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When I spotted Michael Fuller from my parking spot on Main Street in Parrsboro, N.S., he was sitting in a chair and sunning himself. His left arm was raised and draped over the top of his head and a whisky-coloured labradoodle sat beside him. At first, I thought he might be napping.

Why wouldn’t he be, on this rare day of cordial temperatures in mid-April? I would’ve liked to take a photo of him in that repose, but he spotted me, and I filed the snapshot as a memory. Then I thought, this would be a great painting. After all, it was a conversation about painting outdoors that brought me here.

I was meeting Fuller to chat about the town’s annual plein air festival in July, when painters from across North America take to the streets, beaches, and cliffs of the seaside community. They will put paint to canvas, compete for a few coveted prizes, and sell their work. The event, running since 2017, is one of a handful of ideas that Fuller and his collective of creatives developed over the years with the goal to help put Parrsboro back on the map.

“This used to be a thriving industry town,” says Fuller. “It was coal, it was forestry, it was shipping … but gradually these things disappeared, and people moved away. It was our vision that this could become an artist colony and that people would come back.”

Being part of a thriving creative economy has always been part of Fuller’s repertoire. In 1984, he co-founded the Ship’s Company Theatre in Parrsboro, one of the country’s most distinctive theatre spaces where productions are staged against the backdrop of the historic MV Kipawo, one of the last wooden ferries to travel the Minas Basin route between Parrsboro and the Annapolis Valley.

Fuller dabbled in several businesses, but his love for the arts led him back to creative pursuits. As more like-minded people connected with Fuller’s quest, the mission became clear. In 2015, they launched the Parrsboro Creative to revitalize the town as a cultural destination and creative hub. The launch of an annual plein air festival was another piece of the puzzle.

After interrupting Fuller’s siesta, we move inside the brightly-coloured building that is home to the Art Lab, a space he shares with three other artists, including his partner, Krista Wells. Other members of the festival committee arrive for a planning meeting.

“The whole idea is that if we can lure creative people here, they are going to want to stay. We have attracted some very gifted artists here. I can’t tell you how many have moved here because of the cultural nature of the community,” adds Fuller.

The town of Parrsboro sits on the north shore of the Minas Basin, which forms the eastern portion of the Bay of Fundy. It’s a stunning landscape where the world’s most extreme tides erode the red cliffs, revealing unique geological formations, including fossils of dinosaur footprints. The rugged beauty of the Fundy coast and the mystique of the tides is a perfect playground for artists wanting to connect with nature.

“You will never run out of subjects to paint,” says Bill Rogers, who helped get the Parrsboro Plein Air Festival off the ground.

Rogers, who is acclaimed for his plein air work and can add royal tour artist to his resumé since accompanying then-Prince Charles on his visit to the East Coast in 2014, adds that there is something unique about the environment in Parrsboro.

“I think it is the extreme tides. It has an effect on the atmosphere, the air is different,” he adds that those changes in the environment and the impacts of light are key to plein air painting.

Plein air painting is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. Some say the appeal is a greater appreciation for the environment and a desire to find new and creative ways to connect with nature. Artists like Bill Rogers believe that it’s all about exposure. One event leads to another, and people are learning what plein air is all about.

Enthusiasts believe it has its own lane as a discipline rather than a style of art. It’s impossible to know who the first artist was to think of lugging their canvas outside, but in the early 1800s, French painter Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes  gave name to the new affair with light and landscape that inspired impressionists like Monet, Renoir, and Degas.

With a growing number of plein air events in the region, Fuller, Rogers, and the rest of the committee wanted to create an elevated experience for the artists and the observer. When they first started to muse about the festival, they knew there was only one option and that was to do it differently. Drawing on Rogers’s vast experience travelling and competing in plein air festivals in other parts of the world, committee members feel they have created something as special as the landscape.

“It was our intention to go big,” says Rogers.

This year, the festival jury has chosen 30 artists, including painters from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Florida.

“I love getting out of the studio to paint,” says Halifax artist Susan Paterson, who has competed and won at a previous Parrsboro Festival. She’s known for her exquisite attention to detail and reflection of light in still-life painting and working plein air has brought another dimension to her work.

“I didn’t know what to think about it, at first,” says Paterson. “My still-life paintings take many, many hours to complete and are so laborious. But with plein air, you have a limited amount of time. It was a real learning curve, but I think I am getting the hang of it.”

Painting is often a solitary practice. Artists can lose themselves in a studio painting for days. Plein air painting literally opens the doors to a more communal experience and a camaraderie.

“Joy Laking was the one who pushed me to give this a try,” says Paterson referring to another well-known East Coast artist from neighbouring Portapique who has participated at the Parrsboro Festival. “We try to get out together a few times a year,” she says.

Fuller, who started painting later in life, says he loves the different dynamics of getting out of the studio and painting in nature.

“It challenges you as an artist to understand and communicate the beauty you see in the environment,” he explains. “It’s the impression you had of a sunset, or the way the wind felt that day is something that you can’t get working from a photograph. It gives you the first-hand of how you are influenced by the environment. Once you know your craft, you can convey feeling of things like heat or feel the fog coming in across the waves. These are the things that are magic and only plein air artists can do,” says Fuller.

Rogers has a similar perspective.

“There is magic in making things come to life and you capture the effect of light and atmosphere,” he says.

He adds that the most successful artists are the ones that fall in love with the process. He recalls the words of the early 20th century French impressionist Degas. “He said that the true traveller never arrives. This is so true of painting. You have to love the journey. You have to love the process.”

Fuller hopes that as organizers add new elements to the festival, they’ll attract more art lovers and collectors who appreciate watching the painting come to life and buying it while it is still wet.

And what if the weather is wet during the festival?

“No worries,” says Michael Fuller with his back to the sunshine. “You can create some beautiful stuff in the rain.”

It will be the seventh year for the festival but like so many events, the last few years did not go exactly as planned. Despite the challenges of trying to grow an event during a pandemic, Fuller and his team of passionate artists and community partners are seeing their art festival emerge as one of the most successful plein air festivals on the East Coast.

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