REGIONAL INSPIRATION • Winners of the 2nd Annual En Plein Air Art Festival

Work on Display at Saginaw Art Museum and Andersen Enrichment Center

    icon Aug 11, 2016
    icon 0 Comments

Many times it takes the prism of the artists’ eye to show us how wondrous and distinctly beautiful the surroundings and natural environment is throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region that we often take for granted.  And thanks to the 2nd Annual Great Lakes Bay En Plein Air Festival, which was held June 13-18th, sixty-six artists from around the nation gathered to paint singular works of on-location outdoor perspectives throughout the region that are now on display to the public through September 3rd.

“After welcoming fourteen additional artists into the Festival, it is clear that in just one short year the Great Lakes Bay En Plein Air Festival has grown significantly,” reflects Stacey Gannon, Executive Director of the Saginaw Art Museum.

“Through collaboration with many arts & cultural, and even athletic organizations, we have once again brought attention to the unique features that each county offers to our region.  This year’s festival was bigger and better than last year, and will grow again next year.  It has proven itself to be a sustainable project that welcomes new visitors to the Great Lakes Bay Region and contributes to our local economy.  We couldn’t be more pleased and look forward to continuing to expand the week-long celebration.  I encourage everyone to come to the museum to see the outstanding work of artists from around the country.”

The festival had three categories of artist involvement: Invitational, Juried, and Open. Thirty-eight artists were accepted into the juried class and twenty-eight artists participated in the Open Class. The work submitted for cash prizes and exhibition was juried by Richard Jordan of Kalamazoo, MI.

Winners for the Juried Class consisted of the following: Best in Show: Kawkawlin Granary (Watercolor), Robert Fionda of Armada, MI; 1st Place: Neon Signs (Pastel), Sharon Will of Washington, MI; and 2nd Place: Mirror Image (Watercolor), David Belling of Cape Coral, FL.    

The Open Class Exhibition is on view in the Artisan Wing and Morley Multipurpose Room at the Saginaw Art Museum through August 27, 2016. Open Class work can also be viewed at the Andersen Enrichment Center through August 14th. The Juried Class Exhibition will be on view September 3, 2016 in the Sargent Special Exhibition Wing at the Saginaw Art Museum.

Here is a deeper look at two of the top winning entries from the artists that created these impressive works.


Robert Fionda • Kawakawlin Granary • Best in Show. 

Working either from the studio or in a Plein Air environment, ‘Best in Show’ winner Robert Fionda is an accomplished watercolorist who considers himself a “romantic realist” painter of landscapes, nature, and still life.  “Over the years, I have evolved from a recorder of details and images to someone who wants to paint the visual suggestion and not the fact.” 

He is intrigued with painting the textured and rusted patinas of utilitarian objects we use every day that express life.  “I have always had a visual empathy toward those mundane accouterments of life that have outlived their usefulness.  Be it a simple, discarded tea kettle or an abandoned boat hull, each is embodied with residual and tactile characteristics that tell a story. The challenge is to paint that story in manner that allows the viewer a moment to experience what I have seen and felt.”

Fionda is a retired art educator who worked for the Romeo School district for 31 years and lives and maintains a studio in Armada, north of Detroit.  He is an accomplished workshop presenter and jurist. The Michigan Art Education Association recognized Fionda as the 1992 “Michigan Art Educator of the Year” for his exemplary skills in art education.  Fionda has also conducted numerous workshops and presentations within Michigan, Canada, including the Island of Barbados in the West Indies.

Fionda has exhibited in numerous competitive, state wide and international exhibitions, and his work “Sinclair’s Blue Jay” was selected for the 50th Annual Michigan Watercolor Society Exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Fionda is also a 2013 award winner for the National Watercolor Society International Open Exhibition.

“Over the years I’ve always been interested in being the best artist and best art educator that I could be,” he reflects when asked about his origins as a watercolorist. “I’m also concerned about communication, whether its discussing techniques to students or methods to whomever is looking at my artwork.”

