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En Plein Air: Artists take it outside in the High Country

The High Country Plein Air Painters gathered for their last session in 2022 on a foggy morning at The Blowing Rock. During summer, there may be 25-30 painters on any given Wednesday. Some of the members are part-time residents or visitors to the area, joining the group for just a single session or part of the season. Pictured in the front, from left are Ann Richardson, Kay Herndon, Penny Makris, Cara Hayes, Martha Saffer. Second row from left, Tim Larson, Belinda Forsyth, Kim Abernethy, Jennifer Garonzik, Waitsel Smith. Back row, Earl Davis.

Story by Jan Todd

Most people see a color as “brownish orange,” but Kim Abernethy sees it as “transparent earth
red.” It is the shade she uses as the first layer — or underpainting — in many of her landscape
oil paintings.

“I paint a lot of greens in my landscapes, and the earth red really makes them pop,” Abernethy

Abernethy, an accomplished artist in the area, is a member of High Country Plein Air Painters, a
group that meets weekly during early spring through late fall, to paint “en plein air” — or “in the
open air.” They gather on Wednesday mornings at area landmarks such as Daniel Boone
Gardens, Moses Cone Memorial Park, Bass Lake or other scenic spots.

During summer months, as many as 25-30 painters may show up for the session, toting easels,
a selection of paints (oil, acrylic or watercolor), sketchpads and canvases. Skill levels vary from
beginners to advanced.

Kay Herndon, relatively new to painting, sketches her scene with light and dark shades prior to painting on canvas. “This is the proper procedure for beginners,” she explained, adding the technique helps her form her perspective and dimensions. Photo by Jan Todd

Kay Herndon considers herself a newbie, and enjoys the supportive atmosphere of the Plein Air
group. “Everyone is willing to help,” she said.

Herndon begins her plein air sessions by sketching a scene on paper, blocking out the lights
and darks. “Some of the more advanced painters in the group can just start directly on their
canvases, but I need to get my dimensions and perspective set. I decide what subject to focus
on, to keep the eye in the picture. I’m still learning,” she said.

Herndon retired as a certified public accountant and wanted a creative hobby. She used to do Tole painting — decorative folk art painting on objects and furniture — before she had children but gave up art for years until her retirement.

Earl Davis, founder of the High Country group, is a minister, an author and an artist. “I took up
glass blowing when I was younger, but every time my wife cleaned the house, a piece of my art
would bite the dust,” he quipped. “That’s why I took up oil painting.”

Earl Davis, founder of the High Country Plein Air artists group, pauses to speak to a visitor at The Blowing Rock. As a pastor and lifelong artist, Davis enjoys interacting with others and is able to carry on a conversation easily while working on his painting. Photo by Jan Todd

Davis said he never had formal training as a painter, just “tinkered and dabbled.” When he
moved to Blowing Rock about seven years ago, he entered his work in the Watauga Arts
Council Petal Pushers exhibition and won second place.

Pat Collins, the judge in the contest, encouraged Davis to apply for the Blowing Rock Artist in Residence program at Edgewood Cottage. “I had a ball doing that, and sold a lot of paintings,”
Davis said. He said he enjoys sharing his work with others, whether it be the finished product
or work in progress. Working outside, he is able to carry on a conversation effortlessly while painting a scene.

Davis started the painting group — managed on a Facebook group called High Country Plein
Air Painters — in 2021. “I knew there were a bunch of us artists up here and thought it would
be fun to get together on a regular basis,” he said.

“Painting can be such a solitary endeavor,” Abernethy chimed in. “We’re working in our
houses, in our studios. I was drawn to the group to be around other people.”

After two hours of working in the fog, the sun broke through at The Blowing Rock, revealing brilliant fall colors for the members of High Country Plein Air Painters. Changes in light and weather are part of the challenge — and delight — of painting outdoors. Photo by Jan Todd

Abernethy said she doesn’t expect to paint a “masterpiece” every week during the plein air sessions. “To me, plein air is more about the process. What I do outside makes my studio work better,” she said.

Like Davis, Abernethy did not study art in school. Long time Boone residents, Abernethy and
her husband, Tom, once owned a One Hour Photo business, developing photos for their

Kay Herndon (center) takes a break from her own painting to visit with and check out the work of Cara Hayes (left) and Penny Makris. Photo by Jan Todd

“I used photography as my creative outlet, just playing around with it,” she said. Abernethy loved visiting art galleries, and said she always held artists “in the highest esteem.”

“Out in nature, I’d look at a scene and wish I could paint it — but then I’d just take a
photograph,” Abernethy shared. Then a friend invited her to an art class taught by John Bond at the Art Mart. She hesitated, until her husband encouraged her to give it a try.

“After my first lesson, I knew I’d never put a paintbrush down. I absolutely loved it. John taught me how to mix paint, how to look at composition. Most of the other people in the class had some experience, but John took me from below zero. I enjoyed learning from him, because he could work with people wherever they were in their skills,” she said.

