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Landscape artists make it quite plein

For some, it's a lot like a sport, as adventuresome and energizing as running a favorite race or hiking along a wonderful new trail.

"Evening's Promise" by Valerie Craig won best of show in the Wayne Art Center's plein air festival.
"Evening's Promise" by Valerie Craig won best of show in the Wayne Art Center's plein air festival.Read more

For some, it's a lot like a sport, as adventuresome and energizing as running a favorite race or hiking along a wonderful new trail.

What is?

A plein-air festival. This increasingly popular occasion of outdoor art-making is spreading rapidly. Kutztown has one (last month). Philadelphia has one (this month). And the Wayne Art Center has a splendid one - last month and this month.

Plein air festivals involve landscape painting done outdoors, in the open air - rain or shine - for several days. Results are then framed and hung for public display, with prizes awarded by an out-of-town judge.

In Wayne, the painting part of the art center's fifth annual festival took place from May 17 to 21. Since then, not only have paintings been selling - they'll be on display through June 24 - but five or six more have been commissioned by visitors. (Typically, one says to a staffer, "I have a historic house/beautiful garden/amazing view, and I want this artist to paint a picture of it. Can you help?" They can.)

The show features more than 200 oil paintings, watercolors and pastels by 31 juried artists from nine states. The art center arranges for artists from a distance to stay as guests with local host families. Five years ago, six such stays were arranged; this year there were 24.

And though it rained the whole time, the artists produced more work than ever before - 177 paintings in the first three days, of suburban/rural scenes. The last day was spent painting on streets all over town. In both venues, onlookers were plentiful.

It has been fascinating to watch the character of this popular show evolve. One clue that it is gaining clout is the fact that 11 participating artists this year are from Maryland, home of America's leading plein-air festival at Easton, which draws nationwide entries. Evident at a glance is the sophistication of the Maryland delegation, which includes prizewinner Raymond Ewing and honorable-mention recipients Michael Kotarba, Tim Bell, and Stewart White.

Valerie Craig of Wayne won "best-in-show" for Evening's Promise, a subtle, misty, harmonious oil. Craig, a very deserving self-taught painter and former nurse, captures moods of tranquillity and intimacy with a kind of distilled perfection. Others in the winners' circle are David Lussier of Connecticut, and Pennsylvania's John Slivjak and Michelle Byrne. Missouri's Billyo O'Donnell, the show's judge, chose to distribute the artist awards, underwritten by the Archie W & Grace Berry Foundation, as eight $500 prizes.

Make tracks to see this new classic. (And now you'll know that those 11 names with "MD" appended aren't medical doctors who paint, as some visitors suppose.)

Personal vision

What we admire most of all in Helen Mirkil's "Hidden Stories" painting show at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell is the sensitively tuned subversion of expectations she so readily achieves. It lets us imagine ourselves capable of breaking free from our own deadly quotidian routines.

Almost childlike forms of undeniable presence and energy dominate the landscapes, flowers and self-portraits by this Lansdale area artist. The show is full of ideas taking form, moving, changing, yet retaining a personal vision. Mirkil also seeks roots and universality, so some of these images become almost ritualistic in their strength; others have an obvious edge.

What makes the lasting impression here isn't so much style or even subject, but the very personal mode of feeling that holds everything together and remains most emphatic. A fine show.

High five

"5 Into 1," the annual student exhibition organized faithfully by Philadelphia Sculptors and hosted by Moore College of Art & Design, presents selected works by graduating students at five area art and design schools. These pieces vary widely in personality, breadth of outlook, and special focus. I was immediately drawn to artists aiming to repurpose discarded objects, such as University of the Arts' Tyler Held, who presents an imaginative retake on an outworn kitchen stove, and Moore's Laurel Patterson, who remade shiny twisted pipe forms into sculpture. These impress by avoiding reliance mainly on self-expression.

Also worthy of note is Tom Yurkovic, of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, who is interested in the relationship between the sculptural object - a "front door" look-alike made of metal - and the space it occupies. He uses sculpture to create a situation in which the physical and psychological experience of the space is altered. Seems to me that Yurkovic promises to be an artist adventurer, not a mere strategist - nor one who caters to a public appetite for the merely stimulating.