The 17th annual Plein Air Easton Festival is history. The competition paintings by the 58 artists have been taken home by buyers or the artists whose work went unpurchased, although most fetched a price either in sales, prize money, or both. But you can still enjoy plein air paintings of local scenes in a small but well-focused exhibit at Easton’s Academy Art Museum, some by artists who also participated in the festival.
“Beauty and Bounty: The Eastern Shore Plein Air Agriculture Collection” in the Selections Gallery of the museum is appealing to both the eye and the mind as you may learn something about farming–the No. 1 vocation among fellow Shoremen and women. Fourteen paintings by 13 artists, including oils and watercolors, present still-life representations of agriculture as an industry in some depictions or as life-sustaining staples produced by man and nature in others. Some paintings are a little of both.
As you ascend to the first landing toward the second-floor gallery space, you’re greeted by Greg LaRock’s rendering of a familiar scene in the Eastern Shore countryside. Titled “Elevated,” the large oil on linen painting focuses on grain elevators from the vantage point of a shed stacked with bales of wheat straw from a recent harvest of the grain. LaRock is a seven-time Plein Air Easton award winner, including the grand prize in 2008.
At the top of the stairs, my eyes were at first drawn to Jeremy Sams’ “Morning Grace.” Sams captures sunrise shedding a shaft of light over a cornfield on the farm of Bill and Doris Nielsen near Sherwood. This painting was one in a series of oil-on-linen paintings lining one wall of the hallway gallery. Next to it is Jill Basham’s “Field to Bay,” with its blue-sky/puffy-clouds canopy above emerald vegetation, which is planted to filter out algae blooms that invade creeks edging the Chloras Point Farm near Basham’s home in Trappe.
Stewart Burgess White, who won the 2019 Plein Air Easton award for best Maryland painting, sticks close to home with “Mutt and Marti Do a Full Pull,” starring a pair of Belgian draft horses competing in the popular Tuckahoe Steam and Gas Engine Show. “A Day in the Life” by Suzie Baker brings farm machinery to the fore as a tractor pulls a dairy wagon on Trisha and Jarred Boyce’s Chapel’s Country Creamery in Cordova. Fittingly, Baker is the 2018 winner of PAE’s “Life on the Farm” award. Stacked boxes containing honeybee hives anchor Kathie Odom’s “Spread the Love” homage to pollination. The accompanying wall label reminds us that bees travel up to five miles to spread their pollen, making it possible for flowering fruit and vegetables to grow into edible produce. The farm also produces honey extracted by Peachblossom Aviaries on Oxford Road.
Tarryl Gabel’s “First Light” focuses on one of the highest-yielding farm industries on the Delmarva Peninsula: poultry. The morning light of this oil on canvas illuminates chicken houses just across Dover Road Bridge in Caroline County. Richard Jewell’s vibrant watercolor, “Life Line,” features a flowering garden in bright yellow and green, with a barn and farmhouse in the distant background. Another watercolor, “Triple Creek Farm” by David Csont, delineates a long irrigation sprinkler on wheels. It stands idle as a lone pickup passes by on a rural road bordering the parched brown field. Csont won this year’s PAE award for best watercolor. Best marine painting winner Zufar Bikbov has an aptly titled nocturne, “Ready to Launch,” in the agriculture show. His oil on linen captures what looks like a nighttime Cape Canaveral countdown to lift-off as two giant grain elevators dwarf a red barn at Mountaire Farms north of Trappe.
Nancy Thomas’ “Kingston Landing View” centers on curving rows of budding soybeans in the foreground of a farmhouse with towering deciduous trees in the yard. The wall label informs us of a technique known as “double-cropping.” Wheat had just been harvested in this same field on a Matthewstown Road farm, making the most of its limited acreage. Meanwhile, “Three Generations” working side by side in an oil painting on a muslin panel is one of two by Nancy Tankersley that complete this ag-art collection. The second is “First Planting,” on Counsell Farms off U.S. 50 north of Easton. This autumn wonderland for families and children is made possible by planting pumpkins, field corn, and gourds in the spring. In her oil-on-canvas painting, we see four members of the Counsell family aboard a tractor or the attached cultivator spreading seed, while another walks behind, inspecting the tilled earth at his feet. Tankersley, a founder of Plein Air Easton, won this year’s prize for best Maryland painting, “All Is Peace.”
Aside from the simple beauty and practical nature of these artworks, there is a bounty–yes, beauty and bounty–of basic education about farming and the miracle of agriculture. Seed the earth, pray for rain, but not too much, and you can feed the world.
‘BEAUTY AND BOUNTY: The Eastern Shore Plein Air Agriculture Collection’
Paintings by thirteen artists related to farm life on the Shore. Selections Gallery upstairs at the Academy Art Museum, 106 South St., Easton; Tuesdays-Sundays through July 29. Admission: $3, children free; 410-822-2787, academyartmuseum.org
Steve Parks, a retired arts critic, and one time native farm boy, now lives back home in Easton.