Jennifer Garonzik, education director at BRAHM, patiently waits for the sun to break through the fog so she can add autumn colors to her painting. Jennifer runs the annual Plein Air Festival in Blowing Rock, and teaches classes to school children and adults at BRAHM. Photo by Jan Todd

Later, Abernethy enrolled in a plein air workshop held in Asheville and fell in love with the technique. “It has made me stronger as an artist,” she said.

Much of Abernethy’s work is created outdoors and is sold in several galleries in the High
Country and elsewhere. She is a juried member of Oil Painters of America and Women Painters
of the Southeast and has regularly teaches workshops through Cheap Joe’s Art Stuff.

Plein air painters welcome the challenge of creating art outdoors — regardless of the weather. During the last session of 2022, High Country Plein Air Painters arrived at The Blowing Rock to find a dense fog. They painted for a couple of hours before the fog lifted, capturing the moody scenery. Photo by Jan Todd

In late October, the High Country Plein Air group met at The Blowing Rock for their last session of the year. A dense early morning fog had settled in, and the painters wandered around looking for a subject to paint. The majestic valley beneath the landmark rock was completely obscured from view.

“There are no rules in plein air,” Abernethy said. “I suppose we could paint a sunny scene if we wanted to, but I like to be true to what I see. So I guess I’m painting fog today.”

Professional artist Waitsel Smith took a while to settle on his subject. “I like to paint dramatic
lighting, and you don’t find that in the fog,” he said.

During plein air group sessions, artist spread out all over the property, each choosing different scenes or perspectives to paint. “It’s amazing how we can all go to the same place and come out with very different paintings,” said Kim Abernethy. Photo by Jan Todd

Smith studied film, music and writing at UNC-Chapel Hill, but didn’t accumulate enough credits to graduate in a major, he said. “So, I enrolled in East Carolina’s art program and majored in painting and graphic design.” He spent most of his career in advertising and commercial art, while also working as a fine artist.

“I’m not what you’d call a plein air painter,” he shared. “I’m mostly a studio painter, where you have control over everything. You’re not dealing with weather, you’re not dealing with people. Outdoors, the light is constantly changing and you only have a couple hours to capture the
scene.” Still, when Davis invited him to join the High Country group, he found he enjoyed painting outdoors with other artists.

Smith, whose works include mostly oil paintings and watercolors of people, landscapes and places, decided to paint a scene with the historic building at The Blowing Rock on that foggy day. “The red door is eye-catching,” he said.

Waitsel Smith displays two plein air paintings of The Blowing Rock, completed at an earlier session during summer. It was foggy that day as well, he said. Smith spent most of his career in advertising and commercial art, while also working as a fine artist. Photo by Jan Todd

Just down the path, Jennifer Garonzik was visualizing what the autumn color might look like were it not completely obscured by the fog. Her pallate bore bright fall colors with reds, oranges and yellows. “The sun will come out eventually,” she mused.

Garonzik, the education center director at BRAHM (Blowing Rock Art and History Museum), teaches art classes at the museum and runs the annual Plein Air Festival, held each August. She has taught students age 2 to 92, she said, leading school field trips and Cork & Canvas classes held at BRAHM.

Tim Larson (right) takes a break from his painting to pose with Charlie Sellers, mayor of Blowing Rock and the owner/operator of The Blowing Rock attraction. Sellers said the arts are an important part of the community and hosting the High Country Plein Air Painters allows tourists and residents to interact with artists and learn about their work. Photo by Jan Todd

The Plein Air Festival has become very popular, Garonzik said, with 120 artists from 15 different states participating in 2022. The artists spend three or four days painting scenes in Blowing Rock, then sell their work at the festival finale held at BRAHM. The museum keeps a commission from the sales which contributes to the art education fund.

Garonzik said attending the High Country Plein Air gatherings keep her accountable and help her make time for painting. “I live in a small house and have children, so I don’t get out very often on my own. I keep my art supplies in my car and set aside Wednesday mornings to paint with this group,” she said.

Two hours into that day’s session, many of the artists were applying final touches to their
paintings when the sun finally broke through the fog.

Kim Abernethy snaps a photo of her work in progress, along with her subject. Plein air artists often use photos in the studio to put final touches on artwork. Photo by Jan Todd

There were cries of delight as rich colors emerged in the valley behind the Blowing Rock and light danced on the surfaces of the rocks and trees.

“Oh! Look at that! Oh how beautiful!” exclaimed Abernethy. “I’ve been waiting all morning for this!”

The clearing fog revealed bright sunlight and billowy clouds set against a brilliant blue sky.

“This.” Abernethy said. “This is why we do it.”

During the plein air session at The Blowing Rock, Tim Larson chose a scene with an evergreen set against the fall color. Most of his painting was accomplished when the background color was hidden by the heavy fog. Larson is a marketing professional and works with zoos across the country. He has also worked as an artist and illustrator. “I like to be outdoors, and I like people,” he said, joining the Plein Air group “just for fun.” Photo by Jan Todd

Interested in joining the group? Painters of all skill levels and visitors are always welcome. Request to join through the High Country Plein Air Facebook page or contact Kim Abernethy
through www.KimAbernethy.com.