BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Artists from hours away came into Lee County this weekend for the “Bridging the Arts” event.
Easels and artists could be seen at different locations throughout Fort Madison on Sunday, just sitting by themselves working on their craft. Occassionally a passerby would stop and inquire as to their work, but the painters and sketchers would quickly get back to work as the competition ended before 2 p.m. and the works had to be completed and framed and ready for judging.
As part of the annual Art-in-Central Park on a perfect Sunday afternoon artists worked their craft and passersby walked between the canopies in Central Park.
Fort Madison Area Arts Association Director Brian Riggs combined this year’s event with a weekend of arts in Keokuk that included music at the Grand Theatre, the city’s Beer on the Bridge-Wine on Water event. He said he was open to draw a bigger audience with the joint weekend and bring traveling artists back to the community.
“With the tandem coop in Keokuk we’ve been able to give people two days in Lee County. It’s attracted artists from Cedar Rapids, Kirksville, Fairfield and other places,” Riggs said. “So again these aren’t your normal artists we’d seen here in the past. Some used to do art fairs, but it’s more lucrative to go do what they do. For us its interesting to have them back.”
In what has been known since the 1800s at Plein Air competitions artists travel to different locations and competitively create pieces for judging. Plein air,” is originally a French expression meaning “open air” that refers to creating a work of art outside.
Jamie Green an artist competing in the Plein Air competition out of Quincy, said he travels with a fellow retiree in RVs to competitions regularly. The two take turns driving as both have RVs and they move about the Midwest competing for awards and cash.
“They give you a time limit and you show up with your canvass or whatever you’re painting on. They stamp it before you go you so no one cheats, and then you bring it back in before time runs out.”
He said judges come in jury the submissions for cash and purchase awards. A purchase award is when a building owner or group offers a certain amount of money for a rendering of a local concept. He said some traveling artists do that work because it’s kind of a guaranteed sale.
Green is a former printing press operator who’s retired and enjoys the travel and the art. He was working up a ink sketch looking west down the alley between Avenue H and Avenue G from Seventh Street in the Connection Bank parking lot.
He competed in the Keokuk Plein Air competition on Saturday and drew a paddlewheeler and a tug boat. He also said some friends got up late Saturday night and painted the Fort Madison historic depot along the Mississippi. Green said painting is good camaraderie with fellow painters.
“It’s a good time to get together with other painting friends and traveling. Some of these events are 10 days and you do art every day. It’s just a blast,” Green said.
Last weekend he said he was in Carmel, Indiana with some fellow painters.
“Most of these are just weekend events. But we’ve gone to event Augusta, Missouri that lasts 10 days and brings 160 artists into that small town.”
He said competitions in the Midwest are starting to grow and smaller communities are picking up on the events. He said larger cities are starting to move away from the competitions, but the bedroom communities are picking up the slack.
Riggs said for the art industry Plein Air competitions have become popular in the last couple of years.
“We brought back Art-in Central for about 11 years now as a single-day event. And we noticed about three of four years ago for those artists with skill level to take their easels on the road so to speak, we weren’t getting them here,” Riggs said.
“Those with that niche like going from town to town and even these smaller towns are passing the hat to get these talented individuals in town for a given weekend.”
Other artists, such as Carol Gunn, a former art teacher in Harmony, was working on painting some of the architecture in the residential areas of Fort Madison. Some of the younger artists, like Aedan Miller, of Fort Madison turned pumpkins into superheros, like Spiderman.
“I like Superman, too,” Aedan said. “My favorite is Catboy,” he said from the PJ Masks animated superheros series.