Watersheds En Plein AIr

Tali MacArthur, Watersheds Program Manager

Pennsylvania’s scenic rivers are perfect places for paddling, fishing, exploring, hiking, biking, painting, birdwatching and… wait, what? Painting? Well, yes — that too! In fact, landscape painting has more in common with watershed conservation than you might think.

En plein air is a French expression meaning “in the open air,” and it refers to the act of painting outdoors with the artist’s subject in full view. A lazy meandering stream or a swiftly moving river often serve as either the backdrop or the motif in some of the most captivating works of art painted out of doors. But the condition of the river or stream and the adjacent lands matters: a degraded site, a polluted or littered waterway, or a badly eroded stream bank is as unappealing to artists as it is to anyone else. In this way, the passion and work of local Community Watershed Organizations serves to benefit even more Pennsylvanians and visitors than we may typically imagine.

Water is, for me, a very powerful metaphor…

David Latham McSween is one such Pennsylvanian. A visual artist based in Lewisburg, PA, he can often be found outside, painting the local and regional streams, rivers, and lakes.

“Water is, for me, a very powerful metaphor for a lot of things,” David told me in a recent conversation. “But also, just visually, it’s exciting. A lot of landscape painting is about capturing the sky. So when you have a chance to include water in the composition, you have your sky doubled, essentially, because the water reflects the sky and brings a lot of color and vibrancy to the composition”

Landscape painter David McSween at work near his home in Lewisburg

But not just any waterway will do. Before he picks up a brush to begin, David looks for a pleasing aesthetic quality to the land, one he thinks he can capture and convey in his work. Signs of obvious degradation, pollution, or even a lack of visual diversity can make for an underwhelming tableau.

“I have to find places that inspire me,” David says. “If somewhere is not safe – maybe there’s chemicals or trash, or maybe it’s overdeveloped in a way that I can’t access it – I’m not going to go there.”

Eagles Mere Lake in Sullivan County, PA, is a favorite subject for McSween

A pristine, lush, vibrant streamside habitat, on the other hand — a landscape traversed by clear, clean, flowing waters — can provide the perfect vibe. The blues are bluer, the greens are greener, and living things are more alive. The resulting work is freer and calmer — a bit, perhaps, like we all feel in such an environment.

“I love that,” David says. “I love to be able to spend some time sitting [outdoors]. I love the sound of the rushing water, and I love the colors that it makes, and the way it impacts the environment around it – the vegetation, the light, the animals — all of it.”

Just as watershed organization volunteers love to share their knowledge, awareness, and passion for water resource protection and conservation, David is passionate about sharing his work with the local community — and even closer to home, his family. David recently took his son on a hike on a local trail along Buffalo Creek, bringing with them some watercolors and paper. As they reached the ridge overlooking an expanse of farmlands and the creek flowing below, they stopped to paint. They noticed the still muted colors of early spring, but also the new pops of green. They talked about the different blues and greys of the water and the sky.

“It was great to just sit and observe and be in that environment with him,” he says.

These were precious moments shared in an otherwise hectic and uncertain time. And just as David recalls hiking the mountains of his native North Carolina and listening to the sounds of the rivers and creeks, so too will his son remember these encounters with the landscape of his own childhood. These early experiences can help shape an environmental ethic and instill a sense of stewardship.

Painting is its own act of preservation…

Indeed, as David sees it, his motivation as an artist isn’t so different from that of the many organizations, agencies, and volunteers devoted to protecting and restoring Pennsylvania’s watersheds. In a very real sense, art and painting can also “preserve” a treasured landscape.

Near Spring, Chadds Ford (2016)

“Painting is its own act of preservation,” he says. “I’m a painter who loves to paint in the moment, to capture what I’m feeling and experiencing in that moment. So I’m not only trying to preserve that, but also to preserve what’s in front of me. In a painting you have a time capsule of the subject matter: how does it look? Does it still exist in that same way?”

A stream or river captured in the moments it is painted can be shared with others to enhance their appreciation and awareness. It can serve as an inspiration to protect something so lovely, but also, perhaps, to join in a community or, given the current circumstances, an individual or family plein air painting experiences. Or, it can be a reminder of the price we pay for failing in our responsibility as stewards — a theme that has preoccupied artists since the onset of modernity.

“We see in the Ashcan School – artists like George Bellows and others – the impact of over-expansion, overuse of the resources available,” David says. “Not only how that impacts the people in those environments, but the environments themselves.”

The “Ashcan School” emerged in Philadelphia in the 1890s, later migrating to New York under the leadership of Robert Henri. Typified by the paintings of Henri, George Bellows, John Sloan, and others, Ashcan works often portrayed the impacts of industrialization and urbanization on people and landscapes, sometimes juxtaposing pastoral settings with signs of encroaching development as in Bellows’s Up the Hudson (1908).

Unfortunately, whatever the condition of your local environment, getting out on the water isn’t as simple as it used to be. While some of us may be comfortable paddling solo or in socially-distanced small group configurations, these days there are fewer opportunities for group paddling adventures like those normally offered by watershed organizations, PA Water Trail Managers, and other organizations.

But during these uncertain and unprecedented times, alternative recreational activities like painting can offer a new and different way to safely get outside, observe, explore, and engage with a local stream or river. Take this opportunity to look around and appreciate the beautiful places, notice the efforts of local watershed organizations to restore stream habitat, and reflect on ways you can get involved in improving it. And then — when it is safe to do, and paddling sojourns and other community events such as tree plantings can resume — join your local organization and participate in even more ways to engage, protect, and have fun in and on your streams and rivers.

Interested in learning more about what local watershed organizations do and finding one near you? Visit pawatersheds.org to find a map of the known community watershed organizations in PA. You can also learn more about the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers (POWR), whose mission is to provide the tools, training, education and resources that empower community watershed organization leaders and volunteers to protect and restore rivers and streams, advocate for sound water resource management and policies, and facilitate stewardship and enjoyment of Pennsylvania’s waterways.