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Plein Air will take place March 14-21

Artists discuss the upcoming Plein Air Competition

Painting al fresco

Plein Air artist

Jerome Weber is a banker and artist, and he’s blended these roles like paint on a palette. In 2014, Weber helped establish Louisiana’s only plein air painting competition. The juried event, now in its sixth year, is presented by the Shadows-on-the-Teche. It gives artists the opportunity to hone their skills, expand their curricula vitae -- and make some money, too.

This year, 30 artists, from multiple U.S. states and Canada, will spend a week in the Teche Area competing for $6,500 in prize money and offering their work for sale at the close of the contest. This year’s event opens Saturday, March 14 and concludes Saturday, March 21.

The artists get down to business on day one. After an early check-in at The Shadows, they fan out to find an ideal spot to paint - plein air refers to paintings created outdoors. Some remain in New Iberia, while others venture out a bit. Most go looking for landscapes and buildings with a measure of character.

Competitive painter Mary O. Smith, who lives and works on the Georgia coast, will be making her third pilgrimage to the Louisiana contest this year. On her first visit in 2018, place-finding was a challenge.

“I ended up along a country road and I could see a great place to paint - a beautiful old barn - but I couldn’t quite get there.” Her attempts became a comedy of errors. “I kept driving around and around the same piece of pasture.”

This year, Smith has a plan.

“I know exactly where I’m going to set up this time,” she said. She’s headed for a historic neighborhood with grand, 19th century homes and likely some curious onlookers.

“I love doing plein air,” said Smith. “It’s like performance art because if you are working anywhere there are people, you’re going to draw a crowd.”

Jeff Williams is new to the world of competitive painting. After retiring from the University of Oklahoma as a professor or architecture in 2017, he began to focus on watercolor painting.

“The medium has fascinated me for more than 30 years, but I never had time to pursue it,” he explained. In addition to teaching, Williams was also a practicing architect with a family.

Eventually, he began to paint. “I was really engrossed in just painting for myself,” A group of friends, also artists, encouraged him to compete. “(The New Iberia) event is very special to me because it was the first competition I entered and the first that accepted me.”

Williams’ first foray was last year, in 2019. “Before I got there, I was a little nervous and anxious, but it was a wonderful experience. The artists give each other a lot of support, it’s very congenial. There is a tremendous amount of learning.”

Only one local artist, Susan Nugent Clark, will compete this year.

Clark, a fixture in the art education community, had a career at New Iberia Senior High that spanned three decades, from the 1970s into the early 1990s. “Even after I retired, I continued to teach at private schools,” said Clark. “It’s a joy, not a job.”

While the genre of plein air is marked by spontaneity, Clark said planning and execution are key to her success. “I’m 70 now, so I look for places to paint that aren’t too difficult to navigate.”

After six days of scouting locations and creating work - from Saturday through Thursday - the pace of the competition shifts. Thursday evening the artists submit their pieces for judging.

The next morning, they participate in the “Paint Out!” event, held in the gardens of The Shadows and along Main Street. This contest-within-a-contest is open to the public, so artists of all skill levels (with the exception of the juried artists) may enter to compete for ribbons.

The week-long challenge reaches its zenith Friday evening with an awards ceremony and silent auction. Artists keep two-thirds of the proceeds, while the remainder goes to The Shadows, where it’s earmarked for arts education programming.

“Last year, we had $33,000 in sales,” said Weber. “In just five years, we feel like we’ve made a lot of progress.”

On Saturday, before the painters take to the road again, there is one more chance for them to show their painting prowess: the “Quick Draw” competition, which has divisions for both the juried artists and artists of other stripes.

At the sound of an air horn, they have just two hours to create a painting and vie for one more prize. The choice of subject and location are up to each competitor, as long as they’re close enough to hear the horn blow again when time is up.

This final fray reveals the heart of the plein air hustle, a synthesis of skill, imagination, fresh air and friendly competition. Then it’s on to the next assay of artistry.

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