On the Road to the OPA National Exhibition in Fredericksburg

South Rim Majestic by Brenda Howell

“South Rim Majestic” by Brenda Howell

Early this year one of my paintings (a large one) was juried into our Oil Painters of America National Exhibition in Fredericksburg, Texas. I knew both that it would be very expensive to crate and ship the painting and also that I wanted to attend the opening at Insight Gallery, along with the many fun events that OPA organizes around the national show. So, I decided to drive to Texas from Southern California to hand deliver the painting and make it a paint-as-you-go camping trip. I had done something similar in 2007 when I had a painting accepted in that year’s show, also in Fredericksburg. Back then I had experienced some of the awesome state parks in the area with plenty of inspiring exposed rock landscapes, and I have, at the ready, a camper van I refer to as my “paintmobile”.

This road trip would also provide a much needed break from the intense-in-every-way experience of caring for my mother in her final months of life which ended in February, along with the necessary work afterwards. Mom was an inspiring painter and art teacher, and taught privately until just a few weeks before she took her last breath at the age of eighty-six. She was certainly my first art teacher, and introduced me as a child to the concept of landscape painting and camping as one of the most worthwhile of combined endeavors.

Garden Agave by Brenda Howell

“Garden Agave” by Brenda Howell

So, in May I prepared to hit the road. I got the van loaded with the large painting, clothes for all weather, art supplies, food, wine, enough to last for an extended trip. There was so much to pack and take care of that I didn’t get on the road until very late in the afternoon, but I was so excited to finally leave that I kept driving across the burning desert and into the cool of the night. Since I was up way past my bedtime, I was singing every song I could remember at full force in order to keep awake while driving. It was 1:00 am when I made it to my art buddy’s house in Phoenix and woke her up with my arrival—a true friend.

I’m no spring chicken, so after a day of visiting and recuperation we went out painting in the Pinnacle Peak area. It was the first painting I had done since my Mom left this life. I have to tell you that I wondered if I would be able to paint—it had been a few months— the longest I had gone without painting since I started doing it full time ten years ago. But there I was, painting in a garden of cactus, agave and palo verde, and I felt so alive in the cool Arizona morning, responding to the beautiful shapes and colors before me. I had bridged the gap, I was now beginning the return into the stream, the flow, the continuum of being a painter, on the path again to creative expression.

The next morning I took off without being committed to where I would camp that night. On the way I stopped in Tucson to check out the art galleries there and then got back on the road.

One thing I love about camping in remote areas is the visibility of the night sky. The western national parks have played a big role in my art career and they almost always provide those dark night skies. I lived at the South Rim of Grand Canyon for four years and a large portion of my work is inspired by that well-known natural wonder, and other wild areas that need our protection in order to remain the essential healing balm to our modern life that they are. I also have participated in the Artist-in-Residence program at Badlands National Park, another spectacular landscape.

Digital sketch by Brenda Howell

Digital sketch by Brenda Howell

Traveling the interstate and still in Arizona I decided to take off on a small road when I saw the sign pointing the way to Chiricahua National Monument. I had always been curious about exploring that area when I had driven that section of Interstate 10 in the past. Now I had the time and I gambled that there would be a camping spot available. I was not disappointed. After some star appreciation I enjoyed the fresh tree-scented air and got a good night’s sleep. I hiked and explored for a few hours the following morning. It proved to be an awesome landscape, with dramatic rock formations carved out of volcanic rock shaped into pointed spires and odd, sometimes anthropomorphic, shapes. This is a landscape that Cochise and his band of Apaches called home. I vowed to myself that I would return when I could, and then dutifully got back on the road toward Texas.

It was getting hot and more humid and after I drove through El Paso I headed to Guadalupe Mountains National Park, also on my list of not-yet-visited National Parks of the the West. This area is located just south of Carlsbad Caverns, a national park I visited many times over the years and as a child growing up for a time in New Mexico. I saw several pronghorn antelopes grazing along the narrow highway. When I arrived the sun was low and the massive limestone mountains were illuminated with a stunning pink and gold light. I camped there with the idea of painting in the morning. Because it was so windy the next morning, I realized that work was impossible without a guaranteed upset of the entire pochade/tripod setup. Forced to get back on the road, I now had a strong understanding of how the unrelenting wind can drive people crazy.

