesseans have grown accustomed to and may even take for granted. They’ll be given free rein to paint whatever captures their attention, and the various media will include everything from watercolors to acrylics to oils.
“The interesting thing, I would venture to say, is that probably 60% to 70% of the artists coming have never been to our Park,” Gass said. “We’re going to have an orientation for them, and we’ll have representatives from the Park and our sponsors there to talk to them about it, and in the goody bags we’ve sent them, we’ve included a hiking book and brochures on various waterfalls.
“But if you leave them alone in Cades Cove, someone’s going to paint a fence post, or a church, or whatever so many of us see all the time, and it’s going to speak to them in a unique way, and that’s what they’re going to paint.”
Plein air events are set up, Gass added, as an interactive creative endeavor, and the artists not only expect observation by Park visitors, they encourage dialog and questions. Because outdoor subject matter can change quickly with the shifting of light or the movement of wind and wildlife, plein air painting is a fast style, born as part of the Impressionist movement when easels, palates and canvas became portable tools that allowed those using them to better explore and document the world around them.
“They’re very accustomed to talking to folks while they paint, and they expect you to talk to them,” Gass said. “They’re going to have lanyards on, and we’ll have little signs for them to set up wherever they choose to paint that say ‘Plein Air in the Smokies Artist.’ They’re very approachable.
“And they’re all really great artists who all paint a little differently. Some paintings are going to be more (like) Matisse; some are going to be a little more realistic. There’s just a lot of talent, and we can’t wait to share the Smokies with them, and them with East Tennessee.”
“Plein Air in the Smokies” will involve more than just guest artists painting landscapes, however. A number of auxiliary events will take place throughout the week, including an art competition, judged by Seth Hopkins, executive director of Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, Georgia, announced on the evening of Oct. 1 at a gala that will be held at the Clayton Center for the Arts on the Maryville College campus.
“(The artists) will select four of the paintings they create over the course of the week to be judged, so patrons will get to see those,” Gass said. “There will be a presentation of prizes at the gala, and then you can purchase the pieces. It’s not like an auction; the artists will set the price, and a portion of the sale price will go to Friends of the Smokies, and the rest to the artists.”
For those who can’t make the gala, a pop-up sale will take place on Sept. 30, as well as a public sale on Oct. 2 that will also feature works by the visiting artists created at other plein air events. For Blount County residents, however, the “Plein Air in the Smokies” event that may present an opportunity to obtain the most meaningful work will take place the morning of Oct. 1.
“That’s when all of the artists will be part of a Quick Draw event, and we’ll also invite local artists from the region to participate as well,” Gass said. “They’ll be painting scenes of downtown Maryville in Jack Greene Park (adjacent to the Blount County Courthouse), and when the horn blows, they bring their paintings to be judged, set a price, and then all of the paintings will be for sale.”