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Making Paradise: Early Impressionists in Coachella Valley

Devoted to painting outdoors, the Plein Air genre is one of the key artistic movements to explore desert aesthetics. Riding the popularity of the impressionist movement in America in the early 19h century, the movement fuelled an interest in desert region’s throughout the nation, its majesty celebrated by the likes of Plein Air classicists, Paul Grimm, Agnes Pelton, Clarence Hinkle, and others.

Plein Air, which translates to plain air, literally refers to the act of outdoor painting. The French Impressionist movement in the late 1800’s began the tradition when artists started taking their easels to the countryside to capture the ever changing light and moods of nature. Today, painting clubs and societies throughout the world converge on natural settings, sustaining the tradition.

In Southern California, artists of the 1900s such as like John Frost, Gordon Coutts, and Paul Grimm built studios in the Coachella valley after being inspired by its landscape. These artists were drawn to spectacular seasonal events such as blooming springtime wild flowers. They hoped to not only draw inspiration from the spectacular scenery and moods, but also to tap the region’s regenerative qualities, its clean air helping placate their Tuberculosis, an epidemic at that time.

An expert on the Californian Plein Air movement and its history, Thom Giannetto of LA based Edenhurst Gallery believes the genre was spawned in old Palm Springs. "I think the artists John Frost was one of the earliest to come. Frost was determined to find "French" beauty in the dry arid no man's land, far a field from the lilting meadows and valleys the inland territories in France and Pasadena."
According to Giannetto, the proliferation of conceptual and abstract movements of painting in the late 30’s to the 1960’s saw the popularity of the Plein Air genre plummet, though it has since enjoyed a renaissance and a new band of followers.

"Appreciation of the CA impressionist movement was re-spawned in the 1960's through the efforts of historians, scholars, collectors, museum curators. Traditional painting had fallen through the cracks with the advent of the moderns, especially after WW2," he says.

Giamatti believes the depth and technique of the Plein Air artists again won them acclaim. "It took a good fifty years after the vitality of the original movement for people to realize the importance of what once was. Everything old is new again, and the old plein air painters were reassessed and looked at with a fresh eye. People liked them and a large part of the collecting population was simply tired of looking at all that modern crap that wasn't really art, just schtick, craft, talent less blobs of nothing. There was a hunger for reality in its shocking normalcy."

"Like disco, everyone loves the old guard impressionists. Young, old and in-between revel in the historic landscapes, in scenes of California as it used to be. There is a great cachet in the old, the rare, the antique, the collectible. Appreciation of the plein air artists transcends all walks of life, age groups, religions, etc.Impressionist art is the great leveler of humanity, embracing the good bad and the ugly, the vintage, the classic and the current decorative movements. As we digest the last 100 years, only the great will survive the test of time," says Giannetto

In terms of Plein Air’s new generation, Giannetto views the genre and the market from a gallerists perspective. "The new generation of Plein Air painters is painting the desert, but sort of limiting there artistic visits to the wildflower seasons," he says. "It was past generations that really explored her in all of her moods, including the dry gulch mood."

"Largely what we are seeing today is living artists cashing in, coming out of the closet and painting like the old masters did. They are making a living as copyists. The prices are cheap compared with the prices of the historic painters. The art of this new decoration is now largely decoration and for those who cannot afford to collect the masters. Unfortunately, the new movement is vital, but emasculated and very derivative," Gianetto adds.

In Palm Springs, the Plein Air genre is a tradition that lives through the yearly La Quinta Plein Air Festival, regularly staged in November of each year. The festival began in 1999 with 31 artists and has since evolved to show between 45 to 55 artists. First year sales tallied $800,000, for works by the likes of William Scott Jennings, Michael Obermeyer, John Cosby, Charles Muench and Niles Nordquist.

Nowadays the festival serves as a focal point for newcomers to the genre, where creators and buyers engage and network. LaQuinta Arts
Foundation Executive Director Christi Salamone says the festival has introduced artists from all over the country to the Coachella Valley.
"Some artists have even relocated to the Coachella Valley as a result. Mehdi Fallahian for example, gallery owner on Palm Canyon. Many artists have made friends with the patrons introduced to them at Desert Plein Air, who have offered housing which allows them to return often to paint the Valley at their leisure.

