Stephanie Lord: The Sometimes Plein-Air Painter

Stephanie Lord’s studio, built into the second floor of a 115-year-old barn next to her home near Whitefish Bay, has large windows overlooking meadows and trees. 

It’s no surprise then, that she likes to paint landscapes – though what she likes to paint seems to constantly evolve.

“I thought I liked just landscapes,” she said. “I love barns, but I never in a million years thought that I would paint birds, but then I started painting birds and people just loved them. Who knew, right?”

Plum Bottom Gallery carries her work in its main gallery, and she was recently in her fourth, maybe fifth, juried show at the Miller Art Museum. 

Art by Stephanie Lord. Submitted.

Plum Bottom’s website displays the range of her work – empty roads run down to handsome barns and towering silos; thunderheads hover over farmsteads; lemons in a glass bowl sit alongside a reflective pewter pitcher; a bee loses itself in ecstasy on a flower.

In others, Whitefish Bay Creek lights up with a sun just making it over the Lake Michigan horizon, while her birds strike aggressive poses.

“You paint things you’d never thought of painting; I think it’s really fun to try new stuff,” she said, pointing to a recent painting of stacked tea cups. “I never thought I’d be going to antique stores trying to find tea cups so that I could paint them stacked. I don’t even like antique stores. But things I never would have thought of in a million years, I have enjoyed painting.”

She’s been painting for about 15 years, and got started after going to a plein-air painting event with her daughter, who had worn a Hinsdale High sweatshirt. (The couple’s three children are grown and in careers.)

The sweatshirt grabbed the attention of Jim Leatham, a highly regarded plein-air painter from Sister Bay, who approached Lord and her daughter; Hinsdale had been his high school. They started talking. Lord explained where she lived in Door County, next to the yellow barn on Whitefish Bay Road. Leatham said he’d always wanted to paint it, so she invited him over. The next day, he appeared with 15 plein-air artists.

Art by Stephanie Lord. Submitted.

It looked interesting, and she told him she’d like to try painting. The next day he showed up with two easels and got her started. He came three or four times and then she took classes and workshops at Peninsula School of Art. 

“And that’s just kind of how I started,” she said. “You kind of figure out what works for you. You know, you kind of grab a little bit from everybody.”

She likes to sit out for an hour in the morning with a dog or two and a cup of coffee and watch birds.

“I just like their sassy facial expressions,” she said.

She also never thought she would like painting clouds.

“See that cloud painting over there?” she said, pointing. “I really enjoyed that, so I will probably do a series on clouds.” 

The new subjects are just a part of her journey as an artist. When she started painting, the idea of painting in public terrified her. 

“Now I love it,” she said, pointing to a picture of Café Zoetrope that she painted on a trip to San Francisco.

“People come up to you when you’re painting and I think that talking to people is half the fun,” she continued. “When I was painting in San Francisco, people would stop all the time and you’re just chit-chatting with them. And here in Door County, plein-air is a way to get interaction with people. It’s such a good way to connect with people, because you could easily be an artist in your studio and never, ever see a soul.”

City and agricultural scenes share important elements for a painter.

“I am drawn to color, like that Café Zoetrope,” she said. “I just love the color of that building and the red awning. It’s usually the color that gets me. I like a lot of contrast in my paintings – the shadows, the light. That’s why I like barns and architecture, for the shadows created by the rooflines.”

A recent online painting lesson with a plein-air painter in Australia has given her more new ideas – like adding into a barn photo the four, free-range chickens her husband, Todd, bought in April.

She likes the variety of her work.

“I know some people like to paint the same thing,” she said. “I don’t think I could do that. I get bored too quickly. I enjoy painting whatever catches my attention”

Art by Stephanie Lord. Submitted.

This winter she will focus on plein air because she has been invited to join a plein-air show at the Miller Art Museum in the spring.

“Normally I would studio-paint all winter, but this winter, I’m going to be plein-airing more than I thought I would because of the invitation from Helen del Guidice, the museum’s curator,” she said.

The exhibit will feature five midwestern artists, each with a distinct style and approach to plein air, del Guidice said. She invited Lord, she said, “because she is an excellent, local representative for the invitational exhibition. Stephanie shows a natural talent for painting en plein air, which is not a practice that is easy or enjoyable for every artist.”

Lord has a day job that she does mostly virtually in customer service for a Boston investment management firm. But she’s looking forward to painting outside when she can, or observing the landscape around her through the windows of her studio, which was completed in 2022.

“There’s nothing better than being in this place in the winter when it’s snowing, and it’s a Sunday, and there’s football,” she said. “My Sundays are sacrosanct. I’m here all day painting, but I never paint during a Packers game because I am too busy yelling.”

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