Monday, May 28, 2012

Monday, August 24, 2009

An Unexpected Artists' Oasis in New Jersey

When most people hear the name New Jersey they immediately associate the state with dense population, malls, turnpikes, toll ways, and industrial centers. Yet for those of us who live and paint en plein aire in New Jersey we know there is more to our state. Ask any NJ plein aire artist and they can tell you just how diverse our state is. New Jersey has some very unique surprises. One of those unique surprises happens to be some 40 miles northwest from NYC and is known by some as the gateway to the NJ Highlands.

Ringwood, an unexpected oasis of aesthetic beauty, sits among the scenic Ramapo Mountains. Boasting with a multitude of state parks and preserved parcels, it is an ideal place for appreciators and enthusiasts of nature. It is also a haven for artists. The panoramic vistas, sublime forested ridgelines, charming lakes and ample public open spaces lure artists near and far. Ringwood has a sleepy informal artist colony and those familiar with the town know of its rich diversity of public land and celebrate the wealth by portraying the beautiful bounty through art.

I learned about Ringwood as an ideal place for artists approximately 12 years ago. It was where I first learned to paint en plein air and it is the place where I have made my home and studio. What drew me initially to Ringwood was the abundance of public open spaces. Where I had previously lived was lacking in open spaces and trying to find parcels that were available to access was next to impossible. Nearly everything was either private property or was about to be transformed into a development. Where could one go and paint without encountering issues such as dealing with being tossed off a property or going to a favorite spot that was no longer accessible? What was a plein aire artist to do? Facing my dilemma and seeking a solution, I recalled the vast network of public open space that my mentor introduced me to and that is how I came to frequent state parks such as the Ringwood Manor and the New Jersey Botanical Gardens. For several years I trekked back and forth from my home to Ringwood sometimes driving forty-five minutes to an hour one way. To paint en plein aire unhindered became an obsession. Finally an opportunity presented itself to make my home near the very places I painted.

It was no surprise that the State Parks made for ideal painting locations for artists. I had seen various plein aire painters, photographers, and writers taking advantage of the visual cornucopia of colors, textures and inspiration. The parks have acres and acres of gently rolling terrain, scenic ridgelines, beautiful historic buildings, manicured gardens, woods, streams and ponds. Wonderfully all of this subject matter is within walking distance from conveniently located parking lots and amenities. So it is easy to understand why places like these draw artists by the numbers. Yet there are those not so easy to access secluded spots tucked away in woodland trails high upon mountaintops.

Thus it is such places that I love to frequent specifically one mountaintop in particular. It is situated on public land. Albeit it is not the easiest place to reach and does take time to ascend the mountain to a particular mountain ridge. The view is well worth the struggle up the mountain. I have made the hike several times and each time I walk, scramble, crawl and drag my gear up and down the mountain I see and learn new things. Some new things learned are artistic while other things are merely practical. Such is the case when I made my journey one summer late afternoon a few years ago. Laden with a Julian full-box, canvas, paints and artist accoutrements, I started my trek light footed and strong only to end up at my destination winded and a bit fatigued. With a short window of opportunity to work, the paint flew, the brushes drummed against the canvas and the light display of flame like ribbons streaked across the sky soon quietly diminished and gave way to dusk. Sundown was upon me and that is when the realization struck me that I had to make my way back down the mountain in darkness. I did not have a flashlight. Needless to say the return trip down a steep rocky slope was challenging and a bit unnerving. My descent was slow and thankfully without incident. The lesson learned on this trek was invaluable. The painting experience as a whole was absolutely magical and unforgettable.

Public land unquestionably has been a mainstay for many artists, myself included. Yet that goes without saying. A couple of years ago a certain number NJ state parks were under consideration for reduced hours, reduction of staff or closure. The Ringwood NJ State Park System was just one of the several parks that fell under this umbrella. It was rather daunting to think that public lands once accessible would soon have limited access or would be completely inaccessible. Recalling my earlier years of plein air painting and the issues I encountered trying to find places to paint, it was a no-brainer to join the ranks of concerned residents rallying to save the parks. Along with a few hundred citizens we rallied at Trenton beseeching the then administration to keep our parks open, fully staffed and operable. Thankfully, the parks remained open and functional. However had the parks been subject to reduced hours or closure many NJ residents would have been forced to give up the places they loved to frequent. The artists on the other hand would have been forced to give up open spaces that were conducive to their studies and livelihood. For me, it was a wake up call that not all public land is permanently preserved or permanently accessible. Having an understanding of just how invaluable public lands are to artists and being aware of how quickly aesthetic pristine land can be transformed into housing developments prompted me to partner with local land conservancy groups to raise public awareness. Through art, the public was able to gain an appreciation for the land and identify with a landscape painting. The passionate message of the importance of open public spaces is so readily understood when people gaze into a painting and can identify with a certain location or a particular memory of certain place. A painting can open a visual dialogue. I think about the fragile beauty of the ever shrinking undeveloped land and its precarious balance between preservation and an ever increasingly strapped economy. On the one hand it leaves one with a sense of optimism because of the public support for open space yet on the other hand it leaves one wondering just how long can something be sustained if funding is in short supply. It is truly impossible as an artist to not become involved and try to make a difference. It is my hope that somehow my landscape paintings convey the important message of land preservation and if not document the last remaining frontier in New Jersey.

I think upon the mountain and the vista I love to paint. Affectionately I call the mountain “my mountain” and the awe-inspiring vista from the ridge “my view.” Amazingly the mountain is public land and I often wonder how long it will be there, accessible for future generations of artists to enjoy. When I am on top of the mountain standing on the ridge and painting the exquisite view of the Wanaque Reservoir below, it is hard to fathom that I am in NJ. Cars driving by on a road way below remind me, after all, that I am not all too far from civilization. But for a moment I can imagine I am far away in a wilderness frontier. In reality I am in an artists’ unexpected oasis and I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to paint such a wonderful place.