"Plein air" artists capture Alachua outdoors

By Melissa Garcia - July 30, 2005

She held her brush in the air like she was conducting a symphony.

Three stories in the air on top of the Paynes Prairie observation tower, professional painter Linda Blondheim and her four friends huddled over their easels and stretch canvases as the wasps and bees hovered near them in the summer heat.

They are the Plein Air Heads, a local group of women that paints "en plein air," or in the open air, to capture the essence of nature in landscape paintings.

Meeting at about 8 a.m. on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, they paint for two or three hours at scenic locations near Gainesville including Boulware Springs Park, Lake Alice, local farms, and, of course, Paynes Praire, Blondheim said. This summer, the group is working on paintings for three upcoming exhibitions in the fall and spring.

Blondheim, 55, began painting on location about 15 years ago when she got involved with landscape painting. She now travels all over the rural areas of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama crafting art to sell or show in galleries.

"I felt that it was the most difficult genre in some ways because it changes," she said. "When you paint on location, you really start to appreciate your environment more."

The group has painted in rain, heat, freezing cold and even during the chaotic hurricane season last year, she said.

Blondheim said she has painted in 40-mph winds that forced her to secure her equipment with straps and duct tape while holding down the canvas with one hand and painting with the other.

She and her friends have learned to wear gloves with the fingers cut off to keep their hands warm and protected while they paint, she said.

Throughout the summer, Blondheim said she planned to use Lake Alice as a Wednesday painting site but changed her mind when she stumbled upon a large alligator while walking in the dark there one morning.

Although she has had encounters with wildlife in the past, Blondheim said she was lucky the alligator did not hurt her. She will wait until the water goes down to return to the lake, she said.

Fellow Plein Air Head Dahvi Franklin, 37, said she continues to paint at Lake Alice despite her friend's unpleasant incident. She has been painting seriously since college and with Blondheim for about a year, she said.

Using a cigar box, Franklin created her own pochade box, a special easel used for plein air painting with a hinged lid that holds a canvas, a palette that slides out to one side and a storage area for paints, brushes and supplies.

"I had to smoke an awful lot of cigars to get that box," she said, laughing.

Franklin said she painted in an indoor studio for about a year but finds working with the dynamics of the outdoors to be more invigorating.

"For me, this is the best studio one could ask for," she said. "Sometimes the painting is secondary to the experience."

Blondheim said the Plein Air Heads formed about a year ago when she suggested that her friends meet on Saturday mornings. They use weekly locations to develop themes for art exhibitions.

As a Plein Air Head, Sue Johnson, 62, said the group name was a quirky way to show that even though they are serious about painting, they still like to have fun.

After teaching elementary school for 25 years, Johnson said she decided to begin painting when she retired last summer. She related the daily impact she had on children?s lives to working on a canvas.

"Now I'm interested in creating on my own canvas and seeing where it takes me, she said. "I want to be the best painter I can be, and it takes a lot of work."

Using oil paints, Johnson blended a scheme of deep blues and greens on her canvas, creating a unique vision of the golden savannah grasses in front of her.

"It's not about getting it exactly like it is, but it's using the place to capture a moment," she said.

In fact, even though each artist beheld the same landscape, every painting was completely different in color and composition.

Betty Blitch, 62, said even accounting for style, they all have unique perceptions of the same scene. She said she has always been nature-oriented and feels at home painting outdoors with the group.

"I think Alachua County is particularly beautiful. Paynes Prairie is a contrast with its savannah, marshes and its unique wildlife," Blitch said.

Patty Zeile, 50, entertained the group with jokes and stories as she painted. She said the view from the observation tower made her homesick for the grasslands of southern Africa, where she spent time in the Peace Corps with her husband years ago.

"The process of painting is the one thing that's self-discovery for me," Zeile said. "Everything else I do is to help someone else. This process is mine."

Blondheim said the finished paintings are not as important as the painting process. While some plein air artists have guidelines for completing paintings on location, she said the Plein Air Heads just enjoy themselves, experiment with art and learn more about each other during every session.

"I don't like to limit myself. I don't follow anyone else's rules but my own," Blondheim said. "As long as I can put paint on canvas, I will."

The Plein Air Heads' next exhibition, "Comfort Zones," will be at Kanapaha Gardens in Gainesville from Sept. 7 to Jan. 7. To watch the group "en plein air," contact Linda Blondheim at (386) 462-5726 for session locations.

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Melissa Garcia / words + designs