By Lynne Hewes
It’s a mild summer morning, and twelve women are sitting in lawn chairs on the lush green grass of the Garden City Zoo. Their concentration is evident: they lean forward, lips parted, brows slightly furrowed, eyes focused intently on the man in front of them.
His name is Ken Hosmer, and he’s an artist from North Platte, Nebraska, here to present a week-long watercolor workshop for this group.
He’s quiet, patient, calm, and sure in his movements. He speaks softly about what he’s doing, about placing warm and cool colors, about the virtue of creating a pathway for the eye to follow in the painting he’s demonstrating.
The women watch closely, not speaking; they’re absorbed in the process of this work in progress. They will be creating their own masterpieces later in the afternoon.
These women call themselves the Southwest Kansas Plein Air Painters. They are an informal group, quick to tell you that they are not an organization, that they have no officers. Their objective is to get together to paint whenever they can. Their love of creating has brought them together, and many of them have been doing this long enough to have become good friends, although they live scattered in separate towns throughout Southwest Kansas. They tease each other, they joke; most of all, they encourage.
Some are quite accomplished in their own rights: some have taught art, some have their own galleries, some have sold artwork to collectors in several states. Others are still beginning, still perfecting their styles. No matter the level of skill, the words are always of support, always positive, always in praise of the artist’s efforts and talents.
These women have one thing in common: they love to create, to draw shapes, to mix colors, to look at reality and enhance it with their imagination.
Janice Baldwin, from Ulysses, has worked hard, with help from her friends, to put together this particular workshop. She drives to Garden City each day to attend. Although she’s a busy woman, she relishes this week of 9:00 to 4:00 lessons. It’s a time to get together with people she enjoys.
“The thing I like best about the group,” Baldwin says, “is the camaraderie. We’re all here to paint. It’s what we enjoy. Art work is a release, a chance for people to express themselves and to get away for a while from everything else going on in their lives.”
Baldwin exhibits her work at The Main ARTery in Ulysses. Her paintings have been purchased by collectors in several states, but she says she still enjoys the workshops, learning something new each time she attends.
“Most of all, though, I enjoy being with the group for the enthusiasm we have around each other. We’re supportive, we help each other, we’re enthusiastic for each person’s success.”
That enthusiasm is evident today at the zoo.
Before Hosmer arrived today, Irene Unruh showed up a bit early. She set her paints down and leaned against the fence surrounding a duck pond, already planning a painting.
“Look at the shadows on those trees,” she says. “See the colors reflected from the light on the water: orange, blue, purple…. you could paint that sparkling water. The light is dancing right now, like diamonds. You could put a swan in there, right in front of that darkest shadow.”
Unruh teaches art classes at the Garden City Senior Center, and in her spare time she’s creating a picture book about her life to give as a present to her grandchildren. The center-spread of the book will be a folk-art painting of the tiny community east of Ashland where she grew up. The painting is from her memory of how things were in the 1930s. Most of the buildings are now long gone.
“I just like to paint, to experiment,” she says. “This group gives me a chance to try new things. If you live out here [in Western Kansas], unless you sponsor a workshop, you almost have to go all the way to Wichita or Denver to find instruction.”
The Plein Air painters have sponsored several workshops in the four or five years of their existence as a group.
In addition to Hosmer, the group organized a workshop featuring Frank LaLumia, from Trinidad, Colorado, and one of the top seven plein air painters in the United States.
“Frank had us painting outside, rain or shine,” says Wanda Stallings, artist and former art teacher who lives in Garden City. “We’d do thumbnail sketches outside, and maybe finish the painting inside. He really hammered our strengths and weaknesses. He spurred us on. And he remembers everything. Once, quite a while after the workshop, some of us went to Trinidad and stopped by his studio. He looked at me and instantly remembered my problem with mid-values. It was very encouraging.”
They cemented a name for the group closer to home, however, when they invited Holcomb High School art teacher Archie Oliver to conduct a workshop for their members. Oliver’s focus was also plein air painting, capturing the landscape outdoors, instead of relying on photographs in a studio. They liked the concept and became The Southwest Kansas Plein Air Painters.
