In May, artist Mary Erickson will celebrate her eighth year as one of 23 artists attending America’s great Plein Air paint-out in Port St. Joe and Ken DeWaard, his fourth.
During the invitational event, presented by the Forgotten Coast Culture Coalition, nationally-known artists converge on the area to draw inspiration and capture scenes of “Old Florida” on canvas.
The name of the event, “Plein Air” comes from the French term, meaning “Open Air.”
Erickson lives in Venice, Florida and began painting at a young age. She now travels the country capturing the beauty of nature and showcasing her work at exhibitions.
Of all the places she has visited, Port St. Joe ranks high on her list of favorites.
“It’s one of the most picturesque areas in the world,” said Erickson. “The best part is the people. They welcome the artists with open arms.”
DeWaard’s feelings on the Gulf County area weren’t much different.
“The people take pride in the area around them,” he added.
Erickson first became involved with the festival after meeting Plein Air founder, Richard Carrell during an art show in Lakeland. He explained to her an idea of gathering artists together on a beach in northern Florida.
Though Erickson’s interest was piqued, three years passed before the inaugural Port St. Joe Plein Air event took place in 2005.
DeWaard had several friends in the artist community who had participated in the Plein Air event and encouraged him to do the same.
When he first entered Florida on the drive from his home in Wisconsin, all he saw were pine trees, but as soon as he made it to Apalachicola and took in the terrain, the people and the architecture he understood what all the fuss was about.
“The sunrises and sunsets are the best,” he said.
A love of Gulf County is one reason Erickson looks forward to the annual event, but she also views it as an opportunity to catch up with her fellow traveling artists.
She describes the artist community that gathers at Plein Air as having a “very strong sense of family.” Not only do these artists come together once a year to paint together, they look forward to seeing one another and appreciate the opportunity to catch up and have lunch.
“It’s a win for all of the artists,” she said.
DeWaard agreed with Erickson’s sentiments.
“Painting is a very solo thing. It’s great to get around others to reconnect and learn from fellow artists.”
When venturing out to paint, Erickson doesn’t have a specific location in mind. What starts off as a trip to Eastpoint may quickly see her detoured to the Apalachicola waterfront painting the afternoon sun as it reflects off the bay.
“I keep an open mind,” said the artist, “I stay open to the emotions of the environment.”
On his first visit to Apalachicola, DeWaard saw a worn down, yellow house that caught his eye.
“It had seen better years,” he said of the structure.
He had every intention to paint it but couldn’t find the right angle or the right light. The next year he tried again with no success. On his third visit, he found the perfect approach and captured the house. It later won him the Artist’s Choice award by his peers.
Major supporters of the arts, Erickson and DeWaard have also donated their time to local high schools where they hosted workshops that exposed students to painting and gave them insight into the life of a traveling artist.
“It gives younger kids a chance I didn’t have,” said DeWaard. “It’s a wonderful opportunity.”
During the paint-out, the artists are spread out over a large distance and Erickson provided some handy hints for first-timers.
She suggested locating the home base for the artists as they’ll post notes each morning that indicate the areas in which they’ll be painting. Erickson went on to recommend the Apalachicola Historic Cotton Exchange as a great place to socialize and recommends attending The Grand Patrons’ party at the Reid Avenue “Wetroom” on Friday, May 11 to meet the artists and see all of the art in one place.
Lastly, she suggested that newcomers and veterans alike keep an eye on the official calendar of events on the website. Almost every night there is a social gathering where art lovers can talk to the artists and view the pieces created that day.
The reactions to Erickson’s art are at times more exciting than the creative process. She feels it reminds viewers why they live in Gulf County and lets them be reacquainted with the local settings.
“The art gives a whole different view of the area. It lets the locals see the beauty through an artist’s eyes,” she said.
“As artists, it allows us to capture a fleeting moment in time,” added DeWaard, “It preserves history.”
The Plein Air Paint-Out takes place from May 2-12 at various locations along the Forgotten Coast, from Alligator Point to Mexico Beach.