Enchanted Rock by Brenda Howell

“Enchanted Rock” by Brenda Howell

"Pedernales River Bank" Brenda Howell

“Pedernales River Bank” Brenda Howell

Did I say that Texas is a very big state? When I finally made it to Llano River State Park, about an hour away from Fredericksburg, I found a great campsite and had a whole day to just relax and do some painting. There were birds everywhere. One beautiful red one kept tapping on my window. I took that as a welcome, but there was the ominous sound of thunder in the distance. I decided to get out my digital tablet and try the new painting app I had downloaded. It turned out to be a blast after I figured out how to handle the color wheel and equate it in my mind to adding specific colors in a pile of oil paint. It became very satisfying and there were no brushes to wash. Since I worked from inside my paint-mobile I didn’t even have to suffer any insect harassment! When I was done sketching the lightning and rain started heavily and kept up so that after a while I started wondering if I was going to be trapped in the campground that was surrounded by the river. I had to deliver the painting the next day, but I didn’t get swept away. Between rain showers I made the delivery to InSight Gallery and was off for more painting and camping adventures in the area.

While waiting for the OPA scheduled activities and the opening of the show I switched back to oil paints and worked while camping at Enchanted Rock State Park and Pedernales Falls State Park. Incredibly, that little red bird, or his brother, showed up again at the Pedernales River. I highly recommend both of these parks for painting, except for the insects that can spot a plein air painter a mile away. I did try the digital tablet again but, alas, there was too much glare for the great outdoors.

Back in Fredericksburg I met many OPA artists and enjoyed the week getting to know some of them. The “paint-outs” in in the hill country around Fredericksburg were well chosen, and the entire event was smoothly organized. Artist demonstrations and presentations were alternately informative, entertaining and inspired. I was so honored to be a part of such an impressive group exhibition, and thrilled to win the Realism Award of Excellence from the internationally renowned artist Sherrie McGraw.

I had made the trip to the Oil Painters of America 22nd National Show with the idea that I was heading into the unknown and hoping I could rekindle the creative side of life after experiencing profound loss. Now I’m back in the studio and putting the finishing work to the plein air starts I have accumulated for a while now—I never seem to be satisfied with what I get in one 2 hour session. I always see much that needs refinement once I get them back into the studio.

Texas Morning by Brenda Howell

“Texas Morning” by Brenda Howell

Texas Creek by Brenda Howell

“Texas Creek” by Brenda Howell

I am glad I made this journey. It turned out to be a long one but offered a broad range of experiences that helped revive the importance of the creative path in my personal life. Returning home after the great combination of time in nature and time in community with artists was the best restoration any road trip could offer.

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  • Susan Williams

    Brenda, your artwork is gorgeous…your life story even more so. My own dear mother went Home last December just a few days after her 92nd birthday. While not an artist, she was a nurturing, loving woman to all. I am so glad for you that you quickly reclaimed your “brush” and that you are blessed to live the life you are obviously meant to live. ~ Susan

  • Richard Laurent

    I certainly appreciate your sharing this story with us. A few years ago my sojourn was to Colorado after my mother passed away (this phrase, according to one of my students. is used ‘only by people over 50′). The lives of artists are infinitely more interesting due to the fact that we create out of our experience. By the way, I just looked at the 2013 OPA National Show catalog and your Grand Canyon painting is indeed a winner.

  • Theresa Grillo Laird

    Good post Brenda, and beautiful paintings! I too have been the caregiver for my parents so I know well how it is. I just lost my dad last week. I wondered as I read if you had made it to the Perdenales River area. (you did!) My painting of a piece of the riverbank was in the OPA salon show in Petoskey Michigan this summer. The camping at Perdenales State Park is the best I’ve ever seen, and the painting possibilities are everywhere. Though it’s a 19 hour drive from where I live, I’ll definitely be going back.

  • Nancy Ellington

    So enjoyed Brenda’s story. What beautiful work. What a brave soul to do that all alone. Thanks for sharing.

  • Roni

    Thank you for sharing your tender story of the loss of your Mom earlier this year, and how you prevailed and used this as an inspiration to get out and create.

  • Nicole Kennedy

    Brenda, I was incredibly touched by your blog and the timing must have
    been more than a coincidence. I just lost my Mother in May and my Father
    late 2012. I have had great difficulty stepping back to the canvas and
    was able to finish only a couple in the past few months. One of these
    paintings was juried into OPA Eastern, a great surprise for me. You are
    an inspiration and I congratulate you on your success and journey.

  • Brenda Howell

    Thank you all for your kind words and for sharing your own stories. I am so appreciative of these responses. – Brenda

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