On a recent late summer day, motorists enjoying leisurely drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway saw a captivating sight: easels set up at Standing Rock Overlook and painters before them, plying brushes to capture the stunning view toward Balsam Ridge or the remarkable rock that gives the spot its name. The artists were members of a newly formed group called the Smoky Mountain Plein Air Painters. “We’re an informal plein air group out of Waynesville painting the mountains of Haywood County,” says Richard Baker, owner of Balsam Ridge Gallery in Waynesville and founder of the group.
There are no dues, paperwork or other formalities. The artists choose a scenic spot every week and meet there on Tuesday mornings, paint boxes in tow. Sites visited—and captured on canvas—include Lake Logan, the West Fork of the Pigeon River and J Creek in Maggie Valley. Painting together is a learning experience, some of them say, as well as a chance at camaraderie in a pursuit that is usually solitary.
Since his initial outing with the group, John Geers, a 19-year resident of Haywood County, has looked forward to painting each week at the chosen locations. “This is so different from everything I do all week,” he says. He painted in the past, put down his brush for years and had recently picked it up again when he met Baker and was invited to join the group. Geers says he is using these excursions to learn to paint mountains.
Nancy Clayburn fit art into her life whenever she could for many years until she took up plein air painting about seven years ago in Sarasota, FL, where she now lives. “I kind of fell in love with it,” she says. “I love to be outside in the fresh air.” She spends her summers in Haywood County where she chanced upon Baker and the Smoky Mountain Plein Air Painters at Lake Junaluska one day.
Lynn Hamilton-Rutherford had painted for many years, but never en plein air. Now she goes on outings with the group regularly. “It’s cathartic,” she says. “You leave your problems under the paint.”
It is the unsettling change from painting indoors that Tom Szewc finds most beneficial. “You get comfortable in a studio,” he says. “But outside the light is constantly changing; people are talking; there are clouds, weather and bugs.” And, he adds, “Any weakness in the painting shows up instantly. But, as Richard says, ‘We’re not here to make masterpieces. We’re here to paint.’”
Painters of all skill levels and mediums are welcome to attend the outings on Tuesdays from 8:30 a.m. until around noon. To learn more about locations, find them on Facebook at Smoky Mountain Plein Air Painters.