Guided by the Light

The Inaugural Great Lakes Bay En Plein Air Festival

Posted In:   From Issue 814   By: Robert E Martin

13th August, 2015     0

The inaugural Great Lakes Bay En Plein Air Festival, which was sponsored through the auspices of The Saginaw Art Museum and pulled together 52 artists from across the state of Michigan with the goal of painting original works of art outdoors, on location, at sites throughout the region between June 15-21st, has resulted in a profound and singular success that resonates on numerous levels.

Plein Air painting, or painting in the outdoors on location, has been a popular method of creating art since the mid-19th century, gaining popularity in the Barbizon region of France and enduring as an esteemed technique into the 21st century.  The results of this work are currently on display at The Saginaw Art Museum through October 17th.

While artists were painting, the museum hosted interactive and educational community events including Kids’ Day, Teen Day, Arty Soil Garden Luncheon, Macy’s Museum After Hours with Friends of Theodore Roethke, Vincent Van Gogh Sunflower Still Life Workshop, a Sip ‘N Swirl class led by Bay City’s Studio 23 and a free screening of the movie Lust for Life, sponsored by the Riverside Saginaw Film Festival. Other collaborative festival events were conducted by Dow Gardens in Midland and the Castle Museum in Saginaw.

“Our objective is for this event to be Michigan’s - and ultimately the Midwest’s - largest and most respected Plein Air Festival,” said Mike Kolleth, chairman of the Saginaw Art Museum’s Collection Committee and member of the museum Board of Directors. “The robust turnout, the superb quality of the artwork and overall satisfaction with the inaugural event shows that we are clearly on the right path. The event has all the makings of a culture-changing event for Saginaw and the Great Lakes Bay region as a whole.”

The festival had four categories of artist involvement: Invitational, Juried, Open and Student. Twenty-four artists were accepted into the juried class. The work submitted for cash prizes and exhibition was juried by Heiner Hertling of Howell MI. Twenty-eight artists participated in the Open and Student Classes. The work submitted for cash prizes and exhibition was juried by Larry Butcher of Midland, MI.

But without doubt, the true beauty of this festival resides within the manner in which it so effectively integrates artistic endeavor within the fabric of the community – not only through the creation of such stunning viewpoints reflecting the beauty of the natural landscape that laces the Great Lakes Bay Region together, but more importantly, by creating permanent perspectives capturing the uniqueness of the region for posterity.

Recently The Review spoke with each of the winners at this inaugural festival  (shown on the cover of this edition) about their backgrounds, what they feel distinguishes their work, and how they derived the inspiration to create such powerful and winning entries.


Best in Show • Alan Maciag • Home at Peace

Best in Show winner at the inaugural En Plein Air gathering is Alan Maciag, who grew up in Saginaw and worked as an art teacher in the Frankenmuth School system for 30 years, even though it wasn’t until 1992 when he started painting at the age of 42.   “I taught high school for 20 years and had the opportunity to move to an elementary school,” he explains, “which freed my time up because I didn’t need to deal with older students seeking scholarships and preparing for college.  This gave me extra time to attend night school to paint.  So I’m kind of like Grandma Moses only 20 years younger.”

Maciag says that he started painting from photos and always possessed the skills to draw, so when on vacation he would draw the family campsite and other random illustrations. “When it came to the point that I started to seriously paint, I thought it would be nice to begin with this yellow house in Frankenmuth that I enjoyed.  After that I started doing home portraits for people, which eventually got me into en plein air painting.”

I started doing old Detroit homes and had a friend who was an editor for Parade Magazine, who did a feature on my work. All of a sudden I started getting all these jobs from Detroit people asking me to paint their summer homes in Charlevoix, which really got me going, only this tract hit a point where people commissioning my work wanted too many changes. The colors I saw weren’t the ones they saw, so at that juncture I decided to pursue painting for pleasure and switched to oils because with acrylics the paint was drying too fast. Plus the colors are richer with oils.”

In terms of personal influences, Alan cites Edward Hopper as his #1 go-to artist, along with Kevin McPherson and Edward Cooper, whom carry a more impressionistic view of the world. “It’s called Contemporary Realism,” explains Maciag, “and when I paint I’m always drawn to the man made and nature. When I go looking for things to paint it needs to have a man made element and a natural element at play. My winning entry for this festival contains those two elements.”

When asked what he feels is the most distinguishing quality of his work, Alan sites the power of reminiscence. “My work usually reminds people of a place that is a mixture of Nowhere, USA and Everywhere, USA. But really it’s my use of lighting, which is why I paint. I’m always drawn to the breaking light and most of work is done in either the early morning or late afternoon. I’m not into the sunset because it’s too fleeting. Mainly I’m guided by the light.”

The biggest challenge for Alan is creating his viewpoint into a ‘story’. “For me its not just about painting a particular view but telling the complete story of what I see so that the viewer is able to read that story and also have their own story by viewing it. That’s the goal. I’m not painting a barn or trees, but concentrating on the lighting – the telling of the story – by using a limited palate of six colors as much as I can, so there is a commonality and uniformity of my work – whether the subject is an alley on Hancock Street or a cemetery landscape.”

