Artist Jacob Docksey was trying to capture the light.
Clad in a faded blue baseball cap, bright blue shirt, khaki pants, an N95 face mask and blue latex gloves on a recent afternoon, he quietly aligned his wooden easel in front of the cottage-like Community Arts Center in Minneapolis’ Loring Park. Then he grabbed a flat palette knife and started swirling paints. He held up his paintbrush to take measure of the building, then dabbed the canvas.
None of this would be possible without the cooperation of the sun. Docksey was working on a plein-air painting, an outdoor tradition popularized by the French Impressionists.
The solitary practice, especially when conducted deep in nature, is oddly suited to our socially distanced COVID-19 times. But ironically, plein-air — French, roughly, for “open air” — also provides a way to socialize with strangers, breaking out of the isolating nature of quarantine.
“There’s nothing like seeing somebody create, that’s way cool,” said Carole Wiederhorn of Minneapolis, who stopped to watch Docksey work while walking through the park with her friend Terry Anderson. “Thank you for being here.”
Anderson chimed in: “I think we’re all gonna storm the museums and Orchestra Hall and things like that [when they reopen] because we’re just pent up.”
Docksey nodded and made small talk, but kept his eyes on the painting.
Plein-air became part of his artistic repertoire in 2013. For him, it’s a way to practice technical skills while enjoying the outdoors. For paintings like this, he usually gives himself 2½ to three hours to complete it. Sometimes he’ll post the paintings to his Instagram account, but if he’s not satisfied, he’ll just trash it.
A woman and her short-haired, muscular gray dog appeared in front of the cottage. The dog rolled around on the grass in front of Docksey, scratching an itch, then jumped back up. The sun dipped away from the horizon, reappearing a couple of minutes later.
“I’m trying to stay on top of the light,” he said.
He had to stay focused because by 5:30 p.m. — quitting time — the light would change completely.
He last visited this cottage two years ago, and decided to return because he likes painting landscapes with structure.
During this afternoon in the park, time slowed down. Brief conversations felt longer. The ducks quacked and waddled by the pond. Curious squirrels jumped onto trees, and small groups of people gathered on the grass and next to the basketball courts where nobody played ball because the rims were gone.
Like ‘watching a sundial’
St. Paul plein-air painter Joshua Cunningham closed his solo exhibition “Getting There” at Groveland Gallery on March 7, shortly before the pandemic hit. Normally he’d go into studio-cleaning mode after a show, but not this time. Strange times called for uncommon actions.
He started posting art to his Instagram every night before bed. He’d wake up to a collection of likes from around the world — even a few thank-you notes.
That momentum helped him keep up with his plein-air painting. Since Minnesota’s stay-at-home order began, he’s kept his range to within an hour’s drive, exploring Chatfield, south of Rochester, or the driftless valleys near the Trimbelle and Rush rivers in Wisconsin.
He’ll drive to a location, set up for the day, and spend at least three to four hours painting.
“In that time you spend working, essentially you are watching a sundial,” he said. But Cunningham doesn’t have time to think about keeping up with the fleeting light when he’s painting in nature.
“It requires all your focus,” he said. “You always have this anchor of ‘What am I doing next?’ ”
Because he’s often painting near a farm, he has roadside conversations with farmers, who are already used to being socially isolated. Nowadays, even those chats last longer.
“Setting up an easel is kind of like putting up a sign that says ‘free conversations,’ ” he said. “I have really come to like that part a lot.”
While Cunningham prefers to paint solo, plein-air painter Hannah Heyer used to paint with friends. Now she’s a solo act. Heyer, who lives on the farm where she grew up between Winona, Minn., and La Crosse, Wis., has been painting at home and in the surrounding woods and fields for the past two months.
“Every place has its own type of beauty,” she said. “I think that’s one of the special things about people who are painting from light.”
In fact, a different type of social isolation got her more into plein-air painting. She was a caregiver for her grandmother, who had dementia. Plein air painting gave Heyer a chance to get out into nature. Though she doesn’t find the act of painting relaxing, doing so outdoors has a cumulative relaxing effect, she said.
“There’s something really important about getting out of your own head and observing the world around you.”