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Capturing a changing landscape

En plein air painters document the Upper Delaware region

By SANDY LONG

UPPER DELAWARE REGION — If you traverse the Upper Delaware River region, there’s a good chance you will encounter a petite and perky painter poised, “en plein air” (in the open air), capturing a deeply felt, carefully rendered and quickly changing regional scene.

Joan Polishook will likely be accompanied by others of similar interest, dabbing away at canvases or pads on easels propped next to a river or set into a forested landscape. She never planned for it to happen; it just evolved naturally over the 12 years that people have responded to her program, aptly named, “Come Paint With Me.”

In the tradition of early plein air artists like Claude Monet, Polishook prefers to experience the natural world with a paintbrush in hand. “I just like to paint and to be in the outdoors,” she said. “There’s a song in nature and I have to be out there listening to it.”

When Polishook moved from New Jersey to her current home in the Hemlock Farms Community in Lords Valley, PA, she was apprehensive about painting alone in remote settings. So she invited others to join her, first within the gated community, then at an increasing number of regional sites. The Grey Towers National Historic Site (GT), home of two-time Governor Gifford Pinchot, proved to be a perfect fit for the group of painters who have met there repeatedly to paint the exquisite gardens and grounds.

Like the Hudson River School painters, those who paint with Polishook are playing an important historical role by recording regional scenes and landscapes. “It’s a record-keeping situation,” she explained. Everyone looks at things they may have taken for granted. In putting it down on paper or canvas, they may be painting something that, in the future, will no longer be there. That’s what’s happening with some of our fields, farms, barns and old buildings, the things that used to represent country in this region, and we’ve put them down on paper.”

In an area of such scenic beauty, much of it at substantial risk from the impacts of development, power lines, pipelines and natural gas extraction, Polishook finds herself in a race against time to do her part to preserve what she sees disappearing almost daily. “It’s like putting down a little history on your canvas for the future,” she said.

The former early childhood teacher also holds two sessions annually for children ranging from Kindergarten to high school. She does it to give them the experience of painting from nature, outside the typical classroom experience. Following a light informational session, Polishook talks about the importance of using the eyes to see their surroundings. She encourages them to select a scene that interests them, then visits each as they observe and paint. “No child can do anything wrong,” she points out.

Polishook applies the same spirit of supportiveness and positive encouragement with the adults who join her, some of whom are professional artists, some of whom are hobbyists and others who are interested beginners. She enjoys seeing participants learn to express themselves and wake up to their surroundings as they rediscover things they may have stopped noticing, such as the shape or texture of a tree. “They gain a new sense of focus on what’s around them,” she explained.

Painting locations are peppered throughout the Upper Delaware region, at beautiful and accessible sites such as Dorflinger-Suydam Wildlife Sanctuary in White Mills, PA, Fair Acres Farm in Sussex, NJ; Narrowsburg, NY’s Main Street, the confluence of the Lackawaxen and Delaware Rivers near the Zane Grey Museum, Skytop Lodge in Skytop, PA and more.

One of Polishook’s favorite aspects of en plein air painting is the opportunity to commune with nature, or, as she puts it, “to paint in Mother Nature’s studio.” “When the sun is shining, I can’t stay in the house,” she said. “I have to be out there, listening to the sounds of nature. There’s either that quiet sound of country, or the buzzing sound of a bee nearby.”

In addition, she calls the practice “highly therapeutic,” and said that participants suffering serious health problems like cancer, or emotional impacts such as grief, have found healing or comfort through their creative partnership with the process and the other participants. Participants gain perspective, guidance and inspiration from one another. Other plusses are the social and creative connections made as people form new friendships or learn new techniques.

For all that it is, “Come Paint With Me” is not a teaching program. “The learning comes from very gentle critique of one another’s work. If someone is stuck, someone else may chime in with advice. It all happens on a friendly, positive basis, with no pressure. We also share tips on materials, how to frame work and where to buy art supplies,” she said.

Polishook, who works in pen and ink, watercolor, oil and acrylic, enjoys the challenge of “chasing the light” in natural settings. Her work is influenced by the Impressionist school of painting, both French and American. She has enjoyed the many awards and shows that have resulted from her art, and most recently received a third place from the Pocono Arts Council for her painting, “Morning Calm.”

Even so, Polishook has never charged a fee for “Come Paint With Me,” and plans to continue coordinating the program at no charge. The countless hours she spends on the administrative tasks associated with the sessions are her gift to the artistic practice she so clearly enjoys. “I guess you could say I’m the anonymous donor,” she laughed, “but I’m so grateful to have been able to do this. I need to be out there in the air, under the sky, listening to the sounds, communing and not thinking about anything else. I want to record it before it’s gone.”

The 2009 Come Paint With Me schedule will begin on June 4 and continue every Thursday, from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. through October 15. Serious painters of all ages are welcome.

Later this year, the plein air painter, who is also a dedicated writer, will publish her first book, a memoir entitled “The House on the Sixth Floor.” Visit joanpolishook-art.com or call 570/775-6896 for more information and a schedule of upcoming painting locations.

Louis Hensel Exhibit: Capturing the region in photographs

Another body of work that recorded the history of the region is currently on exhibit at the Columns Museum in Milford, PA. Photographer Louis Hensel captured Pennsylvania’s landscapes and village streetscapes during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when effects of the Industrial Revolution were just beginning to impact the pristine Northeast region along the Delaware River that borders New York and New Jersey. Hensel’s portfolio provides a historical account of the evolving relationship between people and the natural landscape. It also documents the changes resulting from practices like logging, industrialization and development. The exhibit is presented by American Historical Images and will continue through July 27. Visit AmericanHistoricalImages.com to view other Hensel images.

TRR photo by Sandy Long
Joan Polishook at work in her studio. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
“Autumn at Trout Lake,” painted by Polishook, captures a moment in time within the Upper Delaware regional landscape. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Polishook’s painting of the Lackawaxen River shows it flowing at normal levels. The river is impacted by controlled releases from the PPL hydroelectric dam and Stone Energy Corporation is seeking to withdraw 21 million gallons/30 days from the West Branch of the Lackawaxen to use in gas extraction activities. (Click for larger version)
TRR photo by Sandy Long
Narrowsburg, NY’s Main Street is preserved in a Polishook painting. (Click for larger version)