A Fresh Breath

Plein Aire painting opens the door
to a whole new world of expression

PHOTOS BY STEVE SMITH, VISIONFIRE STUDIOS

Photo by Crystal Murray

Kate Georgallas is waiting for me on the front steps of the verandah that wraps around her turn-of-the-century farmhouse outside of Antigonish. Behind her is an old upright piano. The front face has been removed exposing the hammer rail and strings. A collection of Christmas cactus are perched on the top of the cabinet soaking up the early August heat. She’s all smiles and welcoming as a little breeze lifts her strawberry blonde hair off her shoulders. The entire scene looks like a painting. It’s a perfect day to talk about painting in the great outdoors, which is funny because it was outside on a ladder when her life in the little university town began.
Kate has been an artist for most of her life. She grew up in Moncton and obtained both a Fine Arts and Education degree from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and earlier a degree in Theatre from the University of Ottawa. By happenstance she ended up in Antigonish when she was asked to paint a dragon mural on the side of a main street restaurant. During the project she caught the attention of a young man who was concerned for her many trips up and down the ladder with her paints. His name was Alex and they have been married for more than 25 years.
Love and opportunity kept Kate in the Antigonish community. While pursuing her own work she joined the art faculty at StFX University. She jokes that over the years she has taught almost every art course that was ever offered. Kate says that teaching has kept her grounded and she appreciates the special opportunity of working with the many different artists that work at the university. “We are not all full-time profs but we are all full-time artists so it gives us the chance to share our ideas,” she says.
Kate’s work has become very recognizable both for her style and subject matter. She works in a variety of mediums and it’s evident that her love for stained glass work shows up in her painting with defined shapes and forms. Her landscape paintings, she says in an artist statement from a recent exhibit, “are single viewpoint mostly evoking a solitary presence that are for the most part uninhabited and natural.”
With such a strong connection to nature there is no surprise to Kate’s fascination with the Plein Air movement, where artists take their art outside, abandoning the confines of their often solitary studios, to capture the light as it really exists and rub elbows with other like-minded artists.
En plein air is a French term that translates literally as “in the open air.” It was first explored by the French impressionist painters and was at that time considered revolutionary. While it was initially self-fulfilling, the approach to painting opened the doors to a whole new world. In the early 1800s, prior to the invention of cameras, artists in the United States ventured into the interior of the country and gave people their first glimpse at the wilds of North America. The original Plein Air painters have been referred to as some of the first environmentalists and naturalists.
In recent years Plein Air painting has become one of the greatest artists’ movements in history. In many cases Plein Air is a lifestyle moving beyond the sole artist bringing their paint and canvas outside to conventions and juried events all over the world.

“It’s become addictive for a lot of artists,” says Kate of her own experiences. “It is a highly focused discipline. It’s those moments when you capture the light, capture the scene. Light is so ephemeral. It changes one moment to the next. It’s very different from the studio. I can often lose my sense of time. It’s in those moments when I am at my most creative. It would be interesting to see a scan of an artists brain when they are painting this way. There are so many things going on I would imagine the scan lighting up!” says Kate.
While Kate explains the practice of painting in the studio as more poetic with opportunity for more editing she says that painting outside becomes an experience beyond what is happening on the canvas and for her it is everything she is sensing at the time culminating with a story. She says that she doesn’t have favourite Plein Air paintings but she does have favourite stories that have become part of each piece she has created. I am not just making a painting I am creating mini encounters.”
Kate picks up her painter’s box that she uses specifically for Plein Air. She fiddles with the tripod underneath that will hold her easel. “Lot of artists have fancy gear,” she laughs. “I keep it pretty simple.”
We head up a path in the meadow behind her home that she keeps mowed for such sojourns. She sets up her easel and looks downhill at her farm house. There isn’t time for her to put in a new painting so she brings a canvas that she completed a few weeks previously when the lupins were still in bloom. The breeze blows her hair and she tucks it behind her ear. “I would normally tie my hair back and wear a hat,” she says, and we laugh at the mocked up scene of pretending to paint en plein air.