Painting the Passage of Time

First-time Plein Air Festival artists discuss their experience

Peninsula School of Art’s Plein Air Festival is a staple of the Door County art scene, and after 17 summers, it has garnered many dedicated fans. 

Plein Air week always seemed to coincide with my childhood visits to Door County, so the Fish Creek Quick Paint and auction became a late-July tradition. This year, I ventured out to some of the artists’ locations to get a glimpse of the magic of plein air painting and to see how a couple of new-to-the-festival artists were feeling about the week. 

One notable newcomer is Adam Erickson, who began his position as the executive director of Peninsula School of Art in May. He said the festival’s prominence, as well as the community’s support for artists, have made the transition to his new job easy.

“We’re fortunate in Door County to host one of the top plein air festivals in the country,” Erickson said. “I felt like my job in a lot of ways was coming in to support and be part of the energy around getting people out, and being excited about the event itself. I didn’t feel like I had to come in and really change much of anything.” 

Welcoming new artists and art lovers is an important part of the festival, according to Ginny Sowinski, the art school’s development and events coordinator. She said this begins when the school chooses the artists to invite: 40% must be new to the festival. 

One of these is Bethann Moran-Handzlik, who said that working in public has been an adjustment from working alone in her studio or in the woods near her Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, home. She said she typically works in private, but conversations with inquisitive onlookers have been welcome because they’ve reminded her of her time teaching art. 

“I’m still kind of acclimating to all the engagement, but because I taught college and art workshops, I kind of feel like when I’m in this public arena, it’s more like I’m demonstrating and inviting everybody in to enjoy it,” Moran-Handzlik said. “It feels like you’re sort of setting a table for people so they can have a little bit of the feast.” 

She said she scoped out a few places to paint early in the week, including Anderson Dock in Ephraim and Alpine Resort in Egg Harbor. 

“I have my eye on the Alpine Resort’s white tent,” Moran-Handzlik said. “It makes a beautiful reflection in the water at the end of the day. It feels like a castle of some sort to me. It really invites my imagination.” 

I found festival first-timer Douglas Fryer at the Sister Bay Sip and Stroll, painting two sailboats in the marina. He said this is his first time visiting Door County, and he’s felt a warm welcome. 

Painting a landscape that’s so different from his usual workspace – southern Utah – has been refreshing: “It’s almost like when you enter a new room, a new space, and you’re kind of taking it all in,” Fryer said.

He prefaced our conversation by pointing out that a sailboat he was in the middle of painting had sailed away, leaving an empty space in his view – but, he explained, movement and change are key parts of plein air painting. 

“As you paint, maybe it’s an hour or two, but the painting becomes evidence of the passage of time,” Fryer said. “It becomes imbued with all those different choices you have to make along the way to build it. It’s not just a copy of a photograph; it’s a living thing that’s always moving.” 

Sowinski said that in addition to welcoming new artists, the format of the festival lends itself to community engagement – a great opportunity, Erickson said, for observers to discover plein air painting. 

“I love the idea that the artist’s process becomes so accessible,” he said. “You can literally walk up to somebody in a field and see how they’re mixing colors together, how they’re capturing light. Often artists work in studios, and here we get a chance to see them out in the landscape.”