Painting Through the Pandemic at Nancy Lewis Park.
Updated: Sep 22, 2021
It's Tuesday morning, summertime. A light breeze floats through the trees, and dappled sunlight spreads across the grass. The morning has the hallmarks of the cool beginning of a hot day, and the park is busy. Children's laughter comes from the playground on the north end. Young mothers stroll their babies with a toddler or two marching behind, noticing the ducks and the waters of the pond. Dogs are getting their morning walk, and many people young and old are doing their exercise laps by jogging or walking around the park. Somewhere there, amid the activity, in the dappled sunlight of a great shade tree, one finds three women, easels and drawing boards adjusted, paint brushes or pastel sticks busily laying in colors. Sometimes just two, often all three, and now and again several others, they have become a fixture there since the spring of 2020 when the pandemic was first raging. There is no name for this little coterie of plein air painters, but those who frequent the park stop by to see what is new, comment, and wish the artists a wonderful day. Welcome to painting in the Colorado Springs park named for Nancy Lewis.
Nancy Lewis was the former director of Colorado Springs' Parks Department and a stalwart supporter of green spaces within the city. From 1966 to 1994, Lewis worked in the Parks Department, starting at just $1.29 per hour as a part-time recreations worker and leaving the department after a stellar career advocating for preserving the city's parks. In 1997, with the generous help of philanthropist Lyda Hill, the park was created on Logan Avenue and Templeton Gap and named in Nancy Lewis' honor. It held true to Lewis' idea of what a park should be, that place where everyone can enjoy nature and calm while still having recreation of various types. She would not live to see nor would she have even been able to imagine the importance that park would hold for people during the COVID-19 Pandemic. In those times of "safer at home" living, the one thing that people knew was that being outdoors could provide a way of having social contact within safe distances. The park would fill with people sitting in their lawn chairs, spaced nicely apart, having a book club meeting, or they would have picnics, or simply stroll with their children or grandchildren near the pond and look at the ducks and geese. Into that mix entered several plein air painters, who would become something of a fixture at Nancy Lewis Park.
Rita Scafidi, who paints in oils on portions of canvas that she cuts to a manageable size from long rolls, is an artist who sets goals for herself with every painting session. She knew of Nancy Lewis Park and found it to be a near perfect environment as it was not in isolated wilderness, had a variety of views to paint, including stunning views of Pike's Peak, and included animal as well as plant life (notice the geese in her painting above). Scafidi says, "I love to be outside in a pretty place, in the fresh air, under a tree with friends who also like to paint. I like learning, the endless choices, studying the environment closely and trying to abbreviate a small piece of the view." In her painting at the top of this page, she creates a scene that encompasses all of the key elements of the park, from the pond, to the flower beds and stands of trees, right on out to the vista of the mountains.
Scafidi, who had a career working at Current Cards doing graphics to help create the greeting cards, says of herself that she is not much of a studio painter. In her studio she does sketches, quick renderings and non-objective pieces that let her play with ideas. In her life-drawing sessions and her plein air paintings, she likes to work alla prima, meaning that she finishes the work in one sitting. Her eye for composition can be seen in these paintings, which are able to capture the different vistas and moods of the park. She says, "I like to have a set day and time to meet my friends at the park, so I don’t question whether I’m going. I just go and I’m always glad."
In the painting above, the title tells the viewer what was on the painter's mind. Scafidi set herself a task, which was to concentrate on those key elements of a painting. She handles each area very nicely, leading the viewer from the foreground to the background. The church spire in the distance is even partially covered by leaves from a tree in the foreground. That branch of leaves is almost like a curtain being lifted to reveal the scene. However, don't think that the concentration on a painting goal keeps the artist from engaging the people who come by eager to see what she is doing. "People stop to see what we are working on and chat some. They often talk about their art experiences, and we encourage them to get back into it, and let them know how it improves our lives. People might also say they don’t have any talent, and I usually say it’s more perseverance than anything. If I can do it, anyone can. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece; it just adds extra joy to your life"
In terms of meeting those goals she sets for herself, she says, "I like learning, the endless choices, studying the environment closely and trying to abbreviate a small piece of the view. I like not knowing what ideas will surface during the process and making decisions that won’t impact anything important, just my little canvas which I sometimes end up liking."
While the original little group of plein air painters was started by Rita Scafidi and Sue Johnson (see this Art Blog post, "Sue Johnson: Capturing the Spirit"), when Johnson's painting of animal portraits called her back to her studio, Carol Barber became part of the group. Barber works in oils, pastels, watercolors and acrylics, though in the park she usually does pastels or oils. The paintings again are small, something one can finish in the few hours spent in the park. But oh what results! The piece above captures that moment in the autumn when one knows that the summer is over. Those little trees sway in the crisp wind that will soon blow their bright leaves to the ground.