Fionda emphasizes the importance of “painting the suggestion rather than the fact” as the most distinguishing quality of his artwork. “By that I mean that I think all artists grow as they work and go through this period where feel they must paint in a manner whereby the subject is rendered exactly like the still life or vase they may be looking at; and there is a plateau that an artist reaches where they have they have to prove to themselves they can do an exact realistic replica.” 

“But eventually I got to a point where I wanted to express myself in a more fluid manner, so ‘paint the suggestion’ has become a kind of mantra for me.  I’ve worked with students who worry about getting every hair on that kitty cat’s head exactly right and I will always say to them:  ‘That’s not important. It’s about catching the gesture and the emotional content.”

FIonda says his interest in watercolor began at Wayne State University, where he obtained his art education and fine arts degree. “Initially I was into print making and doing lithographs, which use a special paper that happened to be a heavy paper like that used for painting watercolors,” he relates.

“When I graduated from Wayne State with my degree I asked what to do with my life, so also got my certification in art education and followed that direction. The paper used in print making can be run through a press and not destroyed, and I liked the feel of the paper, so that drew me into watercolor when I was not teaching. Presses and paper brought me to watercolor.”

The range of Fionda’s work is expansive and eclectic. “If you go to my website you’ll see I did a piece called Last Gathering, which consists of florals suspended in space,” he relates. “This is from a series called ‘Noir’ or ‘The Black Series’ that centers around how flowers are like peoples’ lives – we go through this period where we grow, blossom, and eventually die; and I don’t mean to be crude about it, but these particular paintings fit into a studio series that I’m working on.”

Last year he also finished a major commission from Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit that asked him to do an updated version of their seminary, and which turned into a large 28 x 40 watercolor; and on Monday evenings he gathers with friends & colleagues to do portraiture work, although he primarily thinks of himself as a landscape painter.

Although he’s been in numerous Plein Air competitions over the years, Fionda sings high praises for Saginaw’s festival. “I entered it last year and thoroughly enjoyed myself because of the professionalism of the museum and the way they treated the artists,” he states. “Now Plein Air has become very popular because cities and towns are using it as an attraction to draw people to the area.”

“I’m a traditional studio painter that managed to stumble into Plein Air.  In my studio I work from photos or sketches and things I’ve accumulated, but several years ago I was asked to paint in some of these one-day garden shows they were doing in Rochester. Basically, they ask artists to act like entertainers while people walk through the gardens, and after 10 years of doing this without realizing it at the time, one day I finally realized that I was actually doing Plein Air,” he laughs.

“I developed a whole new series of clientele that liked the style of work I did and that really was my learning experience for doing Plein Air,” he continues. “The nice thing is that it took me out of the studio and forced me to look at colors in a more natural light (no pun intended). It forced me to see things as they are in the natural air.  When you take a photo you get an exact copy of the image, but you don’t see a true dark or the shadows that you can look into and see different things – warm & cold – that helped me train my eye towards more detail.”

Robert says his inspiration for Kawkawlin Granary dates back to last year when he also painted a granary for the inaugural festival that consisted of the entire structure. “I was sitting in this parking lot at the Old Country Bar and it was like 100 degrees and I did a drawing one day and painting the next day. The bartender came out and took pity on me and the next thing I knew I was inside drinking the best dollar beer I ever had in my life.  But I also got to meet the locals, who explained to me that the granary was called the ‘Green Building’ and it was their landmark”

“This year I went back because I was more familiar with things and knew I didn’t have to rush around looking for subjects,” he continues. “One of the problems with Plein Air is that artists get in this competitive mode and are looking for something that really stands out. So I turned the corner on the backside of the granary and saw this vermillion color next to the bright orange of the seed loader and really liked the simplicity of it. In short, it caught my attention.”

“I sat down and did the sketch work on watercolor paper and put it away and the next day finished painting the Kawkawlin Railroad bridge. Around 11 am I ran back over to the granary and the light was hitting just the right way, so I ended up completing the painting that was this year’s prize winner.”

