Two weeks ago I was able to attend a plein air painting event in the Finger Lakes area – where artists seek out scenic spots and paint outdoors, on location. Being an Adirondack artist, I chose to avoid the busy vineyards, docks and sailboats on Canandaigua Lake and spent my time finding trails and wilder views to paint. The landscape there was very scenic, yet I learned it was very different from the Adirondacks.
The first day I painted, I’d done some prior internet research and had directions to a place called ‘Bare Hill”. The Finger Lakes are long, glacier carved gouges in the earth embraced by high ridges and flat topped hills at the southern end. Bare Hill was one of these, it’s steep slopes wooded down to the water, but the top was clear. A sign indicated according to Seneca legend it had been an early settlement. I wandered around, eventually painted a view of the lake, and never saw another person. I sensed it was a very spiritual place for the native peoples.
The day it rained all morning, I did a lot of driving, scouting out potential painting spots, and I noticed a small cemetery tucked into a corner of some farm fields overlooking the lake. Finding shelter under huge spreading oak trees, I set up my easel and painted, in the company of grave stones identified as Revolutionary War veterans! The earliest burial appeared to be 1811, so I speculated that’s probably when the huge oak trees were planted. The peace and solitude of the place, amidst the ghosts of our nations history, made for a very moving experience while absorbed in my painting.
On yet another day of painting, I was driving back country dirt roads when “preserve” caught the attention of my peripheral vision and I pulled over when I could. Nundawao Preserve turned out to be about 250 acres of steep wooded hillside on South Hill that had been donated to the Finger Lakes Land Trust to protect it from development. While I walked the trails I didn’t find a view to paint but I did note something interesting about the forest. The mix of hardwoods was pretty consistent throughout, they all appeared to be around the same age, and there was very little undergrowth. Oak, hickory, maple and ash. No wildflowers! I noticed this on some of the other forest trails I found there and Bare Hill had been mostly grasses – the lack of diversity became obvious to me, compared to our Adirondack forests. Even though much of our forests had also been logged, we seem to have recovered in a more natural way.
Then this past week I had the great pleasure of being involved as the local guide for a group of about 50 plein air painters from all over the country who came to Paul Smith’s College for the Publisher’s Invitational “Paint the Adirondacks” event. We painted at the VIC, White Pine Camp, the Bog River Falls, Norman Ridge, the High Peaks area, Whiteface, the AuSable River and the Flume in Wilmington, Rockwell Kent’s farm in AuSable Forks and more. I would venture to estimate over 500 paintings of outstanding quality were produced!
These artists absolutely loved it here! They found themselves painting some of the same views that Hudson River School artists painted in the mid 1800’s. They got to experience the challenge of how to mix the colors that will effectively show the layer upon layer of hazy blue mountains going back into the distance. They painted beneath towering white pines amid bunch berry, bog laurel and cinnamon ferns. They painted along lake shores with unbroken, uncivilized shorelines.
This place is a precious commodity! The Canandaigua Lake area was lovely, but no where were you not aware of the past or current presence of people. I’ve been in a number of National Forests in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah and they are interlaced with dirt roads and ranchers lease grazing rights for their cattle and sheep. The Adirondacks have their little hamlets, hiking trails, and great camps and cottages on lake shores – but yet so much of it still ultimately looks and can be experienced as “wild” – even if it might have been cleared for farming or logged or burned 100 years ago. This region is truly a miraculous story of rebirth, recovery, and the foresight that brought about the creation of the Adirondack Park. Here it is still possible to step away from mark of human life, even if just briefly.