Listening to Johnny Sampson speak on the sublime beauty of outdoor painting, you soon realize the man could sell you a rock if he really wanted to.
The Catalina Island Museum Director of Exhibitions clearly enjoys describing what, to the untrained eye, could seem like simple landscape compositions but are, in fact, fascinating, singular studies of time and place and, most especially, subjective truth.
“With plein air painting, you have to be there to experience it,” Sampson said. “If you’re taking a photograph of it, the photograph will record an image, but it doesn’t record truth, it captures light and dark, but it’s trying too hard. When you’re painting in plein air, the sights, the smells, the breeze, the sun, those are what’s coming into it.”
Sampson is referring to the 33 oil, watercolor, and pastel works that make up Catalina Paintings: Night and Day, now on view at the museum through June 7. Displayed in the John and Hasmik Mgrdichian Gallery, the exhibition is an exploration of the island through the perspective of 18 contemporary plein air painters, offering scenes from dawn to dusk, as well as a handful of rare nocturnes.
There are island scenes by John Cosby, designer of In-N-Out’s iconic logo, and by the near-sighted Kevin Macpherson, who removes his glasses to paint “impressionistically,” and by Tom Browning, who is actually most famous for his depictions of Santa Claus for Hallmark.
And though plein air is often associated with the idyllic, one of the more emotionally charged paintings is “Life Goes On” by artist Brian Stewart, after a fire had burned a path through the island, touching the edges of Avalon in 2007.
“If the winds hadn’t changed and the temperature hadn’t changed, Avalon, like we see it today, wouldn’t have been,” said museum marketing director Gail Fornasiere, standing next to the piece. “I had lived here for two months at that time, and we got evacuated. It was really, really scary.”
The oil painting shows chickens pecking for food, charred trees, a burned hillside and ravaged construction site. Though it depicts destruction, Stewart’s message was more positive, showing “how the community banded together, both in the fear of the moment but also in this idea to rebuild,” Sampson said. “I like that tribute of what it means to live here, to be a part of the community.”
Most people that come to the island come in the middle of the day and leave in the evening, leaving most visitors with a parenthesized vision of what Catalina is, so, Sampson said, the concept of the show is to give viewers a 24-hour experience of Catalina, as well as a little history most visitors don’t get to see.
“So as you go through the show, you’re almost time traveling, in multiple ways,” Sampson said.
One of the museum’s visitor services associates, Annie Benedict, was so inspired by the exhibit, she made a day of physically finding all 33 scenes in real life. What she found was that some look completely different now, perhaps not surprising since the earliest works on display were painted in the late ’90s. One of the pieces Benedict captured was “Last Light, Eagle’s Nest Lodge” by artist Kim Lordier.
Benedict said she had the most fun off-roading to each location, with the even more challenging task of discovering them at the same time of day each artist had been there with their brush and easel. But while the only tools Benedict needed were her boyfriend’s truck and an iPhone, you can imagine the journey of the artist might require a bit more preparation.
Visitors to the gallery will notice how most of the paintings are relatively small. That’s for one of three major reasons, having to carry everything with you, from your easel to your canvas, to your paints and your brushes. “Also, with big paintings, a breeze will turn it into a small sail, so it’s good to keep it a little smaller,” Sampson laughed.
Second, the light changes when you’re out in the field, so you only have a small window of time to render an impression of your chosen scene, before the shadows shift, the people move away, before everything changes.
“You can go back to your studio and touch it up, but the idea is that there’s a subjective truth when you’re working on a piece, what do you include and what do you not include, so you’re trying to paint reality, you’re trying to paint a moment, a feeling, an impression,” Sampson said.
There’s a nocturne by Stewart depicting cranes at Catalina’s rock quarry—“You can hear all this industry, but it’s this kind of zen, peaceful, almost meditative effect that he’s able to capture”—as well as scenes from the pier at dawn, just as Avalon starts to come alive. And, of course, what would an exhibit of Catalina scenes be without the iconic Catalina Casino?
The casino’s ballroom was actually where, starting in the late 80s, the Plein Air Painters of America held its annual Catalina Show following Plein Air Week, when a resurgence of the art form brought artists to paint together for a week before the opening. As the show grew, the group of volunteers that coordinated it each year was formalized into the nonprofit The Society for the Advancement of Plein Air Painting. However, in 2003, its 18th annual event was also its last.
“As a viewer of a plein air work, because it’s impressions, your mind has to connect the dots,” Sampson said. “You can almost feel the little breeze, you can smell the warmth of the sun, you can feel it on your legs as if you’re there, whereas if this was a photograph it would be an amazing image but you wouldn’t have that physical sensation of being in the work.”
In other words, Sampson says, “Let the painting happen to you.”
Catalina Paintings: Night & Day will be on view through June 7 at the Catalina Island Museum; 217 Metropole Ave., Avalon, CA. Upcoming events include a talk with artist Joseph Paquet on April 4. For more information, visit catalinamuseum.org.