Although they would like to host a workshop each year, that isn’t always possible. However, that doesn’t stop them from getting together. Last year, for example, they hosted a “paint-out,” meeting at different places around the area to paint, sometimes landscapes at a ranch or flowers in a Dighton garden.
When they aren’t hosting a workshop, they try to find time to meet together and paint, perhaps once a month. Not everyone is able to attend, but several always manage to show up.
“Someone will say, ‘I’ve got some pretty flowers in my yard, let’s paint them,’” says Baldwin. “So we’ll show up. You can see that this is a pretty loose and free group.”
Today at the zoo, they’re listening to Hosmer talk about the problems with painting outside.
“When you paint outdoors, it’s harder to get a really good painting,” he says. “You end up with a whole lot that’s not worth much, but every once in a while you get a really good gem.”
As Hosmer talks, pointing out technique [“See, the light is coming from over here”], a group of school children from a camp in Dodge City round the corner nearby, brilliant in their bright yellow T-shirts against the dark green lawn and trees around them.
“Look, they’re painting!” one shouts to his friends. The once-boisterous campers grow silent as they pass by, whispering about Hosmer’s almost-finished watercolor.
In the background, birds are singing and swans trumpeting. A giraffe is across the lawn, wandering back and forth in his pen as visitors walk by. The day, which started out cool, is warming, and now it’s time for the painters to try their hands at a watercolor.
They spread out, each seeking a separate spot to set up an easel or position a lawn chair.
Before they settle in with their separate work, they call out to each other.
“Do you think that snack shop will have coffee?”
“My allergies are acting up. I may have to go back to the church and paint indoors for a while.”
“If you’re going to do a flower, where’s the pathway?”
“Can you see if I put my things here?”
“Look at the shadows on that house!”
Hosmer adds to the laughter with his own comment: “I’ve been thinking of getting a new hat so I can look like a real artist. What do you think?”
Then, almost in unison, the members are silent, sketching what they see before them, an old white house, a gnarled and leaning tree, fish in a lily pond. Immediately, they are lost in their own creations.
Hosmer roams around, quietly speaking to each separate student, offering tips and encouragement. They want to paint now. By afternoon it will be too hot outdoors, and they’ll be back at the studio, a church classroom reserved for their indoor sessions.
Alle Craig, a painter who for many years had her own gallery in Dodge City, last year moved to Georgia to be close to her family. She’s here today, visiting with friends and fellow-artists Thelma Warner, Cimarron, and Patricia Herndon, Dighton. They’ve all come together this week, using the workshop as an excuse to catch up on each other’s lives.
“The trip cost over $1,000,” Craig says, “but it’s worth it.”
She leans over and points out a shadow to a painter near her, offering humor and gentle instruction.
“Painting fish in the water is more difficult than I thought it would be,” she laughs.
All is quiet again and the artists continue their concentration.
Tomorrow they’ll paint in the dry Arkansas River bed on the south edge of Garden City. By the end of the week, they’ll each have paintings for Hosmer to evaluate. They look forward to his comments. He’ll point out their strengths and give instructions for fixing weaknesses. They’ll go home and practice, internalizing the lessons he’s taught.
What they’ll remember most, however, is the camaraderie and friendship, the jokes [“There’s just too much green out here!”], the help [“Can I carry that bag for you?” “Look at this and tell me what you think”] they’ve given and received from each other this week.
Before the week is over, members of the group who live in Cimarron have asked Ken Hosmer to host a workshop in their town next summer. Mary Jane Freelove has set a date with him for the second week of June 2010. They’re already planning refreshments, thinking of places to paint. They may ask Hosmer to focus on flowers next year. They’re thinking of ways to get the word out, to attract new members, others who enjoy creating, who will share their camaraderie.
“We invite anyone who’d like to attend,” says Baldwin. “We’d like to enlarge our group. Anyone who’s interested can give me a call. I’m in the phone book!”