In this third guest blog from our friends at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the students interview Susan Roth. Susan is an urban planner, outdoor painter, and a member of the Wallkill River School of Art.
Susan Roth is a member of the Wallkill River School and kindly contacted us through the school’s founder, Shawn Dell Joyce, offering her perspective. She does not yet consider herself a professional artist, but she has been active with the school for around four years, and plein air paints every chance she can get. As an urban planner, she is aware of the issues surrounding the importance of preserving sensitive ecological sites. She also works with nonprofits and has searched for ways to incorporate artists into her nonprofit fundraisers. For example, four years ago she created a “West Point Paint Out” funded by a local tourism grant that provided artists a stipend for their day’s work and arranged a silent auction after the event. She continues to look for ways to bring professional artists into the organizations she works with in order to give painters more opportunities to display and sell their work.
Stairway in Franklin Park, 12x12”, oil on canvas
Do you find the process of painting outside, or the product, or both, create a connection to the environment? And how?
Yes, definitely. Painters bring awareness to the beauty of the world, especially when they are inspired by the living, breathing subject. For myself anyway, my paintings do not look the same when I take a picture of the scenery and finish it up at home. When I finish them on site, they feel more inspired to me. I think that every painting that is hung, appreciated, or purchased perpetuates the natural world, and is a gentle reminder of the beautiful places that inspire us and how important it is to preserve places that matter even if it is just for their beauty. But I know that this is not the only reason for preservation. There are sound ecological reasons as well for certain landscapes.
What differences do you see between the Hudson River School and contemporary plein-air painting?
I think of painting - or any form of art - as a method of communicating something. The Hudson River School artists were living in a time when massive technological changes were occurring, some which destroyed the environment, some which allowed us to explore our wildernesses more fully. Most of them were trained by artists who used painting as a means of accurately recording a scene. Their art expresses ideal perfection, maybe wonder of places, maybe even an attempt to create a sense of loss if such places were to disappear. As for the modern artists, we are in an age where you can take a great picture with your smart phone of a scene, so painting is no longer about recording the scene in accurate detail. Modern artists are about capturing the feeling of the scene and conveying that sense of awe or awareness. I think that the modern artist is ever more open to more emotions than just idealism and romanticism. The modern plein air artist often conveys that important sense of place so important to our human experience.
How does painting a landscape (en plein air or not) change your relationship to that place?
It’s a reminder of a favorite place, and sitting in the setting for that period of time makes me appreciate its beauty more. My paintings are an instant reminder of how I felt when I painted the scene. I can tell you from my own experience, when I finish a painting or drawing on site, and get into that "special zone," my work feels inspired too.
Do you think plein air painting, or “fine art” in general, can be approachable to everyone?
That is definitely a yes! The Catskills have such beautiful landscapes that it’s so easy to get inspired. One only has to remember that any kind of painting is a skill, and inspiration is a gift freely given to everyone who chooses to use it.
This is the third in a series of guest blogs on painting or drawing outside—also called plein air art—created through a partnership with students at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Our thanks go out to the students who put these interviews together: Barbara Hickam Pressman, Alina Kharisova, Annie Mesa, Sophia Rhee, and Kristina Tougas. For more information on plein air painting, check out these MyWoodlot resources.