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Art from the outside

Plein Air event draws artists, spectators to downtown Hillsboro, wetlands
by: Courtesy photo Artists took in the air while painting images of the countryside this month at Hillsboro’s plein air competition where Manning artist Sandra Pearce won with her take on the downtown Hillsboro streetscape (left), bustling with activity during the weekly farmer’s market.

Oregon's oddly dodgy summer weather didn't prevent dozens of artists from transforming Hillsboro into a living, breathing outdoor art studio this month as the Hillsboro Arts and Culture Council presented its fifth annual Plein Art Outdoor Painting Competition.

Held July 15-16 in the city center and at the Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve, the event drew 38 artists - its largest contingency yet - who were each tasked with racing the clock to craft works in three categories: landscape, city scene and 'quick draw' figurative drawings.

Works created during the event are on display August 2-31 at the Walters Cultural Arts Center in downtown Hillsboro.

'We had more artists this year than last year, and a lot of new people participating, so it was great,' said Katrina Hill, cultural arts facility supervisor for HCAC. 'We had a lot of interest from the public coming out to see what was going on.'

While some raindrops fell, the sun prevailed, drawing throngs of spectators to watch works of art take shape from blank canvases to vibrant scenes of the city and its people.

'We tented the lawn where we had the quick-draw competition in case of rain or if the sun was really hot. This is the first year we've had a problem with the possibility of rain,' said Hill. 'The weather's been so crazy. But it seems as though the plein air painters from this area tend to go out all year, so a lot of them didn't seem to be frightened off. It grew quite a bit, and it allowed a lot of new people to come in to the event.'

Bigger than ever

This year, Plein Air expanded both in length and scope. Formerly, the event was held in a single day and was limited to the city. This year, the event was held for two days and expanded into the wetlands.

That expansion caught the attention of Cornelius landscape artist Amanda Houston, who has spent considerable time creating canvases based on the wetlands' views.

'Wetlands are something I know really well. I know how to paint reeds and still water,' said Houston. 'We live in such beauty with these rolling pastures, cultivated fields of hay and wheat, vineyards, orchards: you name it and it's breathtaking. The wetlands are the untouched lands that are equally breathtaking.'

Houston was surprised that her work didn't receive any awards in the landscape category, but was even more surprised when she took second place in the quick-draw category, in which artists had two hours to create images of models in vintage clothing.

Houston entered the competition at the very last minute, and had no idea she was even a contender for a place in the spotlight.

'I just jumped in. I'm a landscape painter, so it was surprising that I got something in subject matter that I'm not very well versed with,' said Houston. 'It wasn't the most beautiful painting I've ever done, but somehow I must have captured (the model's) essence and determination, and that's what the juror said she was immediately drawn to.'

City scene inspiration

Meanwhile, at the Hillsboro farmers market, city-scene artists toiled away at their easels, capturing the hustle and bustle of the busy market.

The winner of that competition, Manning artist Sandra Pearce, said that creating her works amid such a busy crowd presented its own challenges. But the avid outdoor painter said she thrives in such environments.

'It's a lot of fun and freeing. It's great to be given permission to stand there in the middle of the street and paint,' said Pearce. 'I've wanted to paint in the middle of the street for a long time.'

Pearce said she is drawn to the challenge of painting outdoors, and explained that part of the fun of participating in Plein Air is the interaction with passersby who are intrigued by seeing art created from the ground up.

'It's fun when people come up and talk and ask questions. I can talk and paint at the same time, and it's especially fun when you hear kids talking about it,' said Pearce. 'You hope they'll be inspired to do it, too. There isn't a lot of art in the schools anymore, so it's really fun when kids come by. The kids will walk right up to you and ask what you're painting. It's great to encourage them.'

Weather influences art

In outdoor painting events, the weather is also a factor that needs to be considered. Whether the sun is beating down, rain is falling or winds are gusting, the environment is an unpredictable influence on the work.

That, many artists agree, is also one of the draws of the event: to face such challenges and incorporate them into the final products.

'Painting outside is challenging and exciting all at the same time,' said Houston. 'You try to stay focused, especially when you only have 45 minutes or so.'

Pearce, who considers Forest Grove her hometown and tries to paint outdoors, rain or shine, every weekend, said she embraces all the challenges presented by the elements and views difficulties as opportunities to grow as an artist.

'I've painted in pelting rain and high wind to the point where I had to finish my painting in my pickup, and in burning sun. I've painted when it was so cold and my hands were so numb that I'd drop the paintbrush,' said Pearce. 'Those extremes give you powerful memories and experiences you'd never get in the studio, and it makes you remember the places so well. You don't get memories like that just sitting in the studio.'

Sparse rainfall

Lucky for this year's batch of Plein Air participants, the rainfall was limited to sparse drizzle, but even if it weren't, both Pearce and Houston agreed that the event would have drawn them in, if only for yet another chance to share their work with a community or art lovers and casual viewers eager to see them ply their trades.

'For me, the life of an artist has so much solitude that it's nice to get out in front of people and do demos and workshops,' said Houston. 'It's nice to get feedback. Otherwise you're sitting in a studio creating a masterpiece. This is part of the journey as an artist.'

Works created during the Plein Art Outdoor Painting Competition are on display August 2-31 at the Walters Cultural Arts Center, located at 527 E Main St. in Hillsboro. An opening reception takes place Tuesday, August 2 at 6 p.m. To learn more, call

503-615-3494 or visit the site ci.hillsboro.or.us/wcac for more details.