Marie Marfia, Shaded Mary, soft pastel on sanded paper, 11x14"

Stuff happens

It was a beautiful day to paint outdoors, warm and sunny with a bit of a breeze. I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan with my friends, Deb, Mary and Sue. They’d registered to paint in the Festival of the Arts Plein Air event from 10am-1pm and I’d driven an hour and a half from Ludington to join them. I wanted to enjoy the company of friends whom I hadn’t seen in far too long and also get a little painting in.

We’d been assigned to paint in the middle of downtown at Studio Park, a patch of astroturf surrounded by trees in concrete boxes, with a giant movie screen attached to one of the three buildings on the perimeter.

Our adventure started out pretty well. Sue was working on a careful preliminary sketch, Mary and Deb were painting in watercolor, and I had my soft pastels out. I decided to focus on Mary who was seated in the shade on the astroturf. I liked the stark shadows on the building behind her and her red hair against the bright green grass. By 11:20 I had put away the first piece to finish later and started on a portrait of Deb working under one of the trees lining the plaza. Just then a woman with a pony tail and yoga pants walked up and told us we had to move. She’d apparently reserved the space from 11:30am-1:00pm for her yoga class. Whoops.

Marie Marfia, Shaded Mary, soft pastel on sanded paper, 11x14".
Shaded Mary, soft pastel on sanded paper, 11×14″.

Mary asked politely if the woman needed all the space for her class and she said she absolutely did, whereupon she proceeded to cover the entire park with florescent orange cones, indicating where all the students were meant to spread their mats.

The Summer 2021 issue of Pastel Journal coincidentally features a ton of stories about the joys and trials of plein air painting. Tales of artists who get chased off their spots by alligators (Florida), sheep (Maine), bugs (everywhere) are par for the course. But this was the first time I’d heard of a paint out session disrupted by mat-toting people in leotards.

At least Mary and I were the only ones who had to move. We’d had the bad luck to set up on the astroturf in the first place. The others were fine where they were, Sue on the perimeter sidewalk painting café tables in the alley, and Deb sitting on a bench off the grass.

My plein air set up that day was pretty basic. I had a small pastel box that opened flat and attached to a tripod using a camera mount. The easel with pastel paper mounted on top of that and then I hooked my backpack under the tripod for ballast. To move, I just grabbed the tripod with one hand and my backpack with the other and carefully walked up the steps surrounding the grass. I wanted to be closer to Deb, since she was the subject of my second painting. But before I could set everything down again, a gust of wind flipped both easel and pastel box off the tripod and onto the cement.

Yoga happening in front of me. My rescued pastels in the box next to me.

I remember thinking, “Wow, that was quick.”

In the past, when my pastels have hit the dirt (cement, floor), I’ve cursed and thrown things, but that day I wasn’t even that upset. Maybe it was endorphins from having spent the last hour painting in the sunshine. Maybe I was on my best behavior because I was in front of my friends. Whatever the reason, I was more worried about getting everything cleaned up before someone plowed through it and got pastels all over their shoes than anything else.

The aftermath. Paint nothing but pictures, leave nothing but dust.
Marie Marfia, Deb Squints, soft pastel on sanded paper, 14x11"
Deb Squints, soft pastel on sanded paper, 14×11″.

Deb helped me pick up the pieces and someone else found a push broom to sweep up the dust. Then more friends dropped by to say hello, and I ended up spending the rest of the session catching up with them, getting lots of sympathy for the pastel disaster and trying to paint some more.

Stuff happens. Pastels break, rain turns your work to puddles, people say weird things when you’re out painting in public. None of it mattered. It was still a beautiful day. I got to hang out with people I love. I spent an hour or two making paintings. It was all good in my ‘hood.

Besides, it could have been a lot worse. There could have been alligators.


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