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Midway’s Plein Air Paradise competition captures the Wasatch Back's beauty on canvas

Steve Stauffer with a plein air painting called “The Golden Light Over the Fields.” He painted the piece during the Midway Art Association’s 17th annual Plein Air Paradise event.
Kristine Weller
Steve Stauffer with a plein air painting called “The Golden Light Over the Fields.” He painted the piece during the Midway Art Association’s 17th annual Plein Air Paradise event.

The Midway Art Association’s 17th annual Plein Air Paradise event wrapped for another year Saturday, July 6. One artist had an emotional experience describing a piece to a blind admirer.

The event is a ‘plein air’ competition where all the art is made in the open air. Artists can participate in six competitions, including a studio competition that allows artists to submit two pieces they’ve already created, the main professional competition, an amateur competition, and a Nocturne/Sunrise competition. There are also local “paint-outs” in Midway and Heber.

Midway Art Association President Jerry Watterworth said before the competitions begin, artists must register and get their blank canvasses stamped. This ensures every artist is starting from scratch. Then, they find a view they want to capture.

“They go out into either Wasatch or Summit counties and paint their entries for the exhibit, bring them back, and then they're put on display, and they're judged for various competitions, and then they are for sale,” Watterworth said. 

This year almost 130 artists participated in the competitions, producing around 700 paintings. Watterworth said the association hires professional artists to serve as judges. Five pieces in each category win awards and cash prizes. In the main professional competition, the first place award is $1,500, second place is $1,000 and third $500.

Steve Stauffer is a 13-time Plein Air Paradise competitor. He’s from Murray, Utah and said although he’s been painting since he was young, he only dedicated his life to it in 2011.

“I was in the corporate world for 45 years. And I looked at my wife, and I says, ‘How much is enough?’ And she goes, ‘What?’ And I says, ‘I want to be an artist for the rest of my life,’” Stauffer explained. “We did that. Now, I've been successful in two arenas, but at the time we committed financial suicide, we jumped off the end of the world and I haven't quit smiling since.”

Stauffer originally thought he would be a studio painter, but when he first experienced plein air painting, something clicked.

Painting in the open from direct observation makes a piece spontaneous and unique. Stauffer said the light changes the minute an artist puts brush to canvas, so his process is to start with big shapes.

“I try to lock in big shapes and my shadows and then never chase them again. So I want to lock them down and then work within that,” he said. “Once the light gets so far gone it’s obscured what you're looking at out there, you can use it for drawing reference but for the most part, you're painting what you captured in that first 30 minutes.”

Stauffer painted 10 pieces this year and won multiple awards for his work, including first place in the Heber Paint-Out, second place in the Midway Paint-Out and an honorable mention in the studio competition. The Heber Paint-Out piece, called “The Golden Light Over the Fields,” also received a third-place purchase award.

Stauffer had a moving experience speaking with a young man and his mother, who were admiring “The Golden Light Over the Fields.” The mother, who was completely blind, asked Stauffer why he painted the piece.

“I had to explain to her why I was out in the field that day, the color of the gold light that was on that grass, the hay bales, the way they were stacked and put in there, and the whole composition and I painted that painting in her mind,” Stauffer said. “I was so emotional when, and I'm getting emotional now, that she went away with not only that painting in her mind but also in her heart.”

The association will host a workshop in conjunction with the Plein Air Painters of Utah September 18 to 21 in Midway. Watterworth said students will have the opportunity to learn from Utah’s top plein air painters and display and sell their work.