Olana Plein Air: Artist as Inspiration

by Melanie Hasbrook

Valerie Balint
Interim Director of Collections and Research

“It is a particularly lovely Autumn here . . . mainly soft weather toned to suit an Artist’s eye.” Frederic E. Church to painter John Ferguson Weir from Olana, October 1891

This past weekend I had the pleasure of hosting a descendant of Frederic Church’s student Lockwood de Forest. As we stood in front of the main house and took in the sweeping southern view down the hill to the Hudson, I spoke of teacher and pupil sitting side by side painting the same sunset, referencing a pair of plein air oil sketches which remain in Olana’s collection.  In that moment I tried to channel the thrill de Forest must have felt given the opportunity to create beside the master in this spectacular setting.  For there were painters here all the time in Church’s era, friends and students, and of course, the great man himself sketching throughout his 250-acres for over half a century; in all seasons and in all conditions.  When I look at his sketches of views from this property, I can sense his joy and the immediacy of seeking to capture the scenes which surrounded him daily.

As more than twenty competitively selected contemporary painters converge here for Olana’s fifth annual Plein Air celebration (October 7-9), that electric excitement present in the Church sketches will become palpable here again. These talented artists were chosen by a blind jury including both judges from our local Hudson community (artists Joan Damiani and Kenneth Young), and from the national scene (PleinAir Today writer Bob Bahr). Beginning on Friday, October 7 the chosen artists will set out into the landscape with umbrellas, sketchbooks, paint boxes and materials. They will settle in diverse locales and capture the views which resonate with them personally. They will engage with our visitors, many of whom will witness the act of creating a painting for the first time in their lives.  For me, that exchange of artistic process is a highlight of the season here, and a fitting tribute to Church – both as painter and as Olana’s creator.

Olana is a complex intersection of many ideas: Church’s greatest and most personal artistic achievement, a family home, a painter’s studio on the grandest of scales, and today a place for creative inspiration and historical education for the tens of thousands of visitors who come here every year. This year, a reinvigorated Olana Plein Air spearheaded by The Olana’s Partnership Education Department has additional events that create connections between Olana’s many facets. Director of Education Amy Hufnagel and Education Coordinator Elizabeth Schanz have created new and exciting participatory aspects to the event.  They hope that the professional painters at the event will inspire our visitors to try their own hand at landscape art, and so will offer art supplies throughout for visitors to use.  All of us who work here, strive to have Olana be more than a fantastic testament to Hudson River School history – we want to convey to visitors that the creative impulse is universal and within reach of everyone.

On Saturday afternoon (October 8) participating artists will bring their canvases in, wet from the field to Olana’s Wagon House Education Center and place them on view for everyone to enjoy as part of a preview reception.  Attendees can participate in voting for their favorite, as part of the coveted “Viewers’ Choice” award.  Longtime Olana friend and noted landscape painter Jane Bloodgood-Abrams will select several winners based on excellence, and we are happy we are able to support our winning artists with cash awards.

While Olana was the personal center of Frederic Church’s world, Hudson was his and his family’s local community.  It is where they attended religious service, used the local post office, shopped for their shoes, bought groceries, went to the dentist, had photographic portraits made and even where Church bought some of the exotic objects which grace the interiors here. Church’s paintings hung on the walls of the Hudson Opera House during a Sanitary Fair in support of the Union troops for the Civil War. It is fitting then, that we bring our Olana Plein Air celebration into the city the Churches’ were so engaged with.  On Sunday (October 9), our artists will participate in an all-day tent sale in Hudson’s 7th Street Park. We are thrilled that many members of the Hudson Business Coalition have come on board to show their support of our educational programs by offering 2% of the proceeds from their sales that day to the event.

Frederic Church was known to be able to finish an exquisite sketch in 45 minutes!  In a fitting homage, for an hour Sunday afternoon the area around the park will be filled with artists participating in a Quick Draw, one-hour painting competition, which is open to anyone that wishes to register. After the hour is up, all will convene with their rapid-fire masterpieces on the steps of City Hall to be judged by civic leaders Didi Barrett (NYS Assembly member), Tiffany Hamilton (Hudson Mayor) and Gary Schiro (Director of the Hudson Opera House, Hudson’s original City Hall!). There will be a sea of paintings on those steps demonstrating that both Olana and Hudson are a locus of artistic energy. The entire day will be capped off with a reception and winners’ exhibition courtesy of our generous friends at the Caldwell Gallery.

As a curator at Olana I am excited that the tradition of artists painting together in the open air, wherever they are moved to do so, is alive and thriving; embodied in this annual Olana Plein Airevent.  Please join us. For more information click here.