Like Claude Monet or Vincent van Gogh, who ventured outdoors to paint their impressions of the world they saw around them, a group of 30 kindred local and foreign artists have flocked to Acadiana for a weeklong competition to do the same.
The challenge facing the plein air artists is to compose their own interpretations of scenic locations around Acadiana, like the lush landscape of Avery Island, the semi-tropical scenery of Rip Van Winkle Gardens and New Iberia’s historic Main Street.
The inaugural Shadows-on-the-Teche Plein Air competition has attracted artists from as close as New Iberia to as far away as Minnesota and the Ukraine.
Their paintings will be exhibited at Clementine Dining & Spirits and judged by Phil Sandusky, a New Orleans-based contemporary plein air impressionist landscape painter.
“One thing we need to do is to actually understand what plein air really means,” said Patricia Kahle, director of Shadows-on-the-Teche. “That’s been an interesting process, even with the artists.”
Deriving from the French term, “en plein air” — meaning in the open air — plein air art has become a branch of painting’s impressionism genre that forces artists outside to brave weather conditions, to focus on the hourly changes in light and to be aware of other obstacles studio artists generally do not face.
Participants are competing for cash prizes up to $1,500. Winners will be announced on Saturday during the event’s gala. Tickets for the gala will be sold for $50, and the paintings submitted for the competition will be put in a silent auction that will also take place that evening.
Jerome Weber, the mastermind behind the event, experienced a plein air competition while in Maryland, and he said he believed South Louisiana needed something similar.
“You see things you wouldn’t normally see,” said Weber, who has five years of experience in plein air art. “A photograph never does justice to a scene like doing it live.
“If I take a photograph, it makes everything two-dimensional, which drowns out the colors,” he continued. “If I’m painting live, I could tell those bamboo bushes over there have a certain green to them that I wouldn’t pick up in a photograph.”
Just a few hours into the competition’s first day, artist Margaret Melancon had already discarded her first canvas.
“It’s harder than I thought it would be because I’ve never painted outside before, and I’ve never painted the (Shadows-on-the-Teche),” she said. “It’s a challenge, but I wanted to try it. I’m more of a photographer, but I’ve been painting off and on for 22 years. This is the most I’ve painted in one year.”
Rocky Perkins, a former Louisiana State University artist-in-residence and retired portrait artist, said he believes inspiration is for amateurs, and it’s all about showing up, getting to work and allowing the ideas to flow as the painting progresses.
“I’m not sure how I’m going to go about it,” said Perkins, who has painted the likenesses of former state Govs. Mike Foster and Edwin Edwards. “It’s the whole ambiance of The Shadows and the special aura the (moss hanging off the trees) have.”
For Lafayette art instructor Gwen Voorhies, who has painted California’s beaches to Colorado’s mountain range, this will be her first competition.
“I’d consider the biggest challenge for an artist would be yourself — competing against yourself,” she said. “I’ve learned that subject matter is less important to me than the colors and values of what I’m painting.”
Through the Iberia Preservation Alliance, programs, like the New Iberia artists-in-residence and Beneath the Balconies outdoor concert, are emerging in the area to shed light on the various forms of art in Acadiana.
“The quality of any community is heightened by having any form of access to the arts,” Kahle said. “I think it’s important to bring something to our own backyard, rather than being forced to leave to experience something like this.”
“The arts have always been in this area,” Voorhies said, “but I think it wasn’t a high priority because this is an agricultural community. We have to keep the art going. The talent is here. It’s just about keeping the people interested.”