Painting in Plain Sight

Plein Air is a festival of art for education

Story & Photos David Bolling

At precisely 5 p.m. on the second Tuesday in September, easels will sprout on or near the lawns and sidewalks of Sonoma’s historic Plaza and several dozen artists will begin an annual ritual of painting what they see around them for exactly two hours.

This “Quick Draw” event is part of the 15th annual, weeklong Sonoma Plein Air Festival, which attracts acclaimed painters from all over the country to take part in a fundraising paint-a-thon that includes the public spectacle of artists working in plain sight.

Painters will be positioned around the Duck Pond, across from the Sebastiani Theatre, near the Mission, the Barracks and City Hall. Some will stand on Plaza sidewalks in front of portable easels with sunshades affixed. Some will attract small crowds to watch while they work, onlookers the artists will studiously ignore. Immediately after they finish, their works will be placed up for sale along the Plaza sidewalks and a lot of the paintings will be claimed on the spot.

Forty percent of the proceeds will go to support arts education in Sonoma Valley schools. That’s important because, without Plein Air’s fundraising, arts education in six district elementary schools would be impoverished, and art programs at the Valley’s two middle schools, Sonoma Valley High School, the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, the Mentoring Alliance and Art Escape would be diminished.

Ask almost any educator what programs or resources get cut when school districts suffer budget cuts and the ten-to-one answer is always “the arts.”

Usually, the only schools that don’t cut art programs, or stop spending on art materials when budgets run in the red are the ones that have already done so.

In the Sonoma Valley Unified School District—which educates about 4,600 K-12 students—art-in-school programs would take a big hit without a large slice of the Plein Air revenue pie.

And it’s a big pie. Since 2002, Sonoma Plein Air has granted $1,163,648 to youth art programs in 11 schools, and additional grants have funded art programs at the Sonoma Community Center, the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, the Arts Guild of Sonoma and Art Escape.

Plein Air funds have paid for:

  • Dunbar School’s Art at Lunch Program with teacher and projects for three grade levels; supplies for an art room and teachers and a school mural project.
  • El Verano School’s Art in Action Program, along with a Poetry and Art public art project, plus supplies and instruction from teachers and artists.
  • Flowery School’s Art in Action Program, a collaboration with Art Escape for after-school art, as well as K-3 art instructors.
  • Materials and instructors for clay, drawing, painting, puppets, basket-weaving, printmaking and 3-D sculptures at Prestwood School.
  • Instructional fees for local artists along with clay, glaze, oil pastels, watercolors, tempera, plus photographic experience in grades four and five at Sassarini School.
  • At both Altimira and Adele Harrison Middle Schools, Plein Air has paid for programs to create Native American petroglyphs, learn Renaissance painting techniques, ceramics supplies, origami supplies and trips to SFMOMA, and more.
  • Grants to Sonoma Valley High School have paid for instruction and supplies to create bas-relief sculptures, landscape dioramas, stencils, printmaking, darkroom processing, photography, sketchbooks, pottery equipment, field trips to area museums and countless other art materials.

The list goes on and on.

Plein Air has also paid for Mentoring Alliance art lessons and funds the Art Rewards the Student program at the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art, which engages some 800 students in 29 fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms with more than 200 hours of art instruction.

And Plein Air funds have helped Art Escape bring its Van Gogh mobile art studio to schools around the district.

The Art in Action program, produced by a nonprofit educational organization that develops grade-appropriate, prepackaged instructional plans so that untrained teachers can begin art instruction out of the box, has been introduced at Flowery School and plans call for expanding it into other schools with the support of Sonoma Plein Air.

Beyond the monetary assistance, Plein Air support raises the educational bar, says Louann Carlomagno, who has served the district for 30 years, in roles from teacher to superintendent.

“I feel like what Plein Air has done is really call attention to the importance of art in the classroom,” she says. “Art is not optional. It’s a core part of the education program we provide for students in our schools. All kids need to have a chance to develop, and art provides our students an opportunity to leave our schools fully developed.”

Carlomagno says she has witnessed the difference Plein Air funds have made in advancing art education. “Plein Air support is needed for us to truly complete our mission to go to the next level of education,” she says. “It’s that level that makes kids well-rounded.”

The program was born through a serendipitous encounter between nationally collected master painter Keith Wicks and volunteer/philanthropist Judy Vadasz, both Sonoma Valley residents with a mutual commitment to art education.

Wicks has taught at the Academy of Art in San Francisco for many years, frequently donating his art to nonprofits that promote art in schools. His idea to bring fine artists to Sonoma to paint and benefit art in public schools here resonated with Vadasz, whose family foundation then helped fund the founding of Sonoma Plein Air.


“I first met Keith when we purchased one of the paintings he donated to the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art for one of their Wet Paint fundraisers,” says Vadasz. “We then sought out his work, and during a conversation he told me his idea of organizing a Plein air event in Sonoma in order to raise funds to allow schools to have more art. The notion of a festival touched me and I wanted to help. In a manner of a few months we had artists, local families to house them, put on a simple patron dinner at our pond and displayed and sold really good art on the Plaza. It was this charming and modest success that was the seminal moment when we thought we may have something.”

She adds, “I think Keith is incredibly talented as an artist and incredibly giving and generous as a person. It’s been a joy to me to work with him these last 16 years.”

Wicks credits his daughter who, when she was in the third grade said, “Hey, Dad, I only have art one time a month at school. What’s that about?” That revelation struck a nerve and Wicks said to himself, “I could probably do something about that.” So he did. First he told his idea to Judy Vadasz, who loved it, then he told John and Nancy Lasseter who loved it and recruited Pixar artists. And next he talked to Louann Carlomagno, then the principal at El Verano School, and she loved it. Soon they had enough buy-in to make it happen, but they didn‘t know how the community would respond. Turns out, they loved it. That first year they gave $5,000 to every school in the district. It’s a lot more now, they get the best artists in their fields, and the town puts them up for free (OK—one picture per house).

During the weeklong Sonoma Plein Air Fesitval, close to 40 juried artists spread out from Sonoma to spend five days painting in the broader county, in Marin and into San Francisco. Each artist produces 8 to 12 paintings besides the Quick Draw event, and they may bring studio pieces with them to sell as well. Those pieces, and some of their Plein Air work, will be on display at the Adastra Wine & Art tasting room (on the Plaza at 5 East Napa Street) during the festival week.

Then, on Friday night (September 15) the Plein Air Gala, held this year at Buena Vista Winery, will feature a gourmet dinner, during which each artist’s self-selected best work will be on display (and for sale). The artists themselves will vote for best of show and the winner will be proclaimed Sonoma Plein Air Artist of the Year. And from Thursday through Monday during every week of August, paintings by every Artist Choice Award winner from the past 15 years will be on display and available for purchase at Adastra.

The Festival Finale occurs Saturday, September 16, when all the artists erect displays on the Sonoma Plaza showcasing the works they’ve painted during the week. Those paintings are also for sale, and, again, 40 percent of every painting sold by every artist, goes to support Plein Air’s art education programs.

The Saturday art show and sale also features music, art demonstrations, hands-on art activities and children’s art classes.

Throughout the week-long festivities, a special focus will be aimed at Keith Wicks and Judy Vadasz, who conspired to create an event (and a tradition) to fund, promote and inspire art education for children.

For insights into the broader impact of art education on academic success, see Kristen Madsen’s sidebar address, “Why Arts Education Matters.”

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