The Rich Legacy of Plein Air Painting at Olana

by Melanie Hasbrook

Valerie A. Balint, Associate Curator

“The Great Book of Nature is always open and there are no blank leaves for the artist.” – Frederic Church, 1898

To be at Olana on any given day is to sense Church’s own celebratory voice for all he created here, and to feel it echoed in the contemporary artists who come here for their own inspiration.

One of the great joys of working here is witnessing artists painting within the same majestic landscape Frederic Church spent forty years perfecting. . Artists today are welcome to paint and draw throughout the property of one of the most iconic American painters, 365 days a year, without permit or fee. Throughout the year, these modern-day adventurers can be seen with their signature paint boxes, artist umbrellas and stools set out, ready to brave the elements in pursuit of capturing that perfect view.

The artists I encounter at Olana frequently express their kinship with Church and those in his Hudson River School circle. They appreciate the legacy he has left in its varied beauty, and enthusiastically welcome the opportunity to portray the landscape infused with their unique artistic expression.  Their completed works parallel the breadth of Church’s sketches still in the Olana collection, from detailed botanical studies to gestural, vivid sunsets containing colors which seem almost impossible— but make us catch our breath when we witness them in the sky.

The sheer variety of artists may surprise. There are the very young and the seasoned veterans; local artists who come almost weekly in the summer and those who make annual pilgrimages from far away.  Well-known professionals paint beside admitted hobbyists. Whether classic figurative painter or abstract practitioner, all are together enjoying the time‑honored tradition of painting outside.  They follow in the footsteps of Church’s friends and students who were often invited to paint in the Olana landscape, and who, on occasion sat alongside the artist seeking to capture the vista of the nearby Catskill Mountains and Hudson River.

Plein Air painting at Olana culminates once a year in a multi-day event hosted in collaboration with the Columbia County Council on the Arts.  Thirty artists competitively selected will commune at Olana July, 9, 10 and 11 to paint spectacular scenes of their choosing. They will paint and converse with each other, enjoying a unique collegial atmosphere reminiscent of sketching expeditions undertaken by their predecessors more than 150 years ago. The reception and live auction of wet canvases which occurs on Saturday, July 11 from 4-6 pm at the Wagon House Education Center allows for networking among colleagues and patrons, and provides attendees with a chance to go home with an original artwork.

It has been exciting to watch the event grow over the past four years, continually attracting talented artists—both longtime friends of Olana, and those newly discovering its wonders.  Their presence enlivens and energizes.  Visitors stop and talk, many engaging in conversation with a living artist for the first time.  The painters know they are involved in something bigger than themselves, part of a continuum begun when Church first sketched on the long southwest slope as a 19-year-old student of Thomas Cole.

2015 at Olana honors contemporary art and its continued connection to Frederic Church’s greatest artistic masterpiece through a variety of innovative exhibitions. Plein Air at Olana: Creating Landscapes Within the Landscape complements the presentations of River Crossings and Groundswell, all showing the sheer diversity of contemporary artistic expression, while providing links to the past and bridges to today’s art.

As Olana approaches the 50th year anniversary of its initial saving next year, it is important to remember that artists play a pivotal role in ensuring its relevance and growth for the next 50 years, and beyond.   Make plans to attend Plein Air at Olana and support those who are so vital to our efforts.