“When doing plein air painting moments are fleeting and things are constantly changing,” he continues. “As an artist you have to remember some of these cloud formations and lighting shades. You might have 20-minutes to work from and then things change or go dark, so you have to recall what you want to say by placing those elements you experienced form an earlier time. It evolves, as does style.”

Maciag says the highest compliment to be paid is when somebody tells him they can distinguish 15 different pieces of his work by their style, even though it constantly evoles. “The last few weeks my style is moving in a different direction and I don’t think about it because it is happening as I am working.  I’m going for richer colors now. The most difficult thing to pain are greens that look natural in your painting, because grasses have a million different colors – there are rust elements and purples in the greens. I’m considered a rural painter, strictly; because I don’t do boats and things like that. And many times I do little sketches of clouds to erase my mind. There have to be times to erase and turn paintings upside down and look at them differently. My paintings are done very briskly, so they appear fresh and not overworked.”

Alan says his reaction to securing the Best in Show honors at the inaugural En Plein Air competition was one of surprise.  As for deciding upon the location and subject of his winning entry, Maciag says it stems from his need for solitude when working.  “I prefer to be either alone or just with a few people when painting,” he explains. “I actually enjoy painting at cemeteries because they’re more peaceful than they are scary. A friend of mine asked me to join her painting at the old Catholic Cemetery, which was completely locked, so she called the church office. We went over to the Brady Cemetery, which had a definite vibe to it; and suddenly I noticed the lighting fall upon this house that was full of life. The structure had the look of a tombstone and here I was in the graveyard with this well lit peaceful home that possessed a simple and rectangular form, not unlike the tombstones in front of me.  So I called it Home at Peace, because there was a peaceful situation radiating from within the home and upon the home, juxtaposed with these tombstones that were 100 years old.”


1st Place • Jill Stefani Wagner, PSA • Celebration Pond

Jill Stefani Wagner attended University of Michigan Art School with the goal of becoming an artist that stems back to age 5, but fearing she would starve as an artist switched over to graphic design during her last semester.  “I got a job in advertising and owned my own agency for 25 years and finally became a professional, full-time artist three years ago.”

“Primarily I painted in watercolor and pastel, but last year fell in love with painting en Plein air in oil. No matter what medium I work in the constant theme in my work is light and shadow. I strive to recreate the effect of sunlight on the landscape because it’s what makes my heart sing.”

When asked what she enjoys most about open-air creative projects and what gave her the inspiration for creating Celebration Pond, she references her love of being outdoors. “I like being with my fellow artists and I tend to be a bit competitive. Plein air festivals are a perfect fit for me. The week before the Great Lakes event I was in the Finger Lakes at a large, established, juried event painting day and night. I learned so much watching experienced painters cure the landscape. It was a true education.  At the Saginaw Children’s Zoo I was attracted to the pond because of the bright light and shadowed reflections. The colorful red barns in the background were an added plus that created a complimentary red/green color scheme.”

“Working en Plein air demands a quick and sure eye to find a worthwhile composition, the ability to block in a scene quickly, and the color sense to use hues that mimic what you see before you. The amount of detail before us can be overwhelming. We have to zero in on one concept and paint it in 2 hours before the sun shifts its position in the sky. I also work in my studio on larger oil & pastel paintings. It can be lonely work and demands a consistent, rigorous schedule, even when you have no looming deadlines.”

Because she is partly of Italian descent, Stefani is currently on her 10th trip to Italy. “It’s my favorite place to pain en plein air and is constantly inspiring to me. I’m hoping to mount a large solo show with 50 watercolors, pastels and oil paintings of Tuscany and Umbria in the near future. I will be working on large works in my studio this year, between other exhibitions, commissions and plein air trips.”

A Signature Member of the Pastel Society of America you can view more of Jill’s work at where she writes an art blog and where her new work can be viewed every few days.


2nd Place • Sandra Difazio • View from Ojibway Island

Sandra Difazio spent her childhood on a small farm in Arkansas and feels that while she did not realize it at the time, her love of nature, color and line derived from witnessing the beautiful colors of the gardens, converging rows, and flowering trees from the days of her youth spent on the farm.

“The desire to draw has always been there and it came naturally for me,” she explains. “In the second grade I won my first drawing contest. I won a nickel and that’s when I knew I really had something,” she laughs. “But it wasn’t until we moved to Michigan when I was 10-years old that I was exposed to real art. I had Saturday art classes at the DIA and became awestruck by the oil paintings of the old masters and great landscape painters. I actually started plein air painting with watercolors because of its ease in transporting the artwork. After I purchased a French-easel and started plein air with oils I found I could capture the scene more quickly. It’s the opacity. The ability to place a lighter color over a darker one.”

