Just the words “painting en plein air” evoke images of Monet and Renoir with their easels perched on the banks of the Seine River or the hills of Montmarte using quick brush strokes to capture a scene before the light escapes them. Here in Sonoma, art lovers can see the process up-close when 36 of the country’s most decorated plein air artists arrive for a week of painting in support of arts education across the Valley.
“The schools now have murals – inside and out – where there once was no money for art,” said Valley artist Keith Wicks, who created the Plein Air Festival after learning his young daughter would only receive one-hour per month in art class at school due to budget cuts. “Now the schools are brighter and more colorful. (This funding) has brought light and creativity back to the students.”
Now in its 11th year, Sonoma’s Plein Air Festival launches on Monday, kicking off a week of artistry that culminates with a lavish gala on Friday, Sept. 20, at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, before a free, day-long art festival and sale on the Plaza on Saturday, Sept. 21.
As soon as the artists arrive, they get to work, painting anywhere from 10 to 15 pieces during the week. Scattered across the county, the artists can be spotted hovering behind an easel capturing raging waves at the coast, or docile farm scenes on Sonoma’s back roads.
“We really encourage them to go anywhere they want to go,” said Wicks, who explained artists are given a list of private properties, gardens and other places they can access. “As long as it’s in Sonoma County, they can go wherever they like.”
Artists are free to paint where they will, but on Tuesday, Sept. 17, all 36 will gather on the Plaza during the farmers market at 5:30 p.m. for the annual Quick Draw. Artists will select the downtown scene they’d like to paint, and get to work. Wandering across the square, art lovers can watch the masters work before buying the artwork straight from the easel.
By the end of the week, painters will survey the work they’ve created and pick their best piece to contribute to the gala auction at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn on Friday. In addition to the uniquely Sonoma art auction, attendees will partake in a gourmet meal served with local wines, and have the chance to mingle with the artists. Tickets are $200, and as of Thursday, only a small handful were still available.
The festival finale takes place on Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the artists return to the Plaza for a festival and art sale. The free events includes live music from Eric Symons and Reed Fromer, as well as painting demonstrations from Dan Schultz at 11 a.m. and Mark Farina at 2 p.m. Children can take part in art projects from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., hosted by volunteer instructors from the Sonoma Community Center. All of the artists will have their work from the week on display and for sale.
“There will be more than 400 paintings on the Plaza,” Wicks said, adding that more than 5,000 paintings of Sonoma have been created in the festival’s history. Artists keep 60 percent of the proceeds from their sales, while 40 percent goes to the Plein Air Foundation.
“Every penny we make goes to arts education, nobody gets paid anything,” Wicks said of the foundation’s all-volunteer board and staff.
Teachers across the Valley can apply for funding from the Plein Air Foundation for art endeavors ranging from the materials needed to make a mural, to funds for a field trip to a gallery or museum.
“We try to fund everything we can related to the visual arts,” Wicks said.
Furthermore, the foundation is able to support arts education programs in the community. The Arts Guild of Sonoma, Sonoma Community Center and Sonoma Valley Museum of Art each receive funding to bring art experiences to more Valley youth. One example is the popular ARTS (Art Rewards The Students) program that provides instructors to work with children and create artwork that is then
professionally displayed in the museum.
“Where else do kids get to see their own artwork in a museum?” Wicks asked.
Museum Executive Director Kate Eilertsen said the program, which takes place at each of the Valley’s elementary schools, is only possible with funding from the Plein Air Foundation. “They allow us to place an artist in every fourth- and fifth-grade classroom in Sonoma,” she said.
For gala tickets, event details or more information about the Plein Air Festival, visit sonomapleinair.com.