“It was one of those things where I fell in love with the simplicity of the piece and was just trying to be as articulate with the paint brush as I could be.  I write for the American Watercolor Society newsletter and am always looking for the right word to say things; and it’s the same with an artist. You don’t want things to get muddy.”

Robert cites the most difficult challenge with watercolor as being the transparent nature of the medium.  “The paper is very important because it reflects light. When you mix paint and drop it on the paper, the light bounces off and it comes through. The trick is to do whatever you have to do with muddying the colors up.  Students have a tendency to noodle and keep doing something to the work until the color is exhausted and it turns into a muddy grey.  I’ve blown some paintings myself doing that very same thing.”

In terms of the immediate future, Fionda explains how he has just finished a piece of a poor animal that he found – a victim of roadkill in the snow.  “I haven’t shown it because it’s quite gruesome, but I had to paint it to get it out of my system. I get upset how master roadbuilders put up barricades that animals can’t cross and become trapped on the road.  If you go out I-69 you see the carcasses of deer exploded all over the place; and while I wouldn’t put a deer above human life, we’re also supposed to take care of what we do with nature, and it seems we don’t do a very good job at it.”

“So whenever I can take my artwork and render it so there’s a message to be had, that’s the really exciting part.  The same is true when you reproduce something. If I am painting a barn I try to look for how I can put the message behind the visual of four centuries of someone’s sweat & blood, besides just the physical object. It carries more impact that way.”

Robert says he is also pleased and honored to be asked to have his work displayed in the new Ginger Blue Gallery that will open in Old Town Saginaw in early September. “I’m honored to be part of the Ginger Blue’s stable of featured artists and some of my ‘Noir’ series will be featured, which I’m looking forward to and hope to be a positive influence in making the gallery a success.”

Fionda is an associate member of the American Watercolor Society and a contributing writer for its newsletter. Other memberships include the National Watercolor Society (associate) and the Michigan Watercolor Society.

Inquiries for commissions, workshops, or to view current artwork can be done through his website: or by contacting him directly via email or telephone: 586-336-2148. You can also find him on FaceBook at: Robert Fionda.


David Bellling • 2nd Place • ‘Mirror Image’

Straightforward and welcoming, bold and realistic…David Belling’s watercolor style captures the spirit of the timeless beauty he finds in nature and living history. With a 50-year background as a creative director in advertising, Belling started his career in Milwaukee and ended up moving to Florida, where he became a partner in another advertising agency until 10 years ago.

“I’ve always painted as a hobby, but most of my art background is in advertising,” he explains. “Once I retired I started painting full time and consider myself a realist – I paint exactly what I see, which is what attracts people to my work.  I have an eye for stuff that you see every day and most people ignore or don’t look at as a piece of art, yet I can see as a painting.  I enjoy painting lots of rusty stuff and am always looking for old barns and machinery and can find paintings in all of those things.”

When asked about his inspiration for creating Mirror Image, Belling explains that he was only available for the first three days of this year’s Plein Air competition.  “We had some bad weather over those three days and after driving around looking for a subject, I went to the park and found this view across the river that attracted me. As a watercolor artist I like to paint any subject that includes water because water carries reflections, so I picked that spot and painted three works that are all on exhibit.”

In terms of the most challenging component involved with his work, Belling prefaces his remarks by stating that watercolor is the only medium he paints in. “I find it very challenging because you can’t paint over anything. If you make a mistake the piece is ruined, so you’ve got to get it right the first time and I like this because it’s very immediate.  I can do a complete painting in a few hours, which is also something that I find attractive about the medium.  It’s a difficult medium and takes lots of practice because if you work too hard and paint over too many times you get layers of mud, so you need to be spontaneous and let things happen.”

Currently David’s primary goal is receiving his letters by getting juried into national shows from the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society. “I’m a member of the Florida Watercolor Society and have entered shows conducted by both the American & National Watercolor societies, but have not received my letter yet; so this is one of my biggest immediate goals.”

You can visit David’s website at

Share on:

Comments (0)

icon Login to comment