A friend recently asked me “if you didn’t have to sell your art, or teach art, would you still do it?” My answer is “Hail yeah! I’d still do it!”
Success is not measured with money or awards for me, it’s in making a difference in people’s lives and the community. I deeply love what I do. I get to make art for a living. It’s the ultimate life for an artist and is incredibly fulfilling, but it would be empty by itself. What’s more important is that II get to inspire others to make art, and change the world at the same time.
As a plein air artist, my art involves other people being engaged in the artmaking process. I take a group (about 50 per season) to ecologically-sensitive sites in Pinellas County, we paint weekly, and we use our work to raise consciousness online, and in exhibits to benefit other nonprofits. I get to see other people connect to the landscape and become inspired and passionate about it the same way that I am.
I'm thinking about my group this week because both our classes were cancelled due to cold weather and I miss them, and painting with them, terribly!
This painting season started in November, with 25 people joining me in Tarpon Springs at Fred Howard Park. We talked about the mangroves as our first defense against sea level rise. A handful of the participants live in Pinellas, the rest are Winter visitors, most had never seen this park. We have painted all over Tarpon Springs including Craig Park where manatees winter in the fresh water spring, and the Sponge Docks where we had a nocturne class.
We have painted around Dunedin, and visited Hammock Park and other places where you see wildlife peeking out of pockets of vegetation coexisting with neighborhoods and developments. We’ve painted in Clearwater and Sand Key, visiting the site of the original causeway, and catching a glimpse of armadillos in the dunes. We’ve painted downtowns, old theatres, new developments, Fort Desoto, boats, bays and Intercoastal waterways. These experiences connect people to the land, and the life, and turn tourists into stakeholders.
Participants have sent me comments like:
“I thought the series was very useful and fun. You are a good teacher. I have been doing this for more than 20 years but I still learned a lot.. I prefer locations in south county because of where we live but should be able to come to locations as far north as Clearwater or Palm Harbor and if I am not too lazy, The demos were quite useful. See you in the fall
Michael (Treasure Island)
“I loved the opportunity to see places throughout county” Karen (Dunedin)
“I have enjoyed all the sites immensely. I really felt that my skill level as an artist jumped up to the next level. I feel I have more clarity of what the painting needs and wants to stand out and glow. The locations were terrific, the class theme and demo for the day were spot on. The live demonstrations were the best. On your "challenges of the day", I felt, made me open my mind to look at the subject from a different direction. This helps me to be more creative with my work.” -Don, Canada
“Thank you so much, for all that you have done for me with this class, Shawn. You have not only helped me to move forward in my painting, but have also provided me with weekly inspiration and a much-needed respite.” -Sherry
Art is an activity-it involves getting out there and doing it. Some people have a hard time doing this by themselves. Its easy to get caught up in a busy life and let laundry or appointments seem more important at the moment than making time to paint, especially in an exotic location. Meeting once a week with a group is a commitment. When you show up weekly, you get better at painting. It usually takes about four classes for a beginner to finish a painting in one session.
Its really not that hard to paint a pretty picture-anyone can do it. What’s hard is making a difference with your art! Capturing this place, this moment in time, this species before it becomes extinct, this field before it becomes a condo complex, and this bayou before it gets flooded by sea level rise. Plein air painting keeps me, and all who do it, in this very moment, connected to this place. We have to care. We are now a part of it and it is a part of us. To me, that is success.
We also vote on a conservation effort to undertake as a group. This year we chose between helping Gladys Douglas Preserve, Klosterman Preserve, or Honeymoon Island. Our group was given research on each organization and asked to vote which one we should offer to do a fundraiser for. The members deliberated and made a choice. We will be offering a group of paintings as a fundraiser for Honeymoon Island, along with a cash donation to all three organizations. This helps to foster community attachment. Some of the members offered to volunteer at these organizations after hearing about them.
Artists need each other. We cannot make art in ivory towers separate from the culture and society we live in. Part of our existence is a need to be seen, and heard, and make a difference. We need each other to grow and hone our skills, and to build community. Art is also a tool for building a better society.