ROCHESTER – If you’re downtown this summer, chances are Willow Gentile could immortalize your visit there.
The Rochester artist brings her easel, paint and talent for plein air painting downtown.
Plein Air is a French term meaning outdoors.
For Gentile, plein air painting is part achievement, part intuition, and all in the moment.
Her works are lively and impressionistic – in the truest sense of the word. The impression she gets of people, weather and light affects what ends up on screen.
“The energy in the moment really sets the palette,” she said.
The move to the outdoors was initially a necessity for the artist. Gentile, an artist and art teacher, started 2020 with a full-time load of private art classes. Every class was full, which meant a steady income, but also meant she had little time to create art on her own.
“I didn’t have room for my own creativity,” she said.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic ended her art classes. She turned to painting outdoors as a creative outlet. Destination Medical Center’s Economic Development Agency support and grants to paint jersey barriers outdoors made it lucrative to take her work outdoors.
She needed it too. In 2020, she lost 75% of her clientele in art classes. Last year she had even fewer art students. April 2022 marks the first time she’s had a full art class since before the pandemic, she said.
That doesn’t mean that she stops painting outside.
On a gray April day, Gentile’s studio is bright with most of the 15 vibrant paintings she painted outdoors last year.
From different angles, the collection is like a colorful ode to the Rochester skyline.
“I never really saw myself as a city person,” she said. “But there’s an energy that I really like to partake in and try to capture.”
Some artists may shy away from working in front of other people.
“Some people might call it pressure, I call it inspiration,” she said.
Often people watched, said little or nothing, and went about their day. Gentile said she’s glad to see that her presence while painting the streetscapes tends to break people out of their routine.
For some works, she took a vase of sunflowers, placed them in a downtown parking lot, and painted them.
“I think a lot of people were like, ‘What is this person doing?'” she said.
Some of the paintings would take up to three or four hours to complete. A few spectators walked past her, started a play, ran their errands, and returned to see the nearly finished work.
“Sometimes they couldn’t believe I could do it all in that time,” she said.
The persistent wintry weather has kept Gentile from hitting the road much this season so far. However, she caught a musician earlier this month playing at the 200 block of First Avenue Southwest for an impromptu session.
That year, Gentile also received a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board to continue the work.
She has yet to use her new, larger easel, which she purchased with the help of the State Arts Board grant, for a spin. She said she looks forward to using it and that it will allow her to create larger, more complex work.
If you see her with it, Gentile says, feel free to watch the process and add a little inspiration with your presence.