At this point, most towns, big and small, host a yearly summer art fair, where artists set up white tents on closed-off streets, and potential buyers stroll and browse.
In 2013, though, Dexter’s Arts, Culture and Heritage Committee decided to do something a little different.
The Paint Dexter Plein Air Festival – happening this year on August 13-18 – invites painters who like to work “in the open air” to town for nearly a week – four days (Monday-Thursday) to create new work in various locales, followed by a two day art sale (Friday-Saturday) in Monument Park, wherein visitors can purchase the art that was produced in Dexter.
“The Arts, Culture and Heritage Committee was started [in 2008] to engage the community with the arts, and also to go into the heritage and historical character of the community, and find ways to bring those things into the forefront,” said Justin Breyer, the assistant to Dexter’s City Manager/Clerk. “So we were looking for ways to promote the arts, and someone suggested the idea of Plein Air as a concept we could use to fundraise for the Heritage’s projects.”
Indeed, thirty percent of all paintings sold during the festival support the committee’s activities, which can include purchasing art or sculpture for the community.
“There are plein air festivals throughout the country,” said Breyer. “It’s growing as an artform. … Other communities are starting to look at us and plan similar festivals, or for ideas and ways to engage people in the arts.”
Plein air started “trending” in the 19th century, when oil paint became portable, by way of being packaged in tubes, and box easels with telescopic legs appeared on the market. Yes, as soon as it was relatively easy for artists to go outside and paint natural scenes in a spontaneous way, lit by the sun, they did.
But because light and weather conditions shift throughout the day, plein air artists quickly learn that they must work fast in order to capture an image before it’s altered.
As if to underline this, Dexter’s Plein Air Festival includes a Quick Draw Competition each year on Friday.
“The artists come to us and get their canvasses stamped,” said Breyer. “Then they’ll have three hours to go out and paint and produce a piece, after which they return to the tent and submit the piece, where it will be included in their own competition category” – that is, either professional or emerging artist.
The festival also offers workshops, including painting classes for elementary, middle, and high school-aged students on Wednesday afternoon. But even if you want to just visit, take a stroll, and chat with artists, Paint Dexter offers the perfect opportunity.
“We attract plein air artists from all over the country,” said Breyer. “Missouri, Florida, Canada, different parts of Michigan – they come from everywhere. … We do have a lot of artists painting downtown during the week of the festival. … I think they get a thrill out of it. They really seem to have fun engaging with folks. … And we get some level of gratification from watching them work.”
Some artists may be a bit less visible, however.
“There are frequently artists who go out in the evening, and their goal is to produce a nocturne, which is an outdoor painting that has the night as it’s setting,” said Breyer. “There isn’t a special category for them or anything, but we usually see at least a couple of those at the sale.”
What, you might wonder, makes Dexter an ideal site for a plein air festival?
“We have such a lovely community here, with historical architecture, great parks, gorgeous landscapes,” said Breyer. “Just walking through Mill Creek Park is an event in itself.”
Even bad weather doesn’t pose too much of a threat to this outdoor annual event.
“It typically doesn’t last all week,” said Breyer. “There might be one or two days where there’s heavy rains, or significant wind. Sometimes you’ll even see that kind of weather featured in the paintings.”
Perhaps what locals most value seeing, though, are the many facets of their small town, as seen through the eyes of visiting and local artists.
“I think that’s definitely what a lot of folks in the community get out of it,” said Breyer. “Folks who aren’t from the community find and see things that we might miss, because we’re here everyday. You can go blind to things sometimes, just out of habit.”