Tag Archives: columbia center for the arts

Plein Air Rising

I wrote in a 2012 GYPO blog post about participating in a special writing event in the Columbia Gorge every fall, the Plein Air Writing Exhibition. In fact, I ran the event for a couple years and launched the first online anthology in 2008. Next to the Oregon Book Awards, it was my favorite literary event of the year. I liked that it was different writing from what I was usually doing, short fiction and essays. I liked that it was an excuse to sit outside for hours at a time, simply observing things and not feeling like I ought to be cleaning out the chicken coop or mending fence.

When I was invited to serve as the Harney County Writer-in-Residence in 2010, I based my curriculum for everyone I worked with—from kindergarteners to adults—on this experience of writing en plein air. We all bundled up and went outside, ignoring the springtime chill, and observed: What do we see? What do we hear? What do we feel? The younger kids dictated their thoughts to me; the older kids and adults wrote their own pieces. These, too, were collected in an anthology.

Students in Diamond laboring over their work

Students in Diamond laboring over their work

It was especially cold for this workshop in Burns!

It was especially cold for this workshop in Burns!

Over the years, I have accumulated a manuscript’s worth of pieces. I’ve published a few—in the Plein Air anthologies of course, but also in High Desert Journal and Eclectic Flash, and submitted them to Literary Arts’ Oregon Literary Fellowships program. This year, they appealed to judge Amy Leach, and I was awarded a fellowship!

Many years ago (1999 – 2006) I ran this very program myself, and so it means a great deal to me to be recognized by it. I know, intimately, how much work it is for program manager Susan Denning, so I want to take the opportunity to publicly recognize her efforts to keep the OLFs running smoothly.

I also want to thank the Columbia Center for the Arts (CCA) for keeping the Plein Air Writing Exhibition going for nine years. And Pat Case, whose idea it was originally to add a writing component to the painting competition, and who invited me to participate in the first event.

Plein Air writing on display in CCA gallery, 2010

Plein Air writing on display in CCA gallery, 2010

The nonfiction judge, Amy Leach, wrote this about the manuscript:

“In each of her short and radiant portraits of the Columbia River Gorge, Kristy Athens captures a distinct moment in a distinct place. Entering imaginatively into the disparate purposes of basalt, dahlias, spent strawberries and antiquated stairways, she writes with fellow feeling and wit about a remarkable range of lives, thrilling with the quiddity of each. A prosperous pear tree throws away perfect fruit; an obsolete tractor is revived by its own exploding boiler; solitary ponderosas leave the observer ‘pondering deep-rooted complexity.’ These encounters of a sympathetic, nimble mind with a marvelous place remind us of the limitlessness of life.”

Wow! You can view some of the pieces included in this collection via my website: scroll down to the Basalt Becomes You section.

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A Sense of Place

At Get Your Pitchfork On! readings, people ask me what I miss most about living in the country and I answer, the land. I’ve been ending my readings with the opening to the Land Section, which I describe as a sort of love letter. Sometimes I have to fight back tears (and if you know me, you know I’m not predisposed to public weeping), because this makes me think about the plant-friends Mike and I left behind: the fruit trees we planted; the orchids, ginger and Indian pipe that grew in our woodlot; the Ponderosas in our field.

For the last eight years, I have participated in a special arts event in the Columbia River Gorge—the Plein Air Writing Exhibition. Held in conjunction with a painting competition, this program is sponsored by the Columbia Center for the Arts and takes place at the end of August. For five days, artists with canvases and notebooks descend upon pre-selected locations that offer gorgeous views.

The goal: capture a moment. Plein air painting is an art form that developed before photography. You’ve seen someone out on a hill with an easel and canvas, studying the horizon? That is plein air painting. The artist is attempting to re-create a specific view as quickly as possible—before the light shifts and the clouds move across the sky.

Writers do the same thing but have all of their senses, not just sight, at their disposal. Plus, they can incorporate their thoughts. Both art forms have their charms.

I generally don’t do a lot of nature writing, but I really enjoy this annual pilgrimage out into the land to try to put words to the love I feel for it. And, apparently, so do a lot of other writers! Julie Jindal coordinated this year’s program, and she put together the anthology of participants’ work, Blue Skies Forever Open. There you will find two of my pieces, “Glider” and “Ponderosa.”

The latter piece describes my longing to live in a rural place. I eagerly await the day Mike and I can move back out of the city!

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