Hearing longtime plein air artist Joshua Cunningham describe the Red Wing area is almost like seeing it formed over time. First, he says, the glaciers moved across the land, paving it in tracks that were eventually filled by soil, creating the foundation of the driftless area and its nearby valleys and bluffs.
“Then in the towns that are built along the Mississippi River especially, you very much follow the rhythm and the musculature of the land underneath it,” the St. Paul-based artist says. “The railroad rolls around the banks of the river; the towns are built along the river backed up along the bluffs. … Everything is very much integrated, so the farms are as well. … Years of neglect or prosperity have added to it or subtracted from it, and all these stories are untold—or not so much untold, but they unfold as people come out and talk to you [when you do plein air painting].”
Cunningham was one of the many artists that are a part of the 14th annual Red Wing Plein Air Festival this year. Like most events that have finagled their survival this summer, the festival has had to pivot because of the health safety concerns amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The in-person artist demonstration and awards ceremony were done virtually; most artists didn’t stay with the community during the painting time but made day trips or stayed in hotels. To try to be more accommodating and mindful toward artists, the festival expanded its limit of 28 featured artists to 43, and instead of only an in-person exhibit at the Red Wing Arts Depot gallery, you can also see the paintings online through August 30.
One change that will be repeated next year is that instead of only having five days to produce three paintings, artists had 2.5 weeks. Red Wing Arts Depot executive director Emily Foos originally made this change to provide artists with the most flexibility, but she has found that it has allowed them to spend more time with each painting.
A Record of Red Wing
Because of the Red Wing Plein Air Festival, there are now hundreds of paintings of the Red Wing area. Some have buildings that are no longer there; some have a tree that may have fallen down a year later. A good number of pieces still feel timeless, perhaps depicting a serene bend in the creek. “It’s almost a historic documentation of what Red Wing looks like,” Foos says. “This year, we no longer have the Eisenhower Bridge. It’s a totally different view and a different feel, and the paintings have reflected that.”
As Cunningham’s original plein air teacher Joe Paquet related to him back in the early 2000s, plein air (which approximates to “open air” in French) is a study of how light and shadow interact with things, creating a snapshot of one moment in time that can never be repeated. This year’s plein air art exhibit consists of more than 120 paintings, ranging from a free piece of an idyllic front yard (Jo Nelson, “Our Favorite Chairs”, 9 by 12 inches) to Cunningham’s largest work this year, “Abandoned to Sunset” a 24 by 36-inch piece selling for $4,400 that pieced together the sun’s fading rays on a farm across five evenings. Other pieces depict boats on the water, a deer in the woods, or people bicycling through.
However, throughout the years Cunningham has been a part of the festival, he has realized that plein air is more than just an impression put on a canvas. “Putting up an easel in public is like putting up a sign that says free conversation,” he jokes. Not that he minds. He’s been practicing plein air enough for the conversation to add to the experience not distract from the work. Indeed, it can bring more meaning to the vignette or, at the very least, turn this solitary craft into a conversation that creates another tie to the land and the people on it.
More Than a Canvas
In practice, plein air isn’t just packing up an easel and your paints. It can mean chatting with someone and learning the history of his fourth-generation farm, the oldest in the valley, or it’s showing locals the beauty of a path they have taken for granted. One night this year, it was a few unglamorous hours of Cunningham trying to prevent gnats from sticking to his painting while roadside assistance fixed a leaking tire on his car. Everything is fair game as the conversations take to the wind, so of course, so are the topics of the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests about George Floyd’s death.
“On one level, you feel ‘How is painting a farm addressing any of this, right?” Cunningham says, referring to the social unrest in Minnesota. “But in an entirely different way, you end up having conversations, and sometimes people tell me their whole life story, and sometimes you end up talking about race in rural Minnesota, and then you have a very different experience coming from it.”
Obviously, these stories and these moments don’t always show themselves in the painting, but their existence makes the Red Wing Plein Air Festival more than a gallery exhibit. The artists and the community connect with each other through literal drive-by conversations or leisurely chats, casting a ripple in each other’s lives and changing the history of Red Wing, if only for a moment. And, whether you love Red Wing and know all of its secrets or are simply charmed by this quaint Minnesota town, you can choose to bring a piece of that moment into your home forever.
“The minute someone saw an artist painting down at the park, people were approached,” Foos says, adding that because it’s outdoors, it’s easy to interact but still maintain social distancing. “It became a very neutral positive. Art was being created of this beautiful community, and then the artists being here to celebrate it—it was ideal timing with everything: COVID, the demonstrations and protests, and Black Lives Matter. All of a sudden, there was art being created of your community. It was refreshing.”