Art teachers "en plein air" in Baltimore County


First, there was the matter of the umbrella. With a light drizzle pattering the grounds of the Hampton Mansion National Historic Site in Towson, it was clear Vernon Fains had to adjust the blue-and-white striped umbrella over his canvas before work could continue.

Fains, who teaches art at Pine Grove Middle School in Parkville, was among 35 BCPS artist-teachers who spent two days at the lush historic site this week honing their art – painting "en plein air" as a way of honing their skills and learning techniques to take back to their classes when school resumes in August.

"En plein air" is a French expression, meaning "in the open air," that is used when artists take their palettes and easels outdoors to capture a landscape's natural light and contours. The two-day course at Hampton Mansion was offered to BCPS educators as a professional development activity, and in addition to art teachers from across the county, at least one English teacher and a school counselor joined the group.    

"It's a lovely place to do this," said Fains, precariously propping his canopy against droplets that fell from the arching grove of trees he had selected as his studio. "Even with a little rain."

French impressionist Claude Monet would have been proud – or perhaps inspired, at least; the hazy, lush grounds of the Hampton Mansion this week could have passed for the artist's famous gardens at Giverny. 

"These are the hard-core teachers who are here in the rain today," said Theresa Shovlin, an art teacher at George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology who helped to lead the week's sessions. "They do get a lot out of it."
This is the second year BCPS has offered "en plein air" workshops at Hampton Mansion, Shovelin said, and the training is popular among the system's artist-teachers. Many of them are likely to be back, this time painting alongside students, as part of the BCPS Summer Visual Arts Enrichment program in July.

In fact, across the Hampton grounds, teachers seemed unfazed by the brief squalls. Using beach umbrellas or leafy arbors for cover, they peered over fields or through groves and dabbed at their canvasses, lost in creation.

"All of us try to keep our skills fresh," says Farrell Maddox, supervisor in the BCPS Office of Visual Art. "You can talk about painting and learn about it in the classroom, but when you are actually out there doing it, it makes you relate better to it, and to what the children are doing in class."

Maddox says professional development such as the Hampton sessions boosts teacher confidence as well as the skills they will use in the classroom. "It shows the kids you are practicing what you preach," he says. "And it says to them, 'You're never finished learning; the learning continues throughout your life.' That's an important message." 

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