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Embracing Experimentation en Plein Air: An Interview with Paul Cunningham

Elizabeth Maske January 26th, 2024
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Hillside Drafting Studio painting by Paul Cunningham 2023

Paul, a retired hospitality professional and painting novice from Fond du Lac, enrolled in Taliesin’s plein air workshop to celebrate his 69th birthday. Though familiar with Taliesin, having grown up in Oak Park, plein air painting was a bold step into the unknown. When asked about his prior painting experience, Paul answers cheerfully, “Furniture refinishing.” 

While Paul had visited Taliesin several times over the years, this particular occasion held a special significance as both a creative and immersive endeavor. He recounted, “Having no experience, there was a lot of trepidation about what I was getting into, but didn’t care because I was staying on the property. Buying supplies was interesting. I went to an art store in Sturgeon Bay, and someone took an hour to go through my list and tell me what I needed. That took that fear away.”

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The painting of a tree outside of Hillside Drafting Studio by Paul Cunningham 2023

Painting began on Friday night in the Hillside Drafting Studio under the guidance of artist Jan Norsetter. Paul reflects on Jan’s approach to getting the artists’ painting without delay: “She wanted us to try a few different things and wanted to see what kind of brushwork people were doing.” He appreciated how Jan fostered a supportive environment and embraced his willingness to experiment, which dispelled any hesitance. Paul recalled one encounter on the first night, where, with no inhibitions, he simply put his brush to work. Jan responded with a hint of surprise, exclaiming, “Oh, you’re fine! I see you’re not hesitant about applying paint to the canvas.”

Admiring the abilities of his fellow artists, Paul noted, “It’s amazing to see what people can do in 90 minutes.” The range of experience seemed to add to the collective creative energy. Paul reflected, “There were two that had painted all of their lives, a few who painted and returned to it later in life,” then with a laugh, “and there was another man in the group who was relieved that I had less talent than he.” 

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Experimenting with Plein Air painting techniques

Reflecting on past attempts to engage with painting, Paul shared, “I wanted to try painting before, and actually signed up as a freshman for a beginning watercolor class. The program director was teaching the course at the time. After a couple of days, he asked me why I was there as I didn’t have any talent. I said, ‘I wanted to take Art Metals and couldn’t afford the lab fee,’ and he said, ‘It’s waived.’”

Throughout the conversation, Paul emphasized the importance of having such an approachable teacher like Jan, believing that the key to a successful workshop lies in the instructor’s inclusivity rather than harsh criticism. “I’ve always been interested in museums and art and technique, so the Frank Lloyd Wright thing was the absolute best. And I was so lucky to have a teacher who could take someone with no experience and put them next to someone with experience, and it turned out that it worked well.” He adds, “She was always bringing us back to talk about each other’s work. You get over the fear of being critiqued right away.”

Drawing on his hospitality expertise, Paul praised the skillful coordination of the experience, specifically highlighting Caroline Hamblen, Director of Programs at Taliesin Preservation, for seamlessly guiding participants behind the scenes—proactively addressing queries and embodying the essence of the Taliesin experience through her firsthand knowledge. The lifelong Wisconsin Restaurant Association member was also sure to mention that “breakfasts and lunches we’re delicious, healthy, creative offerings”and put a plug in for the “great local, independent restaurant” Arthur’s Supper Club, where he dined Saturday evening.

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A photo from Paul's perspective at the Tea Circle

After Friday’s initial painting session, participants attended a welcome reception in the Taliesin Living Room. “It was neat to wander around the house. That was really special. The first time might have been 30 years ago. I was excited that I’d probably get to see behind the scenes, and it exceeded what I thought.”

Paul expanded on his behind-the-scenes experience, detailing his stay in what was once Cornelia Brierly’s apartment. “I had no idea where I’d be on the estate. The first place we stopped, someone got dropped off at the little glass house by the windmill, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m jealous,’ but I got this beautiful place, basically behind the Tea Circle, and that was awesome to be there and walk outside…I felt so lucky.” Reflecting on the serenity of one peaceful morning in the Garden Court, he shared, “It was pretty magical. The sound of water is so amazing and certainly ties to everything at Taliesin.” Paul seemed to thrive in the central environment, enjoying the balance between structured instruction and personal exploration.

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The Plein Air Participants at Work in the Drafting Studio

When asked if he plans to continue painting, Paul responds, “I feel I’ll have to have more opportunities. I’ve signed up for some Facebook and Instagram opportunities in Door County. I see a lot of plein air weekends when I go up there. Plus, I now have this kit that I bought.”

After attending the workshop, Paul’s perspective of Taliesin saw a transformative shift. He appeared eager to share Taliesin, recognizing that there were still many people in Wisconsin who have not had the chance to experience it. He likened the situation to “New York residents who haven’t visited the Statue of Liberty,” underscoring the fact that widespread knowledge about such cultural treasures is often far from “universal.” On sharing his experience online, he says, “It was pretty magical. It really was. I put a video on Facebook, starting at the Tea Circle and panning around a building and up to the stone wall, and all you could hear was water from the fountain. I had positive responses from people and encouraged them to sign up.”

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Paul's photo of the garden court area

He was excited about Taliesin’s potential to engage with diverse audiences through these unique programmatic offerings, suggesting: “Cooking, photography—those are really great to have in that locale. And if you can expand it a little bit. In the annual report, I see you had 372 students for immersive days, that’s impressive alone. You can direct people who become interested in preservation—even a preservation workshop!”

Paul’s capacity to dive headfirst into unfamiliar territory and his willingness to embrace a beginner’s mindset granted him the freedom to paint without constraints. With his newfound skills, perhaps Paul anticipates a future full of new possibilities. For us, the most significant takeaway was Paul’s recognition of this space as a vibrant embodiment of ideals that not only embrace but extend upon Wright’s vision for Taliesin as a place for creativity, learning, and convening.