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Plein air: 'Maddening, inspirational'

Plein air artist Joshua Cunningham still uses the “guerrilla box” that was his prize for winning the Red Wing Plein Air Quick Paint contest in 2008. Photo by Amanda Cunningham

Being judge for a plein air contest is vastly different from being one of the painters.

"It's very difficult," said Joshua Cunningham of St. Paul, who is juror and judge for the Red Wing Arts Association's 10th anniversary Plein Air Event June 21-24. "I've been on the other end many times."

But after more than a decade of demonstrating his own talents as an outdoor painter, he's been getting more invitations to serve as judge.

When Red Wing invited him to serve in that capacity, Cunningham had two good reasons to say yes.

He was fairly new to plein air when he won the Red Wing arts group's Quick Paint competition, which requires the artist to complete a painting in just two hours. His "Pushing Tin" image of a towboat, barges and grain bins won him the day in 2008.

"Doing this event at the beginning of my career was a really big deal to me," he said. On top of that, the prize that year was a portable wooden "guerrilla paint box," which he continues to use.

More important to Cunningham, though, is the opportunity to pay tribute to the late Dan Guida, who established Red Wing's Plein Air Event. Guida, who was the Red Wing Arts Association's executive director, died earlier this year.

"I want to honor Dan's memory — his attitude, his efforts, the hard work he did" to make it a signature event for artists in the region, Cunningham said. "He really left an indelible mark."

As juror and judge, Cunningham will work with the 22 artists who are in Red Wing for four days of on-the-scene painting.

On the final day, he will select the winners of five awards: Best of Show, second and third place winners, "Best Sense of Place" award by Outdoor Painters of Minnesota, and the Quick Paint winner. A sixth prize, the Spirit of Red Wing Award, will be chosen by the arts organization.

What makes it tough, Cunningham said, is the fact that "Each person has their own measuring stick" for determining what they like and why they like it.

A grueling task

But because he also is a plein air painter, he understands what the participants go through.

"It's grueling," Cunningham said. On a long midsummer day, a person can complete as many as three or fourth paintings, depending on the size, the complexity of the subject, the level of detail and the number of "pieces of information" that go into the work.

"It can be as maddening as it is inspirational," he said.

"You have to take in the world — in a really slow way. You're marking the traveling scene. That's your clock," he said, explaining that shadows will come, changing the color and the mood while you are still at work.

"You're trying to hold on to what moved you in the beginning, to defend your initial inspiration against the mercurial sky. ... It's never boring."

Painting "en plein air" requires the solo artist to become immersed in the scene. He's had deer come right up to him, Cunningham said, because he is so still. As a friend once said to him, "You are what you paint while you're painting it."

As an outdoor painter, he also expects that people may come up to him with comments or questions. Some artists welcome that; some do not.

"It's the game face," he said. People who encounter plein air artists at work here next week should check the painter's expression before approaching him or her to determine if the artist is "in the zone" at that moment.

"This group is pretty used to people talking to them," he added. Many enjoy the opportunity share what they are doing.

Cunningham hopes that people will come down to the Depot Gallery on Saturday. The artists will be doing the Quick Paint in the morning, and he'll do a demonstration from around noon to 2 p.m.

"It's always nerve-wracking," he said. "There's no guarantee it will be good," especially when he is painting and talking at the same time.

Coming to Red Wing is always special, he said. "It's where the beautiful country begins." Because it is just a short drive from his home in St. Paul, "I come there a lot just to paint in and around Red Wing.... It's part of my painting DNA."