Washington column for July 10

Plein air paintings

Henry Ward Beecher once said, “Every artist dips his brush in his own soul, and paints his own nature into his pictures.” The world is their canvas and with every action, a brush glides paint in an effort to develop their masterpiece. There is something that one can learn when looking at life through the eye of an artist.

Artist Jill Banks paints along Main Street.
Artist Jill Banks paints along Main Street. Jan Clatterbuck | Rappahannock News

On June 26, a group of 14 artists were invited to participate in multiple plein air outdoor sessions to create paintings that capture the natural and timeless beauty of Little Washington. What a perfect day it was! A quaint little town, the famous Inn, historic buildings, beautiful gardens and a backdrop of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains — what more can an artist ask for?

Referred to, jokingly, as “Fifty Shades of Green,” the all-Virginia group of artists included Kevin Adams, Jill Banks, Ron Boehmer, Lynn Mehta, JoEllen Murphy, Trisha Adams, Amy Varner, Priscilla Whitlock, David Heath, Ron Heath, MeE Walsh, Meg West and Gray Dodson.

Out of the 14, I had the honor to meet and talked with four of the amazing artists — JoEllen Murphy, Jill Banks, and brothers David and Ron Heath. Each has their own way of painting.

Banks, who hails from Reston, set up her easel in towns all across the country and closer to home. Her days are filled with one adventure after another, exploring places, enjoying meeting the people while she paint, capturing the world as she finds it at that moment. She says she lives outside of her comfort zone, and likes it there.

JoEllen Murphy paints a sculpture by the Inn at the Little Washington.
JoEllen Murphy paints a sculpture by the Inn at the Little Washington. Jan Clatterbuck | Rappahannock News

She turned to art as a second career in 2003, after retiring from the marketing communications business she founded and managed for 16 years, dove in headfirst and has been up to her elbows in paint ever since. She teaches workshops and classes in Northern Virginia through the Great Falls Foundation for the Arts. Her work is exhibited nationally, has garnered many awards and is in collections throughout the U.S. and beyond. She has won many awards over the years.

JoEllen Murphy’s pastel landscapes are mostly done in the plein air tradition. She loves the challenge of painting on location — capturing the beauty of a scene in its natural setting. Often, she will take smaller paintings back to her studio where she’ll use them to create larger works. She says pastel is her medium of choice because of its vibrancy. All of her work is done on archival-quality sanded paper and preserved under the best-quality museum glass. She also does commission portrait work.

For 24 years, Murphy was an artist at The Washington Post, where she won numerous awards from print, the Society of Newspaper Design and the Art Director’s Club of New York for both illustration and design. She was the art director of the “Weekend” section for several years; her most recent stint was art director for the Post’s “Home” section.

Murphy has been accepted into numerous juried shows and has received national recognition for her pastels. Most recently, she came in third place in the “Shades of Pastel” juried national show. She lives in Washington, D.C. in American University Park with her husband Les and their red hound dog Rufus.

Ron Heath paints the Inn at Little Washington's gate.
Ron Heath paints the Inn at Little Washington’s gate. Jan Clatterbuck | Rappahannock News

Ron Heath, from Stephens City, says being a naturalist and an artist were logical choices, as his three older brothers were all quite talented in drawing, painting, carving, architecture, etc., and shared a deep love and respect for this extraordinary planet. Painting landscapes seemed to wrap up all the essentials in a nice tidy package.

While his older brother Dave decided to be a full-time artist, Heath originally opted for a career as a carpenter, before moving on to life as stonemason and then later going teaching middle school art — “the best job on the planet.”

Heath continues: “Teaching youngsters art leads to exploration of so many art forms; one week we’re drawing, the next painting, then printmaking, sculpture, architecture, creative design, so many possibilities and to get paid for sharing that passion. I think we had a winning combination of kids and art when my classroom kept filling up and the principal let me have two art clubs that also filled up! We figured we were on to something good.”

Which brought him to his painting of the gate at the Inn. Somewhat different from the other more colorful plein air paintings, he selected a very limited palette of warm, dark and light paint like the older sepia photographs and sculpted the forms using shadow and highlight. The geometry of the gate interested him most, so color was incidental — though more may appear at a later stage.

There is still peace and tranquility to be found in the American landscape — and these qualities comprise a common thread running through the paintings of contemporary artist David Heath, who hails from Goodview, Va.

David Heath set up shop in the Inn's gardens.
David Heath set up shop in the Inn’s gardens. Jan Clatterbuck | Rappahannock News

His paintings, each of which reflect his love of nature and reverence for God’s creation, have true meaning, with enduring beauty and significance. Drawing the viewer into a more peaceful world, his works offers each of us an opportunity to temporarily escape the everyday routine and stress of modern life. Heath then began an intensive study of early European and American art and, in 1973, left the security of commercial art to continue his study and to begin painting full time.

Much of his work is characterized by what he terms, “the solitary landscape,” a quietist landscape where figures, structures or other man-made objects are often absent or play only a minimal role in the overall composition. He feels “that the untouched landscape best communicates a sense of timelessness and serenity to the viewer, while the presence of man limits the scene to a specific moment in time.”

Over the years, his work has earned numerous awards and has been included in private and corporate collections in the U.S., Europe and Asia. His oil paintings have been chosen on two separate occasions for the United States Art in Embassies Program. His work is currently represented by galleries in New York City, Virginia and North Carolina.

Starting Aug. 16, all 14 artists’ completed paintings will be on exhibit at Sperryville’s River District Arts.

Fourth of July

Let’s not forget to thank Richie Burke, Gary Settle and Mike Leake for their long hours of work on Sperryville’s annual fireworks display. A special thanks to Bill Fletcher for the use of his field, to Williams Tree Service and everyone else who helped with the Fourth of July celebration. Many thanks also to the law enforcement personnel.

WVFR breakfast

Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue hosts its monthly all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet from 7 to 11 a.m. at the station on Saturday (July 19). The menu includes all your favorites prepared by local volunteer fire and rescue personnel. Adults are $8 (10 and younger eat free). All proceeds are used to fund WVFR daily operations. For more information, call 540-675-3615.

Stay cool and have a great week!