Asylum Peru Painters on display at Kokomo Art Center focus on nature

Oct. 27—PERU — Golden leaves of a recently tapped sugar maple fluttered in a gentle breeze before settling on the ground. Crunching leaves underfoot, three men retrieved art supplies from their respective cars and faced the treeline.

The three artists had just met at Peru's old train depot, a ritual they try to repeat every Monday and Friday, before deciding to rendezvous in a nearby clearing. They call themselves the Asylum Peru Painters and have been going out on plein air excursions for years.

They frequently visit the Seven Pillars Nature Preserve and different spots along the Eel and Wabash rivers, but they opted to work on one of the artist's property Friday. An exhibit of their work opened at the Kokomo Art Center earlier this month.

Although there are more artists in the group — there are six in the exhibition — only three had been free the afternoon of Oct. 21. Phil Spears was the last to arrive on the scene and set up a canvas and acrylic paint in the trunk of his car.

Comparing each of the artists to instrumentalists, Spears said the Art Center exhibition seemed like a symphony. He considers his contributions to the gallery to be his best work.

In a previous interview with the Kokomo Tribune, Spears explained he and Tim Swagerle had started going out in nature to make art 15-20 years ago. After a while, other artists started asking if they could tag along.

"Who else would go out and paint when it's 46 degrees out, or when it's raining, or when it's snowing, or when it's 100 out?" Spears asked. "You've got to be a little bit crazy."

He explained the challenge is what draws him out.

"There's something about plein air painting," Spears said. "You pit yourself against the elements and your maturity as an artist."

For Spears, sleet is the most difficult condition to paint in. But in colder weather, he noted, the Asylum Peru Painters have faced a bit of hypothermia, and the water they've used to rinse brushes has frozen over.

The conditions Friday afternoon were enjoyable to Swagerle, though.

"Wow, what a day," the pastel artist said, setting up an easel. "Especially after so many cold ones."

Rummaging through his box of mix-matched pastels, he explained the goal of plein air painting isn't to create an exact replica of the scenery. Instead, the artists try to depict the feeling of wherever they set up their easels.

There were trees omitted from his painting, and his color palette was more vibrant than the golds, greens and browns in front of him.

"We're not doing a photograph, that's for sure," Swagerle said. Still, he added, when he looks at old paintings, he's able to tell where it was done, what the weather was like and what type of day he was having.

"I don't know if there's a method to my madness," the pastel artist said. "My grandfather was a circus painter. I think that's where I get my colors from."

Nearby, Lilly, a portly brown lab, dragged a tree branch through the leaves and settled at her owner's feet. He was focusing on composition.

Dropping his rough drafts in a pile of leaves, J.O. Buffington set up his easel and retrieved his set of watercolors.

Having taught art for 40 years in public schools, Buffington said he tried to stress the importance of compositional planning. Whether the composition works might be subjective, he said, but it still helps.

"When you go to paint, you can't envision another painting," Buffington said. "You have to keep your mind blank, which is hard, but it keeps your painting fresh."

Using a pencil to divide his watercolor paper by thirds, the painter added that a kindergarten student had prepared him for plein air painting. The student turned in his art assignment shortly after Buffington distributed materials. Although he doubted the painting was really finished, an inspection of the work revealed it was.

He gave the student more materials and was again surprised by the kindergartener's speedy return.

"That changed everything," Buffington said. After that encounter, he began painting quickly instead of laboring over a piece for weeks. When he retired from teaching, he was glad to get out of his studio and out into nature to paint.

Spears had also been a watercolor painter but has recently become more interested in acrylic paint.

"I like a lot of color. I like to move the color with a brush. I like to leave it where I leave it," Spears said, adding the medium can feel a bit more like oil painting sometimes.

He explained the twice weekly meetings have helped each of the Asylum Peru Painters hone their skills. Other than the constant practice, he added, having a fellowship of other artists who are able to challenge one another has been enjoyable.

"You learn about each other, you learn about yourself, you learn about your own ability," Spears said. "You learn about how light affects color, how weather affects color, how your mood affects what you're doing."

Going into the Friday painting session, Spears was focusing on emulating the work of Giorgio Morandi. A book of the artist's still life work was placed above the canvas he worked on in his car.

To him, the illustrations of jars went further than an appreciation for pottery; Spears compared the works to poetry.

"It's not about the jars. The jars are a jumping off point," Spears said, adding he was trying to focus on the same principle of subtle communication. "Out of that, you paint a reality that's part you and part landscape."

Swagerle was the first artist to finish painting Friday, followed by Spears then Buffington. As each of the artists finished their work, they leaned their paintings against the trunk of Swagerle's car. An hour had hardly passed between the moment they set up their easels and their thoughtful congregation around their finished work.

"It's one of those days you can tell we're all in the same place," Swagerle said, admiring the clearing represented in three different mediums.

They took turns complimenting each other's work, pointing out specific elements that worked well. If a piece was criticized, it was done by the artist who made the work. Satisfied with the day's effort, they shook hands and tucked their equipment away.

"I'm glad you guys got up to paint out here," Buffington told his fellow artists on the way out. "Soon, all the leaves will be gone."

James Bennett III can be reached at 765-454-8580 or