Speyers has learned all about the pitfalls and the pleasures of painting en plein air or “in the open air” at sites along the California coastline.
It was 2006, and Frank Speyers was in Monument Valley, Utah, daubing away at his canvas, struggling to depict a rugged landscape, when red sand blew into his painting. When he got upset about it, remembers the Calvin professor of art, his Native American guides asked him: “Didn’t you know how it is out here?”
In the three years since, Speyers has learned all about the pitfalls and the pleasures of painting en plein air or “in the open air” at sites along the California coastline—Marin County, San Juan Capistrano, San Francisco and Santa Cruz—and around Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula: Leland and Glen Arbor and Sleeping Bear Dunes.
“It’s a loving thing,” said Speyers about plein air painting, the art of painting outdoors in natural light. “One sees, one stands in awe and one tries to take it in, and in some strange way, re-articulate this moment that you live in.”
Seen from the highway
His journey into the open air has produced an exhibition titled M22: Paintings Along the Way, held at the Center Art Gallery from Nov. 20 through Dec. 19, 2009. The show is composed of 25 paintings of dunes, old storefronts and sheds, roadside views and stretches of highway that Speyers painted throughout the Leelanau Peninsula while on sabbatical in 2008. He was working as an artist-in-residence of the Glen Arbor Art Association.
“He painted sites along M-22 at different times of the year, and his use of color and how light touches on different surfaces—like sand or snow, leaves or asphalt—is really quite remarkable,” said Calvin director of exhibitions Joel Zwart. “You look at some of his work, and you can feel wind; you can feel temperature. It’s like being there in the moment like he was. That’s hard to do.”
Speyers sought to capture the most ordinary scenes: chairs on the edge of a dune, a curve in the highway, a log lying by the side of the road. “The real danger is to paint a beautiful spot,” he said. “When you get an august view of something, you say, ‘Oh! I want to paint it. And you won’t get anywhere near it.”
There is a tension involved in painting on the spot and in real time, said Speyers. “You’re really in this existential moment, and you’re trying to focus, and it’s really hard because all the elements are screaming at you. All you can really do is capture the mood of the moment,” he said.
Learning in oil
Heightening the overall angst was the pressure of learning a new medium. Speyers teaches communication design, and painting in plein air meant painting with oils. “You have colors and mixing of paint and hues and different viscosities …,” he said. “How do you work with speed and deliberateness and precision?” (Included in the show are the original 12 inch-by-16 inch oil studies and the sketches from which he created the larger paintings).
Zwart said that this kind of artistic adventure is nothing new for Speyers: “He’s an explorer …,” said Zwart, the curator of Paintings Along the Way. “In the faculty shows, you will always see something different from him. It’s a different medium; it’s a different subject matter. He’ll be working in pastels; he’ll be working in acrylics. Now he’s working in oils.”
Speyers began his exploration of plein air painting partly as a reaction to what he sees as the oppositional quality in modern art. Though the plein air tradition has been out of vogue since the advent of modernism, it is an old one. “Within Western civilization for 2000 years, people looked on it as though it would speak truth," he said.
His investigation of that tradition turned up numerous plein air enclaves, many of them located on the west coast. Speyers has studied with Greg La Rock, Randall Sexton and Maggie Hellman and other practitioners of the art. “It’s really humbling to go and learn from people half your age,” he said, adding that he hopes to pass the mastery along. During January interim Speyers will offer a course in plein air painting at Calvin. “I think this is a neglected area in the university,” he said.
Speyers is grateful, not only for his mastery of a new medium, but for the glories he discovered while learning—even the glory of a fallen tree. “It’s like you come upon it,” he said. “These epiphanies. Life is full of them. They’re there all the time; it’s just that we don’t reflect on them.”
There will be an exhibition reception and artist talk with Frank Speyers from 7–9 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 20. The reception is in the Lower Gezon lobby; the artist talk is at 7:45 p.m. in the Center Art Gallery.