"Working outdoors provides artists with colors and color values that the camera
can’t capture. Benefits of painting the park include developing my compositions. Working in a variety of greens to capture the trees and reflect their spatial relationship to each other, as well as the change of season, is a challenge that I enjoy," Barber says. Being as she says, a "settled-in" Colorado Springs native, she remembers that her favorite childhood toy was a box of crayolas. From crayolas through to a B.A. in Fine Arts from what is now USC Pueblo, she pursued her art interests by taking courses at the Fine Arts Center and at a Senior Center where she became part of a portraiture group, a group that has met weekly for about 40 years. She painted all during her career working for the public library system as an assistant librarian and a materials acquisitions specialist.
If there is one painting of the ones that we have done that is iconic of the park, it is this picture of an elderly woman taking her morning stroll. Barber in simple colors and simple composition captures the cane-supported, slow, steady pace of the woman as she gets her exercise. Barber captured the figure in quick gestures, with no fuss. By keeping the design so simple and the detail limited, the viewer is not distracted from the essence of that morning walk on a clearcut path. It is one of the most common actitivies at Nancy Lewis Park.
On the subject of painting in the park, Barber says, "Nancy Lewis Park offers a wide variety of views and subjects with its trails, duck pond, fountain, trees, and people. The view of Pikes peak and quaint neighborhood are an added bonus." In the piece above we get the feeling of the last of summer. In terms of imagery, it can be a difficult time to capture, as there are things turning golden while most foliage is still very green. Barber captures that betwixt and between feeling by having some golden grasses appear while we also see violet flowers in the background near a gloriously green tree. The foreground grasses and water cool us as we enjoy a hot late summer day. Barber says, "I enjoy being outdoors experiencing the light, the air, sounds,and the camaraderie of like-minded artists." These simple pleasures were a boon to all of us during the restrictions of the pandemic. Not many other activities allow one to socialize with appropriate social distance and enjoy a cherished activity, while being in beautiful surroundings.
Now it is my turn. Yes, I am Marjorie, the painter of these last paintings and the writer of this blog. I am the watercolor painter in the group, though my colleagues also do beautiful work in watercolor. I am someone who has always done art on the side, meaning I earned my living doing other things (teaching language arts mostly). When I returned to Colorado Springs from the south of France in 2016 after my 8 years' parenthèses, a French term for a break from one's normal life, I was welcomed right in to a group of artists who did regular figure drawing twice a week in two different locations. When the pandemic hit, we lost both places, though one at Cottonwood Center for the Arts has come back. As the weather began to warm into spring in 2020, the idea was hatched to do plein air painting in the parks and other locales. A few of us had done plein air at the Heller Center in 2019, so doing plein air again was a natural choice, added to by the possibility for safe social contact. It was from that experience that a few of us added on a day at Nancy Lewis Park so we'd have two days a week to paint.
I tend to be the one in the group who sometimes just paints in the park. The subject might turn into a seascape or a visit to the Serengeti. When people come up to talk to us, I just say that I am just having fun or working on an "old" painting. Our audience at Nancy Lewis is very accommodating to our artistic whims.
However, I do paint pictures of the park. The one above Painting in the Park was the first one for this season, back in April before the cold rainy weather hit again. The grasses were still brown from the autumn, but the mountains retained their blue-violet hues as usual.
These two pieces are from the autumn of 2020, before the vaccine, and when we knew that the lovely days when the temperatures still permitted us to go out to paint were coming to an end. (I must stay we go out as long as it is at least 50 degrees). While it is a bit sad to see the green leaves of summer go away, the wonderful colors of autumn offer other subjects of interest, like the fallen leaves. Meanwhile the bare limbs of the trees turn into sculptural forms with relationships to one another that one does not see when they are full of foliage. The park changes, too. The caretakers are there turning off the sprinklers, cutting back the high stalks of shrubs that had grown tall during the summer. The scenery changes when it is undraped of leaves, and the mountains truly become dominant.
Then spring came again. The vaccines arrived. The world relaxed some, even though we are not through it yet. The grasses began to grow in again from the dried out stumps that were cut off as winter approached. The waters gurgle through the rocks on their way into the pond where the ducks and the geese share the space, sometimes with a squawk or two. The mountains preside over it all without bragging about their grandeur, and the ladies paint.
Contact information for the artists:
Rita Scafidi firstname.lastname@example.org
Carol Barber email@example.com
Marjorie Vernelle firstname.lastname@example.org
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© Marjorie Vernelle 2021