Savoring the South Fork en Plein Air

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"Winter Solstice" by Aubrey Grainger

The secrecy surrounding prime plein air painting spots is no joking matter, according to Bob Sullivan.

“I probably shouldn’t be telling you this,” the artist hesitated before, despite himself, bursting into laughter. “The next time I go out there, there will be 16 other guys out there with easels, painting in my spot.”

For Sullivan’s sake, the exact location of his Sag Harbor go-to will remain a mystery, but he’s willing to give a clue. Starting Thursday, September 20, two paintings from his favorite vantage point will be on view as part of “Summer Finale 2018,” an exhibition by the 30Squared Group at the Water Mill Museum.

Founded five years ago, artist Aubrey Grainger inspired this community of artists to paint daily by first suggesting a “100 paintings in 100 days” challenge — “I got no takers,” she said — before downsizing to “30 paintings in 30 days.”

“It really has helped us all pull together and encourage people — and keep everybody painting, especially through the winter,” she said. “Every time I’d see my friends, I’d go, ‘What are you working on?’ and they’d say, ‘Oh I don’t feel like doing anything,’ and I’m like, ‘C’mon!’ So it really has lit a fire for many people.”

The group has grown from a handful to 60 artists, who now support each other year-round, not only during the bleak winter months. The “Summer Finale” exhibit acted as a call for their best work, and a third of the group pulled from both this past winter’s challenge and their archive to deliver — showing paintings, prints and drawings for the fourth year in a row.

“A rising tide raises all ships. This group encourages us all to take our art to the next level,” explained participating painter Ann Lombardo. “Get out of your comfort zone. I had never painted this big before. I had to get out of my comfort zone.”

Approaching her art practice with new perspective, she also gained a fresh set of eyes through her then-18-month-old granddaughter. Coming in from the bright sunshine, she had stepped into her grandmother’s cool, dark gardening shed — only to find herself surrounded by tools, buckets, baskets, seeds, mowers, shovels, hoes, beetles and bird nests.

Barely able to speak, she threw her small arms out wide and exclaimed, “Thit Id amadzing!” startling Lombardo.

“I was just so overcome and her astonishment completely inhabited me,” she said. “It inspired me to do a series and I call it, ‘Shed Happens.’ I think they are out of the experience of living where I live in Water Mill. I live in a rural farm area. I have a very large garden, and these are the everyday items that we use on my tiny farm. I just brought them and, in a way honored them, by making these large paintings of them.”

During the winter, Grainger said she finds herself gravitating toward still life, which she usually constructs in her Sagaponack home-studio.

“It just brings me such happiness and contentment working on them,” she said. “And that’s really what I tried to make the other artists see: that no matter how bad the weather is, just paint. Just make yourself paint and you’ll feel better. And, I think, they all would admit they feel better.”

For Sullivan — a licensed captain who is tied to land for half of the year — painting makes all the difference. The winter is the perfect time to focus on his art, when he isn’t out at sea with his company, Sag Harbor Sailing.

But ultimately, his relationship with painting and sailing is symbiotic, he said, with one feeding the other.

“Landscapes I truly enjoy,” he said. “I love being outside, I love working outdoors in the plein air, I love catching the same scene at different times of day, whether it’s high noon or sunset. It provides an opportunity to reexamine what I thought I knew. There is a sense of timelessness about a place. If you’ve really painted it a number of times, you realize, ‘Wow, that tree doesn’t look anything like it looked last night, or like it did two months ago.’ Same with the waters out here.

“I’ve covered so much of the waterfront that there really aren’t any places that I’m not aware of,” he continued. “I’m naturally investigating the clouds, the light phenomena, the sunsets, the beauty that’s around, but at the same time, I’m also looking to find locations where I can trudge out there with my easel — and set up and examine from there.”

“Summer Finale 2018,” an exhibition by the 30Squared Group, will open on Thursday, September 20, at the Water Mill Museum, located at 41 Old Mill Road in Water Mill. A reception will be held on Saturday, September 22, from 4 to 7 p.m., and the show will remain on view through October 1. For more information, call (631) 726-4625 or visit watermillmuseum.org.

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