Plein air painting sometimes comes with surprises. And, sometimes, when a surprise crawls across your painting, its tracks just become part of the piece.

That, at least, was how Kay Stratman decided to react when a fly landed on her half-finished painting at Plein Air Fest, an event set to return Saturday for its eighth year.

“It crawled across from a cloud into the blue sky, but it was subtle enough that it just looked like the cloud was wispy,” Stratman said, “so that worked out all right.”

This Saturday, 50 or so artists invited to participate in Plein Air Fest will have the opportunity to have their own “it worked out all right” moments throughout the day. Flies, inclement weather and passersby may all get in the way as they work to complete pieces that will either compete for the Best of Show award or be auctioned off throughout the afternoon.

But for artists like Stratman, that’s all just part of the fun. That first fly wasn’t the only run-in she has had with the unexpected. Another forced her to relocate a string of trumpeter swans mid-creation.

“It wasn’t an inappropriate place,” she said. “It was just not where I had planned.”

Stratman works with watercolors, a medium that requires some foresight. Once the paint is placed on a page it can’t be taken back. If something happens while Stratman is painting outside — a rarity, because she usually paints most of her landscapes in her studio — she has to react quickly and plan another element for the piece.

But that is due in part to her preferred medium. Other painters participating in Plein Air Fest work in different formats. Doug Monson, for example, is an illustrator from Afton who works with charcoal. Ben Walter, an Art, English and Latin teacher at the Jackson Hole Classical Academy, uses oil paints and pastels. Their works are less susceptible to fly malfeasance.

The fact that Stratman, Monson and Walter all have different styles is also a testament to the diversity of artists that will be working Saturday. The National Museum of Wildlife Art, which hosts the event and is the primary beneficiary of the auction, sets no parameters for inclusion in the end-of-day sell-off. As long as artists check in their canvas Friday they can get started a day early, paint from a photographic guide and still be included in the sale.

The only part of the competition that has stylistic limitations is the Best of Show competition, for which artists are required to produce their painting — in its entirety — during Plein Air Fest.

Otherwise, everything’s fair game.

“It’s not a purist,” said Amy Goicoechea, the museum’s director of programs and events, who has curated the event for the past six years. “Because it’s a celebratory event and a fundraising event we’re not as rigid in the expectation that a piece be started and finished on-site.”

Monson, who has participated in the event for all eight years, said it wasn’t always that way. Artists used to be required to stay on-site and complete their work in one day.

“That limited subject matter,” he said. “They’ve expanded it, and it’s worked out really well.”

That has come in handy for Monson in particular. At Plein Air Fest he has become known as “the bear guy.” You might be able to guess the reason.

“I’ve drawn bears and I really love bears, and I’m always up there photographing them,” Monson said. “I do a lot of bears — that’s probably what I do most of.”

The relaxation of the rules has made it easier for Monson to bring bears to life in his charcoal drawings at the festival. It will also give Walter the opportunity to paint subject matter off the museum’s grounds. He’s planning on going up to Mormon Row to paint and taking Friday to do so. He also said he was going to drop by last weekend to get some beta before getting to work.

“I like to think of myself as spontaneous, but in order to be spontaneous you have to know what you’re doing first,” Walter said. “I’ve just been increasingly realizing that planning pays off.”

Whether a landscape painter like Walter or Stratman or a wildlife artist like Monson, Plein Air Fest allows artists the opportunity to get outside, deal with a bit of ambiguity and let people see what they do and ask questions. For the crowd it’s a great way to see the artistic process unfold.

And for Monson? It’s all about the subject matter. He knows what he will paint.

“I’ll definitely do a bear this year,” Monson said, “I feel like I have to do a bear every year.”

Plein Air Fest is set to run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. Entrance to the museum for the event is free. Information can be found at 

Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7062 or

Scene Editor Billy Arnold covers arts and entertainment. He apprenticed as a sound engineer at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, Ohio before making his way to Jackson, where he has become a low-key fan of country music.

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