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Creating Identity from Place exhibition postcard

Exploring Plein Air Painting in Creating Identity from Place

I was fortunate enough that Creating Identity from Place was my first exhibition to be working on at the Ohio Arts Council’s (OAC) Riffe Gallery. I started as the Marketing and Exhibitions Fellow in early July and was quickly introduced to life here. I immediately became involved with this exhibition and fell in love with the calming scenes and beautiful landscapes present in the works. While I adored what I saw, I didn’t fully understand what the creative process was behind the pieces. One of the first questions I asked was, “What is plein air painting?”

As an amateur painter, I have dabbled in still life and abstract works, but what was this foreign technique I hadn’t heard of? Pronounced “\ ˌplān-ˈer ; ple-ˈner \” the definition of this practice can be summarized as “painting or drawing in nature.” So, in creating their works, plein air artists bring their supplies outside and paint what they see.

“What an interactive process,” I thought.

When I understood the meaning of plein air painting, I had an even greater appreciation for the artworks in front of me. These artists have braved the elements to bring their surroundings to life with paint, pencil, board, or canvas. While each artist displays his or her unique approach to landscape, all works beautifully capture the local scenery.

After living in Ohio for more than two decades, I had become rather numb to the beauty of the state’s scenery. So, the concept of an exhibition highlighting Ohio’s landscape seemed like just the thing I needed to experience. When I first encountered this exhibition, I realized I have not been giving my beautiful homeland enough credit. The members of the Ohio Plein Air Society have created works filled with colorful sunsets and lush greenery, shimmering lakes and snowy treetops.

One piece that immediately caught my eye was Ann Ferguson Kah’s Morning at Brandywine (2016). She expertly captures the movement of water meticulously finding its way down a stacked bed of rocks. Rushing water flows through a crack in the rock formation, while a tiny sliver of water drips from a divot at the top of the stack, leaving the curious viewer wondering what else could be above. Kah’s impressionistic background of greens and browns leaves the viewer to understand how secluded in nature this magnificent water formation is. The stark contrast between heavy, dark rocks and light, flowing water truly brings this piece to life.  

While some artists, like Kah, choose to feature the rural and more secluded areas of the Ohio countryside, others find their muse in the cityscape. Cody Heichel’s Prospect and Bolivar (2017) is such an example. Various three- and four-story buildings scatter the background of this painting, with pedestrians wandering the streets, reminding the viewer that this painting was truly created in the moment. Careful details, from the edges of bricks to the pattern of a person’s shirt, show an extraordinary level of intentionality in this work, especially in an ever-changing outdoor climate. From barely-seen power lines to expertly-crafted sidewalk tiles, the details in Heichel’s work are extraordinary. He also captures a sense of movement in this painting through shadows beneath pedestrians. His perspective of architectural structures is bold, leaving the viewer’s eye to appreciate every detail of the work.

While I only mention two pieces from the 73 in the exhibition, they beautifully illustrate what all plein air painting can be—filled with diversity and strength, tranquility and movement. Paintings in this exhibition range from small to large, realistic to abstract. They feature subject matter from infinitely different—yet somehow connected—landscapes. 

Photo of Doreen St. JohnI was able to more fully experience this fascinating process while attending Doreen St. John’s pastel workshop. She began by teaching the participants about different pastel tools and products. I learned the medium she uses is bold, opaque, and one-of-a-kind. St. John then continued her workshop by giving us a step-by-step tutorial of how she makes her pastel paintings. She showed the group how to create dimension and shape, color and light. In a matter of minutes, I felt a new appreciation for the plein air artists in the show.

If you are interested in experiencing the methods of plein air painters, be sure to attend some of the gallery’s free programming, including drop-in artist demonstrations, a pastel workshop, a friends and family workshop, and a creative writing workshop.

To view the artworks in person, stop by the OAC’s Riffe Gallery Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday between 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., Thursday between 10 a.m. - 8 p.m., and Saturday between 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Admission is always free, and the gallery is located at 77 S. High St. in Columbus, Ohio, on the first-floor of the Vern Riffe Center for Government and the Arts.

For more information, call the gallery at 614-644-9624 or visit

The Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery showcases the work of Ohio's artists and the collections of the state's museums and galleries. The Riffe Gallery is located in the Vern Riffe Center for Government and the Arts, across from the Statehouse on High Street in Downtown Columbus. Like the Riffe Gallery on Facebook and follow us on Instagram.

The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the OAC on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or visit our website at


Article by Alexa Demyan, 2018-19 OAC Riffe Gallery Marketing and Exhibitions Fellow

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