Bringing the street back to plein air: Art ‘diplomats’ paint downtown

Written by

20141029_170127Sometime over the last month in downtown Los Angeles, you may have seen some guys with paint-stained clothing, standing in front of easels, intently working to capture the world around them. The French tradition of plein air painting is typically associated with serene landscapes, not gritty cityscapes. But John Kilduff, Steven Thomas Higgins, and Alex Schaefer vowed 30 days ago to bring the street back to plein air, and they’ve done that.

John Kilduff, Alex Schaefer, and Steven Thomas Higgins in front of their plein air map of downtown (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

When they’ve finished a work, they return to the Blackstone Gallery at 9th and Broadway, where the piece is attached to a grid-map of downtown on the wall, “pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey” style. There’s something much different about painting in the elements, they told me, than in the silence and solitude of an art studio. Painting quickly, rather than laboring over one canvas for months or even years, has an effect on the work, too.

Kilduff told me as he stood on the corner of Los Angeles and 5th Streets at the start of rush hour last week, facing westward: “You can understand why the energy is somehow possibly being directed into the painting. I’m attacking the brush and the paint and the vibrations of being in the city.” Every fifth person stopped and took a gander at his easel.

“This guy came up to us and said, ‘It’s important you are doing this because it’s a forgotten thing.’ This old man was blown away, cause he never gets to see anything but TV,” Higgins said.

The thirty days of plein air are about to end. You can see what the artists created at the Blackstone Gallery at 901 S. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles this Saturday at an opening/closing event.