"Salamone says artists in her network have noticed big changes in the valley from their first Desert Plein Air in 99. "Many of the usual haunts where they liked to paint (date groves, produce packing sheds, corner fruit stands and ethnic markets, etc. ) have disappeared, yet there are still many areas and much subject matter to paint. They love the diversity here, historical sites, majestic vistas, agriculture, geology, action and people places like downtown Palm Springs."

In terms of the genre’s undulating popularity, Salomone believes the Plein Air movement represents something for all audiences. "There is definitely cross generational interest. Plein Air landscapes are one of the best sources of historical recording of an area in a certain time, so appealing to historians and academics. More and more young people, those concerned with environmental issues, appreciate the art form as well."

"Plein Air artists have the opportunity of engaging the patron, often because they happen upon them in the midst of creation. The ability to meet, learn and discover "the artist" "the man/woman" is the "special" aspect of plein air work, anyone can go to a gallery you want to see the action, meet the person and learn about his or her inspiration and experiences," Salamone says
The 2005 Plein Air Arts Festival is currently under development, though venue changes may see it postponed to January 2006.


It opens thousands of kids’ eyes to art and produces the La Quinta Arts Festival, a weekend-long affair that gives emerging and established artists a bright exhibition venue to show and sell their work. Since its 1982 inception, the La Quinta Arts Foundation has raised the cultural profile of its namesake city, as well as the surrounding cities throughout the Coachella Valley, and become a champion of art education in the area’s schools.

"No group in the Coachella Valley does more to educate the public in the visual arts than La Quinta Arts Foundation," says Christi Salamone, the organization’s executive director. "Through memberships, grants, and proceeds from art events, the foundation funds art education programs that fill the void created by the cuts in state funds allocated to arts education in the public schools."

The 23-year-old La Quinta Arts Festival has become the city’s marquee annual event and has earned revenues in excess of $22 million. The artists claim up to half of the receipts and the foundation pumps much of the balance into art education at local schools and the promotion of its other public art events.

"Arts education is critical in a child’s cognitive development," says foundation Chairman Haddon Libby. "As most of the children benefiting from the La Quinta Arts Foundation are from low-income families, our role is core in helping them to develop a creative means of _expression as well as building self-esteem."

The foundation’s core art education programs are Making Friends with Great Works of Art and after-school and summer art classes. The former targets more than 2,500 fourth- and fifth-graders at 15 elementary schools with lessons in art history, criticism, and practice. It earned the California Teacher’s Association’s Gold Award for its contribution to quality education. The after-school and summer art programs engage children four hours a day, four days a week at the La Quinta, Indio, and Coachella Boys & Girls Clubs.
Since 1984, the foundation’s Visual Arts Scholarship has awarded nearly $700,000 to local students at the university level. This year, 41 new and returning scholarship recipients accepted a combined $54,150 toward their studies at such notable colleges as UCLA, Otis College of Art and Design, USC, California Art Institute, as well as College of the Desert.
"La Quinta Arts Foundation has only five people on staff, yet it touches the lives of tens of thousands of children annually," Libby says. "We do everything possible to ensure that a dollar raised is a dollar used toward the delivery of services and not non-productive administration."

The festival in March is integral to the foundation’s success — and it has come a long way since its inaugural event in 1983, when it showcased works by 50 artists — including Red Skelton — to an audience of 1,476 people. The next event (March 16-19, 2006) will feature 250 artists on the grounds of the La Quinta Civic Center.

"A number of artists rely on the festival as well as the foundation for the income necessary to devote themselves in full toward the arts," Libby says. "The artists earn income via the festival, Art Under the Umbrella shows, and educational sessions with students.

"There are numerous other art festivals in the desert," Libby notes. "But no others are juried art exhibits such as ours, and none that I am aware of dedicates all of the proceeds not paid to the artists to arts education."

During his tenure, Libby hopes to collaborate, pool resources, and create economies of scale with organizations such as Desert Academy of the Arts Foundation, which funds after-school classes in the visual and performing arts but without the revenues of a major festival.
"Our future is the brightest that it has been in a long, long time," Libby says. "We are now focused solely on arts education. Going forward, I believe that you will see us partner up with other art education nonprofits in the Coachella Valley, as collaboration is critical to the future success of all nonprofits."

Written by Craig Stephens

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