As Bev Amundson gathers up her belongings for another day of work, the first and most important tool she places in her bag is a big can of bug spray.
It’s not what most would consider a necessary tool for an artist.
But Amundson, a graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute who has spent a lifetime in graphic design, has returned to her first love: fine art. That love frequently pulls her out of the air-conditioned comfort of her Lenexa home and studio into the parks, fields and bug-infested ditches of the Midwest.
“I like to find a place all my own without a lot of people or other painters around,” Amundson said of her preferred work environment. “When other people are around, I get distracted and can’t focus.”
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Amundson is talking about an approach to painting known as “en plein air,” a French expression that means open or full air. It simply means that artists take their easels outdoors and capture an image using natural light and shadows. Think of the work of impressionists like Monet, Renoir and Cezanne.
Although Kansas City is no Giverny, the region provides ample outdoor inspiration for professional artists, as well as those whose less-credentialed talents are best expressed with a glass of wine in hand.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in sales of the type of supplies needed for plein air painting in the past six years or so,” said Tim Higgins, manager of Coldsnow Creative in Overland Park.
“We see a lot of younger people who are interested in the outdoors and nature, plus there are just so many great outlets for selling art in Kansas City.”
The internet and the birth of sites like Etsy also contribute to the opportunities for artists of all skill levels to share and sell their work with others, Higgins said.
Not only are plein air painters quietly finding a place for expression in their own backyard, the Kansas City region is now home to three popular plein air events, including the Brush Creek Art Walk this weekend on the banks of Brush Creek as it runs through Country Club Plaza. Paint Parkville and STEMS at the Overland Park Arboretum also draw crowds of art supporters.
“Plein air painting is about experiencing what you see, letting it influence you,” said Wilbur Niewald, retired chair emeritus of the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute. At 91, the Mission resident has been working outdoors, painting what he sees in nature, for more than 75 years.
“I’m beginning to see more people out there and I think it’s terrific,” Niewald said. “It’s certainly therapy for me to study nature and be outdoors. I think that’s the appeal for many artists.”
Jane Kleindl exhaled a mildly frustrated sigh as she sat on a concrete block on a sidewalk in downtown Parkville recently. She chose her spot because of the interesting light on buildings and foliage surrounding the Rotary Club clock. But she positioned herself there before the nearby shops opened for business.
Now, two hours into her efforts, yet another SUV pulled into the parking spot, blocking her view of the clock.
“When working outdoors, you have to work more quickly to catch the light before it changes,” Kleindl said. “Obviously, my spot is not ideal today.”
Kleindl, 67, spent her adult life working in graphic design after receiving a master of fine arts from Iowa State University. She and her husband moved from Joplin to Platte County a few years ago, and she’s finally getting back to her love of plein air painting.
“Today, my biggest challenge is the heat and big slobbery dogs walking by,” she said with a laugh, as she balanced a canvas on her knees and the breeze whipped the floppy hat protecting her from the sun.
Catercorner across the street from Kleindl, three men sat or stood in a row in the shade, one right behind the other. They, too, focused on the Rotary Club clock, but from this angle, only the American flag above the post office competed for their attention and an entirely different image than Kleindl’s emerged on their sketch pads and canvases.
“Ideally, you’re supposed to stand up when you paint, but I’ve got bad knees and a bad back, so I sit,” said Denny Dowdy of North Kansas City. “I break all of the rules.”
Most plein air painters do a quick pencil sketch to capture the light before they approach the scene with oils, watercolors or charcoal. Dowdy did not compose such a sketch, another example of his lack of attention to the rules, he said, laughing.
Dowdy and his cohort were among 40 artists who participated in the first day of Paint Parkville, a weeklong event leading up to the Northland’s Parkville Days celebration in August. It was the fifth year a plein air competition had been a part of the festival.
The focus of the first day was the Rotary Club clock, which is in a triangular park-like space seen by everyone who enters downtown via Missouri 9.
“Small towns take such pride in these little features of their community and that makes it so much fun for us to capture it,” said Brent Seevers, 39, of St. Joseph. “But the details of this clock are a real challenge today.”
Seevers is a founding member of the Missouri Valley Impressionist Society, an organization that represents about 90 members in nine states, most of them in the Kansas City area.
Founded in 2011, the organization is another indication of the growing passion for plein air art in this region. The Society also coordinates workshops and art shows in the region, including recent events in the Missouri towns of Augusta and Marceline, and at the Topeka Zoo.
Most members, however, admit they participate in the Impressionist Society’s activities because of the camaraderie.
“Painting outdoors is often somewhat solitary,” said Cathy Kline of Lenexa who operates a gallery in her name in the historic train depot in Parkville. “But events like Paint Parkville provide an opportunity to talk with one another, share experiences and simply commiserate.”
The Kline Gallery hosted the awards reception for the Paint Parkville event. Participant were allowed to enter two of the paintings they created during the week, although some did not enter any.
The open house showcased more than 100 paintings of various sizes featuring scenes captured around Parkville. Before the end of the weekend, 17 of those paintings had sold — a number considered very successful. A portion of the proceeds from the sales each year benefit a different charity. This year, the Family Promise of the Northland will receive an estimated $1,500.
Michael and Susan Newburger of Platte County made one of the purchases. They chose an image that showcased the Southern Platte County Fire Station and McKay Hall on the Park University campus.
“This is really meaningful to me because I attended Park and have been a long-time volunteer with the fire department,” said Michael Newburger, a Platte County resident of more than 50 years.
“We have a number of original pieces of art from our travels to Bermuda, but this is our first art that showcases Parkville,” Susan Newburger added.
It was at this open house at the Kline Gallery that Bev Amundson of Lenexa learned one of her paintings, “Creek Along Nature Trail,” won first place. As an added bonus, a guest at the reception purchased her painting that night.
“I really enjoy participating in these competitions because you get to know your peers,” she said. “I don’t try to emulate anyone, but I do like to see their compositions and their interpretation of a scene.”
The prize money and sales from events like Paint Parkville, the Brush Creek Art Walk and STEMS at the Overland Park Arboretum each spring are valued sources of income for those who participate. Most artists enjoy talking to people who stop and watch their work.
“People always say what we do looks so relaxing and I just laugh,” said Ken Chapin, an artist from Independence who participated in Paint Parkville.
While some artists prefer to work in isolation, others enjoy the opportunity to talk about their work to passers-by, to promote their gallery or upcoming shows. It’s a particularly good experience when an admirer makes a purchase right off the easel.
“Many people are surprised by the price of original art, but as we talk, we can explain about the years of experience and skill set that contributes to the price,” said Seevers.
The value of a piece of art is nothing if not subjective, and nothing that Admundson considers when she works.
“The thing that allows me to make a good painting is when I just relax in my surroundings,” said Amundson. “When I let nature talk to me and I can capture that, it’s a good day.”
Fifth Annual Brush Creek Art Walk
When: Sept. 16-18
What: More than 70 plein air artists working along a four-mile stretch of Brush Creek from the Bruce R. Watkins Community Center to the Country Club Plaza
Friday, Sept. 16: 7 to 10 p.m., special evening event around the J.C. Nichols Fountain
Saturday, Sept. 17: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., butterflies at the Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center, 4750 Troost Ave.
Sunday, Sept. 18: 5 to 8 p.m., sunset event, Brush Creek Community Center, 3801 Brush Creek Blvd.
Exhibit of all paintings throughout October at Anita B. Gorman Discovery Center, 4750 Troost