Preserving land with plein air painting

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“Lily Pads at Duck Lake,” Kathleen Lanzoni

An estimated 5.2 million people will visit Boulder County Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) this year. The land is famous for inspiring Boulder residents to spend time outside and is credited with shaping not only the character of our place, but also of our culture. But aside from this utilitarian inspiration, lies a rich history of a more poetic sort.

Since humans have lived in Boulder Valley, artists, both ancient and contemporary, have recorded not only the land they see, but the land as they want it to be. In more recent times, their canvases have preserved a sort of record of the community vision of Open Space and Public Land.

There is a critical connection between preservation and culture, one that Boulder County OSMP has worked into its mission since 2007, when the general superintendent of Golden Gate Park, Brian O’Neill, came to Boulder as part of a national campaign to incorporate communities into civic preservation efforts.

“When people care for something,” he says, “they want to protect it.”

Although it was the first time the connection between culture and preservation made its way into OSMP’s mission statement, the idea was not new. The preservation of public lands in Boulder County dates back to 1898 when a group of citizens purchased alfalfa fields and apple orchards at the foot of the Flatirons, now known as Chautauqua Park, establishing the tradition of civic stewardship of public lands in the area.

Decades later, in 1964, citizens organized in protest against a planned development of a luxury hotel on Enchanted Mesa convincing City Council to condemn the land and force its sale. Activists raised small donations from the community until they reached the purchase price and secured it as open space.

Although people don’t always agree, the sentiment that open-space stewardship is a public duty has proven durable over time. To foster that connection and to better understand the community’s vision, OSMP has created a partnership program that invites people to protect the land in two ways: through land management projects and through art.

Running or hiking through the land, recreational users might not notice the plein air painters standing at their easels, working in the centuries long tradition of the French impressionists who insisted on painting in the open air. Standing in one place for hours, these artists are granted a unique perspective of the land and activity around them, capturing fleeting moments on their canvases.

A comprehensive look at their work and collective vision is on display at the annual Outdoor Creations Plein Air Art Show displaying 90 works created on Boulder County OSMP lands by 40 Boulder-area artists.

Molly Davis, plein air painter, juror for the exhibit and member of the Board of Trustees for OSMP says the art is crucial to land management efforts for both its aesthetic and visionary contributions.

Vividly, Davis recounts visiting some of her favorite creek-side painting locations in the days and weeks following the 2013 floods.

“I setup my canvas and saw how immediately the landscape had changed the character of our urban space lands,” she says.

Not all changes are so dramatic and in that subtlety they risk being overlooked. In her more than 30 years of plein air painting in Boulder County, Davis has witnessed the changing impacts of recreational use of public spaces.

“The impacts of the volumes of the people using the space has changed tremendously,” she says. “The impacts of larger numbers of people using the land creates an excitement in the landscape, but it also affects ecologies and wildlife quite a bit. I see less wildlife on open spaces anywhere near corridors where there are humans.”

At this year’s Outdoor Creations exhibition, vibrant activity makes its way onto the canvases, with an abundance of color popping off the canvases in easy and loose brushstrokes.

Davis thinks this is because it was an unusually hot summer that brought more activity to the land around the painters. But also because plein air painters have to endure conditions and it is then, she says, that you become particularly grateful to have a paintbrush in your hand and that joy carries through to the painting.

In preserving over 100,000 acres of land, OSMP is creating the opportunity for a community to not only enjoy the land, but to continue the tradition of community stewardship.

“From a land managers point of view,” Davis says, “the artist’s perspective is extremely valuable because at times we can get bogged down in the details of taking care of the landscape and not see the broader perspective of how it contributes to vision of the community.”

On the Bill: Outdoor Creations Plein Air Art Show. The Great Frame Up, 430 Main St., Longmont, 303-772-7293. Through Nov. 4.