Asylum Peru Painters exhibited at Kokomo Art Center focus on nature
October 27 – PERU – The golden leaves of a recently tapped sugar maple fluttered in a gentle breeze before settling to the ground. Crackling leaves under their feet, three men retrieved art supplies from their respective cars and faced the treeline.
The three artists had just met at the old railway depot in Peru, a ritual they try to repeat every Monday and Friday, before deciding to meet in a nearby clearing. They call themselves Asylum Peru Painters and have been doing outdoor excursions for years.
They frequently visit the Seven Pillars Nature Reserve and various locations along the Eel and Wabash Rivers, but chose to work at one of the artist’s properties on Friday. An exhibition of their work opened at the Kokomo Art Center earlier this month.
Although there are more artists in the group – there are six in the exhibition – only three were free on the afternoon of October 21. Phil Spears was the last to arrive on the scene and set up a canvas and acrylic paint in the trunk of his car.
Comparing each of the performers to the instrumentalists, Spears said the Art Center exhibit felt like a symphony. He considers his contributions to the gallery to be his finest work.
In a previous interview with the Kokomo Tribune, Spears explained that he and Tim Swagerle started going out into nature to make art 15 to 20 years ago. After a while, other artists started asking if they could follow.
“Who else would go out and paint when it’s 46 degrees, or when it’s raining, or when it’s snowing, or when it’s 100?” Spears asked. “You have to be a little crazy.”
He explained that the challenge is what attracts him.
“There’s something about plein air painting,” Spears said. “You oppose the elements and your maturity as an artist.”
For Spears, sleet is the hardest condition to paint. But in cold weather, he noted, painters at Asylum Peru had to deal with a bit of hypothermia and the water they used to rinse brushes froze.
Conditions Friday afternoon were pleasant for Swagerle, however.
“Wow, what a day,” the pastel artist said as he set up an easel. “Especially after so many colds.”
Rummaging through his box of assorted pastels, he explained that the purpose of plein air painting is not to create an exact replica of the landscape. Instead, artists try to portray the feeling of where they set up their easels.
There were trees omitted from his painting, and his color palette was more vibrant than the golds, greens, and browns before him.
“We don’t do photography, that’s for sure,” Swagerle said. Yet, he added, when he looks at old paintings he is able to tell where it was done, what the weather was like and what kind of day it was.
“I don’t know if there is a method to my madness,” said the pastel artist. “My grandfather was a circus painter. I think that’s where I get my colors.”
Nearby, Lilly, a portly brown Lab, dragged a tree branch through the leaves and settled at her owner’s feet. He concentrated on composition.
Dropping his drafts into a pile of paper, JO Buffington sets up his easel and retrieves his watercolor set.
After teaching art for 40 years in public schools, Buffington said he tried to emphasize the importance of compositional planning. Whether composition works can be subjective, he said, but it always helps.
“When you go to paint, you can’t imagine any other picture,” Buffington said. “You have to keep your mind blank, which is hard, but it keeps your paint fresh.”
Using a pencil to divide his watercolor paper into thirds, the painter added that a kindergarten student had prepared him for plein-air painting. The student turned in his art assignment shortly after Buffington handed out materials. Although he doubted the painting was truly finished, an inspection of the work revealed that it was.
He gave the student more materials and was again surprised by how quickly the kindergarten returned.
“It changed everything,” Buffington said. After this encounter, he started painting quickly instead of working on a piece for weeks. When he retired from teaching, he was happy to get out of his studio and paint in nature.
Spears has also been a watercolourist, but has recently taken an interest in acrylic painting.
“I like the color a lot. I like to move the color around with a brush. I like to leave it where I leave it,” Spears said, adding that the medium can sometimes look a little more like oil paint. ‘oil.
He explained that the bi-weekly meetings helped each of the painters at Asylum Peru hone their skills. Besides the constant practice, he added, having a camaraderie of other performers able to challenge each other has been enjoyable.
“You learn from each other, you learn about yourself, you learn about your own abilities,” Spears said. “You learn how light affects color, how time affects color, how your mood affects what you do.”
Entering the Friday painting session, Spears was focused on emulating the work of Giorgio Morandi. A book of the artist’s still lifes sat above the canvas he was working on in his car.
For him, jar illustrations went deeper than an appreciation of pottery; Spears compared the works to poetry.
“It’s not about jars. The jars are a starting point,” Spears said, adding that he tries to focus on the same principle of subtle communication. “From this you paint a reality that is part of you and part of the landscape.”
Swagerle was the first artist to finish painting on Friday, followed by Spears and then Buffington. As each of the artists completed their work, they leaned their paintings against the trunk of Swagerle’s car. Barely an hour had passed between the moment they set up their easels and their thoughtful crowd around their finished work.
“It’s one of those days where you can tell we’re all in one place,” Swagerle said, admiring the glade depicted in three different mediums.
They took turns complimenting each other on each other’s work, pointing out specific elements that worked well. If a piece was criticized, it was done by the artist who made the piece. Satisfied with the day’s effort, they shake hands and put away their gear.
“I’m glad you got up to paint here,” Buffington told fellow artists as they walked out. “Soon all the leaves will be gone.”
James Bennett III can be reached at 765-454-8580 or [email protected]