As I sipped my morning coffee and drove down I-84, I watched the sunrise start to peak out from behind the Gorge. I was on my way to Rowena Crest to meet Min Zhong, a painter who was capturing one of the Gorge's many picturesque sunrises.
Min is a painter who participated in this year’s Pacific Northwest Plein Air in the Columbia Gorge, an annual artist "paint-out," competition, and collaboration hosted by the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Washington. Out of hundreds of applicants, Min was only one of 40 painters selected to take part in this year’s Plein Air contest.
While Friends has partnered with Maryhill on joint public education around the competition since 2019, this was my first year working with the event. I was excited to meet the painters out in the Gorge, and help later judge the selections, but I didn't know exactly what I would find that day. And an event I expected to just be a competition between local artists in the Gorge, I discovered, was something much bigger.
A community of artists
One of the things that initially surprised me about Min was that she had never stepped foot in the Columbia Gorge prior to this competition. As I learned, many of our plein air painters actually were from across the country: Virginia, Wisconsin, and many more. In talking with Min, I was curious how she discovered one of my personal favorite sunrise spots in the Gorge having no prior knowledge of what was in town.
It was then that I realized that this event was not really about competition but community. Many of the painters were a part of a group chat where every morning artists would send their location to other painters, providing recommendations for their favorite spots, and meeting up with other painters to paint and enjoy the sites together.
Making art, making new friendships
“The warmth and inclusion of other people is what made this event for me,” Friends' grand prize winner Janie Lowe shared with me in a subsequent interview. Having spent much of her time alone during previous Plein Air events, Janie was not looking forward to once again scouting, painting, and returning to her campsite alone. However, an encounter at the Maryhill Museum changed her experience completely.
“The first morning that we checked in, I started talking to a couple of women and they invited me to ride up the Mt. Hood Meadows chairlift to paint the mountain and try to beat the heat.” Janie continued, “I jumped at the chance and they also said I could pitch my tent at their campsite at Trillium Lake. This changed my whole experience!”
Janie was so grateful for this company and experience that she contacted Maryhill’s Curator of Art, Steve Grafe and volunteered to organize groups and aid painters that were wanting to paint and camp together before next year’s competition.
For many of the painters, connecting with other artists and joining in a larger community of artists collectively exploring and capturing the wonders of the Gorge was one of the highlights of this competition and made brought a special kind of wholeness to the experience.
“After I turned my paintings in on Thursday and headed back to Portland, I felt so full and fortunate, " Janie added. "I drove back through the beautiful Gorge feeling so lucky to live here, so gratified from the adventures that I experienced during the week, and the new friendships and connections that were made. It didn’t matter what came of the paintings, I was fulfilled.”
As I drove home that day, after interviewing several painters across the Gorge, I reflected on how for many of the Plein Air painters, the event wasn’t a chance to compete but instead an opportunity to meet other artists and share their love of the Columbia Gorge. Whether it was scouting locations or bracing the elements together, these artists left this competition with more than just views, they left with friendships, camaraderie, and community.
Janie will return for next year’s Plein Air competition and hopes to continue organizing and getting painters together for 2023. And I look forward to seeing her, and her new friends, capturing sunsets and sunrises in the Gorge alike.