Plein air ‘Passages’ exhibit nurtures Centre County artist Alice Kelsey’s love of nature

State College artist Alice Kelsey paints in the plein air style at a local river.
State College artist Alice Kelsey paints in the plein air style at a local river. Photo provided

Centre County artist Alice Kelsey said she’s always been a lover of nature and the outdoors, and her new exhibit, “Passages: Recent Paintings,” is a chance to put her words into images.

The 30-piece solo show, on display at the Penn State HUB Gallery through July 31, features visual representations of what she found on her forays into the wilds of Centre County. Rich tones depict muffled movement and stillness, shadows and light, and the varied but vibrant hues of each season.

Traveling light with a portable easel and backpack stuffed with art supplies, Kelsey is able to discover new inspirational painting locations, the theory behind the plein air style (“in the open air”). The artist recently took time off from planning a July 12 public presentation to discuss her excitement of the exhibit, specifically, the way the exhibitors arranged her new pieces.

Q: What about the way your pieces are arranged and hung makes it look like a museum exhibit?

A: I’m very grateful for the curatorial skills of the HUB Gallery director, Ann Shields, in designing the show, and her gallery assistant, Sarah Kipp. I admire the choices of the hanging of the paintings, so that each has “room to breathe” yet is enhanced by its neighbor.

The walls were repainted for the exhibit, with sections of blue on the panels, creating a spacious feeling like being outside, where the paintings started. The excellent lighting is also very inviting. It is wonderful to exhibit a large body of my works in a solo exhibit, where the works are diverse though united by the marks a single maker.

The framing of the works also adds to a sense of a harmonious whole in the exhibit. Most works are presented in frames custom-made from local hardwoods, including some unusual species such sycamore and butternut, as well as cherry and walnut. My husband, Tim Kelsey, and I collaborated in selecting wood individually for each painting, and building and finishing the frames.

In the exhibit space, I am drawn to linger and wonder and explore, much as I did out in the landscape where the paintings started. It is very gratifying to me as an artist to see these latest works together, clearly of the same hand while having unique moods and voicings, speaking of the land that I love in central Pennsylvania.

Q: What kind of work on your part went into creating a collection big enough for an exhibit?

A: The 30 oil and pastel paintings in the “Passages” exhibit represent the majority of my completed works during the past year and a half. Most were started outside (en plein air), or from sketches made during explorations on foot in central Pennsylvania.

Back in the studio, I often develop the work further, or create new works based upon it. Most paintings take several months for me to fully finish. I’ve been a full-time professional artist for 11 years.

Q: What is the draw to plein air?

A: The connection which I feel to open land and natural places inspires me to capture the physical beauty, as well as a sense of “something more,” a spiritual presence which I often experience in these places.

It is wonderful to have vibrant materials, tubes and sticks of lush color, textured paper and canvas, and stirrings for gesture to put these experiences down visually.

Plein air work is the root of my art-making, a reliable “spark” of inspiration, a place where there is always something more to see and to appreciate. I learn a lot from nature — seeing colors and shape relationships that are so rich. Some of these works are exercises, some lead to others, and some are whole and complete and are framed to share with others. I also work regularly in my studio, using plein air works as “jumping off” places for other works.

I am passionate about many outdoors activities, including hiking, fly-fishing, gardening, and horseback riding, and many artistic inspirations arise in the midst of these adventures, so I’ll often return to a spot with art materials. I have a backpack loaded with art supplies, which frees me to travel miles off road to paint.

Q: Do you think artists gravitate to an environment that suits their painting/creation style, or is the art a result of their surroundings?

A: A very interesting question. For me, there’s truth in both views, like a cycle. The land where I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, with rolling hills, and niches of woods, streams and fields, surely raised me to be an artist, training my eye and heart. I am happy and fulfilled artistically in central Pennsylvania, where my family and I have lived on a small farm for 21 years, and inspiration is literally right out my back door. My art is indeed a result of my surroundings.

Q: What kinds of things will you talk about in your presentation?

A: During the “From Field to Frame” gallery talk, I’ll discuss working methods and supplies for plein air painting, show the equipment I use, and discuss specific paintings in the show and plein air sketches which illustrate my experiences in the field.