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Inspiring Conservation Through Plein Air Painting

Inspiring Conservation Through Plein Air Painting
Pacific Northwest Plein Air in the Columbia Gorge works on display at Maryhill Museum of Art. (photographer: Melissa Gonzalez)
November 7, 2022

By Cate Hotchkiss

In late July 2021, Ken Klos of Portland, Oregon, set up his easel and palette of paints and began to capture, with quick brushstrokes, the serene summer sunrise unfolding in front of him at Catherine Creek recreation area near Lyle, Washington.

He was participating, along with 39 others, in the 16th annual Pacific Northwest Plein Air in the Columbia River Gorge competition, or “paint-out,” sponsored by Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale, Washington. Painting ‘en plein air’ is a French phrase for painting outside.

“The real skill involved in plein air painting is to first catch the mood, the essence of the scene, because in half an hour, it will be different,” Klos explained to Stan Hall, Friends digital communications manager, who interviewed and photographed the artists at work. Over the course of four days, they painted various vistas across the Gorge, from Troutdale to the John Day Dam, and then submitted up to six paintings into a juried exhibition and art sale at the museum.

Since 2019, Friends has partnered with Maryhill to further engage and educate the public about the paint-out itself and, more broadly, to highlight how art and conservation intersect. In addition to the awards presented by Maryhill, a panel of judges from Friends recognizes three paintings that best illustrate and celebrate the natural beauty and sense of wonder of the Gorge, explains Hall.

“This amazing place is a source of renewing and ongoing creative inspiration and joy, but its breathtaking views and cultural landmarks are not guaranteed to last,” he says. “The stunning paintings remind us of what we are striving to safeguard.”

Hood River artist Cathleen Rehfeld launched the paint-out in 2005, before plein air painting took hold in the area. “I wanted to share the Gorge’s incomparable and diverse beauty with others,” she says. “Where else can you drive from a temperate rainforest to the desert in a mere thirty minutes? For an artist, this is incredible.”

Since its inception, the event has attracted, year after year, nationally renowned and emerging artists, and, in 2016, Maryhill began hosting the paint-out. Steve Grafe, the museum’s curator of art, often talks with visitors and collectors alike at the exhibition.

“Many people buy the work because of its artistic merit, but also, because, as they say, ‘the Gorge is special to us,’” he explains, a refrain that resonates near and far, and through each and every canvas, fostering a deeper commitment and connection to these lands we love.

Cate Hotchkiss is a freelance writer and photographer who lives in Hood River with her husband, two children, and labradoodle. View Cate's photography website.

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