Bringing the Canvas to Nature

Plein air painting at Polly Hill Arboretum and beyond.

The sun plays hide-and-seek o’er the meadow where the daffodils bloom, and the maples are nearly leafed out in full. Though the calendar says May, a chilly gust begs to differ. Nancy Sheble, of Vineyard Haven, hugs herself and her sketch pad and ponders the pink buds of a towering crab-apple tree.

“I love drawing botanicals,” she says, “but how do I get these things to hold still?”

Nancy is one of five students at the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury this afternoon, taking a drawing workshop under the tutelage of art instructor Diane Nicholls, also of Vineyard Haven. They’ve just emerged from Polly’s old house, where they warmed up their pencils on sketches of cut rhododendron, dogwood, and fothergilla blossoms. Now Diane has shooed them outside to the sixty-acre backyard that Polly expertly groomed for fifty years before transferring ownership to the nonprofit entity that conserves the property for research, education, and public enjoyment.

Tisbury’s Margaret Curtin pencils away at a landscape of a tulip magnolia backed by tall evergreens. Her claim of being a novice is exceedingly modest: As an architect, she still draws home designs by hand rather than computer. “I love my job,” says Margaret, who studied botany on the side in college, “but being outdoors is my passion.”

Perhaps she’ll submit her magnolia to the “Polly Hill Collaborative Show,” an exhibition of arboretum images opening July 29 at the Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs. Planned partly in honor of Polly’s hundredth birthday, which the beloved horticulturist marked on January 30, the show also unexpectedly celebrates her lifetime, which ended on April 25.

“The beauty of painting outdoors is that you don’t have any vertical or horizontal edges stopping you,” says Holly Alaimo, owner of the Dragonfly Gallery in Oak Bluffs, which will hold its annual “paint out” show in September, featuring Vineyard scenes painted en plein air by various artists in three of five specific locations.

The Island is an idyll for outdoor artists, be they amateur or professional, whatever their medium, whether they prefer beaches or fields. The Polly Hill show germinated last fall, when Karin Stanley, who works at the arboretum, spotted an art class on site and worked out a deal with Featherstone to host an exhibit. Karin says sightings of art classes are more common than sightings of lone artists, who tend to visit the grounds near dawn or dusk to capture the best natural light – the essential draw of working en plein air.

But don’t mention “plein air” around Diane. “It’s a trite and overused concept,” she says of the term that dates to the nineteenth century, when French Impressionists emerged from their studios to trek through field and forest with their newfangled box easels. Another painting instructor, John Holladay, has taken his watercolor classes to the arboretum for four years.

“What I like about Polly Hill is the combination of trees, flowers, rocks, the barn, the houses,” he says. “Everything is there – colors, shapes, linear elements, curves.”

Classes often visit other venues around the Island as well. Bea Moore, a painter whose works in oil have sold at Dragonfly and Willoughby Fine Art Gallery in Edgartown, is getting back in the art groove after an eight-year hiatus as a hospital nurse. Crowned with a striking red bandana printed with black puppy tracks, Bea recently worked in pastels at Featherstone to capture a faded shed, dappled with the shadows of slender branches.

“I just love being outside, with the birds and all the sounds,” says the Edgartown resident. “Art is a wonderful excuse to enjoy the beauty of outdoors and really look at it, so you understand how the sun illuminates everything and how the shadows work.”

Diane says, “Drawing and painting outdoors gets people involved in where they are like nothing else – not skiing, fishing, or any other activity.”

Student Ross Cowan, of Oak Bluffs, has been an off-and-on artist for the past thirty years. “There’s more life to being outdoors than to being in a studio,” he says, “which is more like being in school. Which is not always terrific.”

Yet many an “outdoor” artist would just as soon take a photo of a peony or pond and ensconce themselves indoors to paint or draw. “I prefer the studio, because I usually paint at night,” says John Holladay, who teaches by day at Falmouth High School and lives in Vineyard Haven. “Plus I’m not a big fan of tourists walking behind me, asking questions. For me, painting is a time for meditation and quiet. Especially since I’m around high school students all day,” he says with a laugh.

“Working outdoors presents challenges,” says Else Membreno, who began painting as a child in her native Holland and lives in Oak Bluffs. “The scene changes all the time, and people watch you.” Moreover, the blooming flowers of springtime include pollen. “I take Claritin,” says the retired physician, who happens to teach flower arranging. She sits on a stone bench on the Featherstone grounds to pencil a graceful oak branch. When she gets home, she’ll insert a detailed close-up of an infant leaf and its delicate flower.

Painting outdoors is also a lot of work, according to artist and instructor Ellen McCluskey, of Vineyard Haven. “You have to carry stuff around and set it up, and things like cars and boats get in front of you,” she carps. Coaching students in big locations like Polly Hill or Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown also gives the sixty-six-year-old a trying workout. “People really go off to do their painting. Then I have to tramp around and find them.” But never mind. Ellen still finds outdoor art worth all its trouble. “The colors are true to nature. And the work is more spontaneous and more exciting. You don’t have time to mull your work over. It’s more free-flowing, and that’s better for your piece.” And maybe for your peace.

“The best thing about working outdoors,” says Bea, “is that even if you end up throwing your work in the trash, you’ve still had a wonderful day.”