Art in the Air on the Eastern Shore

Every July, Easton becomes a mecca for artists and art lovers

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Photo by Mark Sandlin

It’s a steamy July morning in Easton, Maryland, and nearly 200 artists at their easels are scattered throughout the town’s central four blocks. My eyes scan their half-finished canvases, looking for that perfect marriage of color and form, in subjects ranging from the historic stone church across the street to a colorful stretch of Federal-style storefronts. I scurry from one painter to the next, trying to imagine how each piece will look once it’s finished.

I won’t have to wait long to find out. All of the artists are painting en plein air (in the open air), as many of the Impressionists did. And they have only two hours to finish.

This timed event—known as the “Quick Draw” competition—marks the interactive climax of Plein Air Easton (PAE), a weeklong juried arts festival that’s been held in the Eastern Shore town every summer since 2004. Not only are the artists racing against the clock, they’re also hustling to map out patterns of light and shadow before the sun’s angle shifts.

Adding to the excitement is the fact that onlookers like me can buy paintings in progress—a high-stakes gamble, given that no one has any idea how a final piece will ultimately turn out. Some of the more acclaimed painters, I’m told, have been known to close a sale even before brush touches canvas. But this event, unlike some of the others, is open to any artist (professional or amateur) who is willing to fork over the $10 entry fee.

Personally, I’m hoping to come away with a small masterpiece to enliven my own home. I’ve got my eye on a sunny oil rendering of the orange umbrellas at a nearby sidewalk café. But alas, with 30 minutes to the finish line, that painting is snapped up by another buyer. Later on, its creator, John Caggiano, recounts the adrenaline rush he felt as he was painting it: “At the beginning, you’re just frantic. You try to relax, but you don’t know how it’s going to go until a quarter in.”

In retrospect, “I could have sold this painting six to eight times,” he adds, noting that the scene generated considerable interest. It sold for $750.

Oh well. There’s always next year.

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