Joy Magazine

Painting nature

Phyllis Trowbridge of Ashland paints a landscape at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in February.Photo by Shannon Berg

"Plein air" painter Phyllis Trowbridge is a particularly appropriate artist-in-residence for the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. Artists like Trowbridge work outdoors, and the grounds of the private foundation near Lincoln City are dedicated to expanding the relationship between people, art and nature.

"It's amazing — a really, really beautiful place," explains Trowbridge by phone from the Sitka Center, where she spent the month of February. "It's very rustic. We're surrounded by Sitka spruce, and there's also a view down to the ocean. It's been fun to paint the ocean, and I've been appreciating the gracefulness of the alders and the moss on the Sitkas."

The northern Oregon Coast is, of course, very different from the forests of Southern Oregon where Trowbridge usually does her painting.

Artists at Sitka Center are provided with an apartment and studio. They are required to participate in a community-service project, and there are optional hikes and lectures, but mostly their time is used to create. Two writers and one other artist were in residence with Trowbridge.

"Time goes by pretty quickly," says Trowbridge. "We don't get mail every day, and cell phones don't work. It's so quiet and peaceful, and you get to turn off the everyday bustle of life."

Trowbridge has been painting outdoors much of her life, mostly in oils. While many landscape painters rely on photographs and do the actual painting in their studios, Trowbridge says she needs the direct connection with nature, even in winter.

"During graduate school (at American University in Washington D.C., where she earned her master's degree in fine arts), I really solidified my interest in painting outdoors," says Trowbridge. "It's very different working outdoors than from a photograph. When looking for places to paint, I'm really looking for the connection to a sense of place. I think of the landscape as a metaphor to translate that feeling."

Trowbridge grew up on Long Island, New York, and drove to Oregon after graduate school as an adventure. She expected to return to the East, but Oregon claimed her, and she's been here almost 20 years.

One of her favorite places to paint is above Ashland Creek, where she attracts an occasional audience.

"For the most part, people are really respectful in Oregon," she says. "It's not my favorite thing to be watched, but I understand people are curious."

While many plein air painters restrict themselves to smaller canvasses to be able to finish quickly, Trowbridge has moved into larger sizes. Most of her paintings are 18 by 24 inches, but some run bigger, up to 30 by 40 inches, which is the largest canvas she can fit in her car.

She usually works for two and a half to three hours at a time, which means the larger paintings require several outdoor sessions.

"It's not just this blissful, inspired feeling all the time," she says. "There are times when it is hard work, and it doesn't go well. And I get tired."

Recently Trowbridge and her boyfriend completed a straw-bale studio in the Ashland hills. What does a plein air artist need with a studio?

"I do a lot of prep work in the studio," explains Trowbridge. "I prepare canvasses, frame and mat pictures. Sometimes I just hang a picture on a wall and study it. When I teach, I teach it's a process of constant readjustment and refining."

Trowbridge has taught classes at Pacific Northwest College of Art, Oregon College of Art & Craft, Sitka Center, Portland Community College, Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University.

As many artists must, Trowbridge has done quite a bit of part-time teaching and worked part-time jobs — which is what makes the artist-in-residence program all the more attractive.

"Being here is just amazing and quite an honor," says Trowbridge, who was selected from more than 200 applicants. "It's a priceless experience. It reinvigorates you."

But while she'll miss the nearby herd of elk and a great horned owl that lives in a tree near her temporary home at Sitka Center, she is looking forward to bringing a renewed vision home to Ashland.

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