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Sonoma Plein Air turns 15 this weekend

The Sonoma Plein Air Foundation is bringing art “en plein air” to town this week through its annual festival to raise money for youth arts education in Sonoma Valley. “En plein air” – that’s French for “outdoors” – is the theme as 35 artists flock to Sonoma for a week of outdoor painting and exhibitions.

Launched 15 years ago, the annual Plein Air Festival (Sept. 11 to 16) brings nationally renowned painters to Sonoma – where they spend a week out and about in Sonoma, Marin and San Francisco, working on the creation of eight to 12 new paintings each.

The festival culminates in an art exhibition and sale on Saturday, Sept. 16, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sonoma Plaza. Attendees of the free art show will also be able to view artist demonstrations, enjoy live music and participate in hands-on art activities.

“Everything I put up will be something I painted during the week,” said Paul Kratter, a Walnut Creek artist who is participating in Plein Air for his 13th time. “If it’s overcast, if there’s huge clouds one day, that’s the weather you’ll see in the paintings,” said Kratter.

“These weren’t done three weeks ago or three months ago; these were all done this week,” he continued.

At the Tuesday Night Farmers Market on Sept. 12, artists will set up easels around the Plaza and complete a painting in 90 minutes that will then be framed and available for immediate sale.

A gala dinner and auction at Buena Vista Winery will be held Sept. 15 for artists, patrons and guests.

Some studio art from participating artists will be available for purchase at Adastra Wine & Art on the Plaza daily from Tuesday to Friday, Sept. 12 to 15, from noon to 6 p.m.

The festival’s participating artists are selected through a juried art service, though many are repeat participants. The foundation puts out a call for artists at the beginning of the year. Once applications come in, a panel of professional artists in the Bay Area selects 35 to 38 artists to participate.

Regulars include Plein Air Foundation co-founder Keith Wicks; well-known Glen Ellen artist Dennis Ziemienski; and Kratter. “It’s not a small show – there are 35 artists, but I know almost all of them,” said Kratter. “It’s a very tight-knit group. We have a blast whether we’re painting together or grabbing a beer afterward.”

The Sonoma Plein Air Foundation was founded in 2002 by Wicks and philanthropist Judy Vadasz to address the lack of public school funding for arts programs in Sonoma Valley.

“I started it because my daughter had art once a month in school,” explained Wicks. “I thought that wasn’t enough.”

Since its inception, the program has given more than $1.2 million in support of youth arts education, providing grants to schools and community programs across town.

Each year, all Sonoma Valley schools can apply to Plein Air for specific grants to support various art programs for their students.

“This year every board member has a buddy school to create more of a relationship with the individual schools,” said Linda Rosso, one of the foundation’s volunteer directors.

Sonoma Community Center, Sonoma Valley Museum or Art, Arts Guild and Art Escape are also beneficiaries of the foundation’s funds.

Plein Air’s efforts go beyond simply funding the purchase of art supplies for classes. One of their signature programs is “Art in Action,” a comprehensive visual arts curriculum that teaches students about art from around the world and helps them express themselves through their own pieces with an aim to encourage critical thinking, creativity, visual literacy and self-esteem.

Another program, the Lewis E. Cook III Scholarship, provides a SVHS senior $1,000 to pursue the arts.

Plein Air’s funds are raised almost entirely over the course of this week, with 40 percent of the proceeds from sales donated to support arts education for Sonoma Valley youths and 60 percent going to the artist. Last year, the foundation raised more than $100,000 through sales at its events during the week.

Part of Plein Air’s appeal for the artists is that it was created and organized by one, explained Kratter. For example, instead of having a cocktail hour for the artists, during the best light for painting, Plein Air hosts a lunch, because that’s not when the artists would typically be out painting. The festival also gives out only one award, which is the “Artist’s Choice Award,” voted on by the artists participating that year.

“It’s really organized around the artists,” said Kratter. “Plein Air is my favorite event and my favorite place to paint.”

The artist-centered nature of the festival was “very intentional from the beginning,” said Wicks. Rather than have artists pay to attend, Wicks worked to make the week almost like a vacation for the artists, putting them up with host families and having his wife, a chef, cook lunches.

Wicks added, “It’s so exciting to see this thing grow so big and turn into something that everybody loves and appreciates.”

See the complete schedule of events at sonomapleinair.com/events-schedule.html.