From exterior Italian frescoes to Monet’s famous water lilies and beyond, the art world has always embraced the beauty of the natural landscape in one capacity or another. But it wasn’t until the early 1800s that “en plein air” painting took hold — the idea of artists taking a portable easel out into the elements to paint what they observe directly onto canvas. A significant contrast to the concept of studio painting, the plein air technique allows an artist to capture another dimension through the changing details of weather and light — a blade of grass moving in the breeze or the way the sunlight bursts through the trees. It may have roots in Impressionism, but don’t discount plein air as an “old-school art form.” With the challenges we’ve all faced navigating the pandemic, outdoor activities have become increasingly valued, and plein air painting is experiencing a boom. Even better, you don’t need to be a professional artist to enjoy it!
There’s a very scholarly conversation about the origins of plein air painting. A big deal in the 1800s, it was officially popularized during the Impressionist movement. During that time, artists began to trade in the confines of their studios for a more realistic, hands-on perspective of the outdoors. And while the turn of the century saw a demise in global art interest thanks to world wars, a resurgence in the 1980s brought it back in a big way, drawing in novices and professionals alike. These days, a nonprofit organization called The Chestnut Group takes plein air painting to the next level, offering creatives a chance to merge their artistic sensibilities with the great outdoors while also preserving the vanishing landscapes in Middle Tennessee. “We’re plein air painters for the land, and our mission is to go out and protect and preserve through painting, events, and education,” says The Chestnut Group founder Kim Barrick, who created the organization 20 years ago.
Supporting various local nonprofits through their conservation efforts and a passion for art, the group has developed quite the following, and they’re nationally acclaimed. “The Chestnut Group plein air artists have held art show events across Middle Tennessee in support of some of our most beloved green spaces: Radnor Lake, Warner Parks, Centennial Park, and many more,” says Suzannah Green, Operations Coordinator consultant for the group. “Collectively, [we] have raised more than $500,000 for their partners and the local artists.”
Founded in 2001, The Chestnut Group is Kim’s brainchild, born of the desire to paint while simultaneously bringing awareness to local open spaces that deserve to be sustained and protected. “The classic story is that I’m originally from Colorado, and one of the things I noticed when I moved here was that there aren’t the public lands here in Tennessee that there are there,” Kim says. “There are so many places you can go and see beautiful landscapes in Colorado, but here, a lot of it is private. One of the things that hit me was, “Where do I go to paint?” Stumbling upon an article about a group in California that was raising money for conservation efforts, Kim decided to put together a group of artists to visit and paint local areas threatened by development and then sell the paintings to support the cause.
Open to anyone at any skill level, The Chestnut Group has been steadily garnering attention since its inception — a byproduct of being out in the community. “If you’re an artist, and you decide to paint something that speaks to you, people will stop and look at what you’re looking at,” explains Kim. “It becomes valuable to them because an artist is saying that it’s worthy of a painting.” Nashville is all the better for it; The Chestnut Group has successfully saved many plots of land from being overwhelmed by development. For example, one of its earliest members caught wind that Dollar General founder Cal Turner’s Brentwood property along Franklin Road was subject to development, so they got permission to go out and paint the green barns that had been a part of the local landscape for years. “There was a huge ground-level swell about it,” Kim tells us of the attention their grassroots efforts brought to the scenic property. Lo and behold, the barns are still around after all these years. “I hope that appreciation will sustain it as open space because it’s beautiful driving through [that area],” says Kim. “If those are gone, it will forever change the character of Brentwood.”
A COVID-friendly activity by nature, the magic of plein air painting lies in the solo interpretation of scenic views and picturesque wildlife. The social distancing is built-in. And yet, despite how easily the art form lends itself to solitude, the plein air community offers a sense of camaraderie and non-judgmental comfort, too. “It’s very challenging, and that’s why it works so beautifully in community,” Kim tells us. “We’re all out there stomping our feet and laughing at ourselves and scraping off what didn’t work and walking over to somebody else to figure out what they’re looking at. That whole community thing feeds into the excitement about it. It’s an outlet.” Perhaps that’s why Nashville has been embracing plein air painting with open arms for the last several decades. “This creative Nashville goo that we live in — this soup — is so nutritious to that desire to be creative,” Kim says, acknowledging that Music City boasts creativity that goes far beyond its famous music scene. “I think we’re going to see an explosion of people wanting to learn more, do more, and get out there more.” If The Chestnut Group has anything to say about it, we have no doubt that’s true!
RELATED: Your 2021 Summer Reading List
So how can you become a member of The Chestnut Group? Kim says it’s as simple as just joining. “We’re an open group,” she says. “Anybody can join, and we’re artist-run. We only have the energy of our creatives.” They also offer a mentorship program, Paint Your Heart Out workshops, and an upcoming Painting to Preserve Art Show and Sale on June 25-27 at Montgomery Bell Academy that offers an opportunity to snag a stunning plein air masterpiece for your own home. The Chestnut Group is also in talks with Cheekwood about a collaboration, and with plein air events around the country, those with the travel bug are sure to be satisfied with their new pastime, too. “Members get all kinds of [benefits] — you have camaraderie, and you get to learn how to paint and go to private properties where nobody else gets to go,” says Kim. “Everybody is so open and welcoming, and the most beautiful thing about us is we are collaborators from the inside out. We are there to partner with you; it’s a safe place to explore what you want to do artistically, and people will cheer you on.” Talk about approachable art! Consider us sold.
To stay in the know on all things Southern, follow StyleBlueprint on Instagram!