As nature intended: Group exhibit ‘Engaging Nature’ in Leverett features landscape paintings made outdoors 

  • Artists Joanne Tebaldi, left, and Martha Brouwer hang paintings for “Engaging Nature,” a show by the Amhert Plein Air Society at Leverett Crafts & Arts. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Susanne Personette, founding director of the Amherst Plein Air Society, points to one of her pastel paintings in “Engaging Nature,” now on view at Leverett Crafts & Arts. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Artists Julie Kumble, left, Alice Briggs, Maggie Hodges and Donna Roy hang paintings for “Engaging Nature.”

  • “No, let’s put it here!” Artists Julie Kumble, from left, Alice Briggs and Maggie Hodges discuss where to hang some of the paintings for “Engaging Nature” at Leverett Crafts & Arts. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Artist Julie Kumble, of Montague, measures artwork for “Engaging Nature” at Leverett Crafts & Arts. It’s a group show by the Amherst Plein Air Society.  STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Artists Julie Kumble, from left, Alice Briggs, Donna Roy and Maggie Hodges hang paintings for “Engaging Nature” at Leverett Crafts & Arts. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Painter Donna Roy of South Hadley hangs work for “Engaging Nature,” a group show by the Amherst Plein Air Society at Leverett Crafts & Arts. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • These paintings at the “Engaging Nature” exhibit are views of a Kestrel Trust property in Amherst. A percentage of their sales will be given to the land preservation group. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Susanne Personette, founding director of the Amherst Plein Air Society, measures a space for work that will be part of “Engaging Nature,” a group exhibit at Leverett Crafts & Arts. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • The Leverett Crafts & Arts building on Montague Road in Leverett, where “Engaging Nature” is on view through May. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2023

Until recently, it hasn’t seemed like much of a spring: a lot of damp or rainy days, overcast skies, and cold nights.

But the weather has warmed up, just in time to be a fitting backdrop to an art exhibit designed to celebrate the outdoors.

“Engaging Nature,” a group show at Leverett Crafts & Arts, brings together nearly 160 paintings, hung salon style, by members of the Amherst Plein Air Society, landscape artists who specialize in painting outside.

The group, which formed in 2015, hasn’t been able to stage an in-person show since the pandemic arrived in early 2020. That seems to have prompted an outpouring of creativity, according to Susanne Personette, the founder and director of the Plein Air Society: She says the Leverett exhibit is the largest they’ve ever staged.

“It feels so good to be able to bring people together like this,” Personette, of Belchertown, said during a recent tour of the Leverett gallery as the exhibit was being readied. “We had an online show during the pandemic, but it just wasn’t the same.”

Personette, a retired architect who studied painting as an undergraduate student, started the Plein Air Society some years after she had been drawn back into the art world and taken up pastel painting, in turn developing an interest in working outdoors.

Today the group has 65 members, primarily from the Valley but with a few from further afield, or who split their time between the region and other states. Thirty-two artists are represented in the Leverett exhibit.

The appeal of painting “en plein air,” which the Impressionists in particular made popular in the late 19th century, is in part about trying to capture the changing, ephemeral quality of light, as clouds pass overhead, the sun shifts position, and shadows stretch across a landscape.

But group members say they also get a lot of satisfaction from painting together, mostly May through October, in small groups that meet weekly for “paint-outs” at locations throughout the region that Personette has scouted, such as along the Connecticut River in Hadley.

“The camaraderie is wonderful,” said Joanne Tebaldi, who was hanging paintings at the exhibit alongside Martha Brouwer. “We’re working on our own but we’re also together, we get to talk about our different approaches … it’s just a really nice experience.”

“Engaging Nature” does showcase some very different styles of work, from highly detailed landscapes to more abstract ones, and paintings that focus on a single part of a landscape — a majestic tree, a small section of a pond — compared to broader views of the Valley.

The painters also use different mediums. Personette says the group is divided roughly equally between members who use oil, acrylic and watercolor paints. A much smaller number, including her, use pastels, at least in part because pastels are more expensive than other paints.

“There is an initial investment you have to make that can put some people off,” said Personette, who added that pastel painters need a lot of colors — she estimates she has about 1,000 different pastels — because unlike other paints, they can’t be mixed.

But pastel is also a very “forgiving” medium, she says, which is ideal for painting outdoors amid changing light: “You can just wipe [a painting] off and start again.”

She also feels there’s no more direct way to apply color to a surface. “Your fingers are right there,” she said.

To the average viewer, it can be hard to tell the difference between some pastel and oil paintings, at least at a certain distance. Personette’s pastel portrait of a venerable maple tree on the grounds of New Salem Cider — the tree is known there as “The Queen,” she says — has the rich detail and color of an oil.

Maggie Hodges, an Amherst painter who had a previous career as a graphic designer, joined the Plein Air Society about six years ago after taking up oil painting. Her work, which has a soft but textured quality, is an extension of her general love of the outdoors, whether hiking, kayaking, or gardening.

“I love painting outdoors,” she said as she worked with several other painters hanging work at the Leverett exhibit. “It gives you a way to try and capture that overall sensation of being in nature.”

Personette says the “rules” for being part of the Plein Air Society are pretty loose. Painters of any experience level are welcome, as are all ages, and you’re not technically required to paint outdoors; Martha Brouwer, of Hadley, says she mostly works in her studio, using sketches and photographs of outdoor scenes.

All the painters work in their studios at some point, Personette said, due to weather or other circumstances. In winter, the group does hold some shorter paint-outs if the temperature is no lower than 40 degrees, the sun is out, and ideally snow is on the ground.

She and others say the paint-outs are always followed by friendly “critiques,” or discussions, in which members get important feedback from each other on their work.

“That feedback can be really helpful,” said Brouwer.

That’s not all: The Plein Society hosts a couple retreats each summer, and this year members who will be part of them are headed to Maine and France.

The Leverett exhibit, which runs through May and is open Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m., also has one wall of paintings dedicated to the Kestrel Trust, the land preservation group; 20% of all sales of these works will go to the trust.

They’re all views of the Sweet Alice Conservation Area, just south of Bay Road near Atkins Farms Country Market, and thus “that’s a pretty good way of seeing the different styles our members have,” said Personette.

For information on joining the Amherst Plein Air Society, you can contact Personette at SusannePersonette@gmail.com.