“I often use a toned underpainting complimentary to the local color in my oil paintings. This can be used to create atmosphere or mood, to unify a composition, or give structural form to an object by giving depth to shadows. In summer I mostly use a Terra Rosa underpainting because the reddish color creates a tension between all the greens and if I allow bits of it to show through it adds a certain glow.”

“What I enjoy most about en plein air is the sensory stimulation. You feel the sun on your skin or the wind or the fragrances and this translates into your work. Of course not all things are pleasant, such as biting insects, sunburn, barnyard smells and driving rain, to name a few; but if you can get past these things you are really working. You are seeing the real colors. There is an honesty in planting your feet on the earth and interpreting nature as you see it through your art.”

Sandra got the idea for creating View from Ojibway Island when she drove to Saginaw with an artist friend to scope out painting sites. “I’d never been here before so everything was new,” she relates. “Ojibway Island was on a list of recommended sites and as we drove past the water treatment plant reflected in the water and the sun shining on those trees it just grabbed me. I knew I wanted to paint there. You have to love your subject. If you don’t love the way it looks you wont like the painting either.”

Sandra recently returned from a weekend Paint Out in Glen Arbor. “This was their 7th one and it has become one of the most popular ones in Michigan. Last year I was fortunate enough to secure the first place award and it was an honor to have my painting ‘Dune View’ used in all the advertising posters for this year’s event. I have also entered the Oil Painters of America juried Regional Exhibit in Indiana in November, so the results aren’t in yet, but this is not a plein air event.”


3rd Place • Sharon Will • Contrasts

Sharon’s first introduction to the arts was also through commercial advertising. “I received training in graphics and illustration and then apprenticed in one of the large illustration houses in Detroit,” she explains. “Then I moved to ad agencies doing product illustration and automotive related work, as well as freelance magazine illustration and logo design and a bit of sign painting. Being in the arts makes you versatile!  It was during these years that I started studying oils, painting the figure from life.  Computers were changing the illustration world and I knew if I wanted to be competitive I had to get computer training or turn to the fine arts. I couldn’t see myself sitting at a computer all day, so I opted for the fine arts”

“I started painting in oil, studying with the late Russell Keeter, and then pastel with the late Marie Larson through the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center.  Pastel hooked me and I worked exclusively with it for the next 25 years.   I’ve always had the intention of returning to oils, so in reaching for artistic growth, I put my pastels away and worked in just oils for several years.  Oils helped loosen me up and brought a more painterly approach to both my oils and pastels.  Today I work alternately in both mediums, with the landscape as my main source of inspiration.”

“I’m a firm believer in learning and working from life, so I do that whenever possible.  In my work I want to be true to nature.  And what I mean by that is, I want to be true to the principles of light, form, value and color.  Not to copy nature, but find that something that excites me about a scene and then capture it in a way that is first designed well, painted simply and then put a bit of myself into it.  That “something” or the idea to paint for me could be an interesting light or shadow pattern, contrasting color relationships, or an overall mood of a scene.    Hopefully, it’s then painted it in a way that others will resonate with the subject as I initially did, elevating the simple beauty around us in everyday situations. I also want the character and texture of the medium, whether oil or pastel, to shine through.”

“I enjoy just being outdoors,” she continues.  “There is an immediacy or energy, and a “truth” to work that is done from life, that just doesn’t exist in working strictly from photos.  And being a representational painter, there’s just no substitution for it!  Everything we need is all there in nature, we just have to spend the time observing and learning from it, in all light conditions and all seasons.  When I started working plein air, I think my landscapes took on more subtleties of value and color that exist in nature.

 “Contrasts” 11x14 oil was done at the beach in Bay City.  My original thought was to paint a beach scene, but due to heavy rains, the beach was not accessible there, so I stopped at the marsh area.  One of my favorite lighting situations is the vibrant green color that is created by back lighting of grass.  This was happening in that morning light in the marsh.  I also liked the idea of nature in the foreground, with the contrasting glimpse of industry represented in the background.  When I saw that, I knew I found my subject!”

“The more I learn and grow as a painter, the more I realize how far I have to go, or want to go!   Painting is about solving problems to ideas.  It’s endless - we never arrive.  I’m a better painter today than I was a decade ago, but not where I want to be a decade from now.  I think that’s the challenge:  to always be learning and growing, finding what I want to say about the world around me and painting it in a way that brings beauty to the subject in the simplest way.”

“Much of my plein air work has been smaller, especially with oil, 8x10 to 11x14, so I’m looking to work larger.  That may mean bringing a larger canvas on location for several days or doing the smaller color study plein air and working from that in the studio.  I’ve also dabbled in watercolor and sculpture in the past and would   like to visit those mediums again.”

“I continue to look for more marketing opportunities on a national level through exhibiting through competitions, as well as further gallery representation.   On my bucket list, is to travel the country with a camper, painting the country along the way.”

A selection of Sharon’s pastels and oils can be viewed on her website:   Along with painting she also teaches private lessons and conducts periodic workshops, as well as running a side business of custom framing from her home/studio. 



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