Photography by Carlos Amoedo
Ask art history experts about plein air painting and they’ll likely credit its popularity to French artist Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes, who elevated the genre with an 1800 treatise entitled Reflections and Advice to a Student on Painting, Particularly on Landscape.
But ask Debbie Komanski, executive director and CEO of the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park, and the first name that will come to her mind is Hal Stringer, a retired IT manager for AT&T, whom she describes as “Mr. Florida Plein Air.”
En plein air is a French expression that means “in the open air,” and refers to painting — sometimes sketching — outdoors. Plein air artists are particularly fond of Florida, with its vividly colored subtropical landscapes and year-round temperate weather.
According to Komanski, the Polasek’s annual Winter Park Paint Out, an iconic weeklong event that begins this year on Sunday, April 23, likely wouldn’t exist without Stringer and his partner Kevin Miller, a retired traffic engineer for Orange County Schools who now volunteers as a docent at the museum and serves on its board of directors.
“Hal and Kevin are passionate about plein air art from Florida,” adds Komanski — a fact borne out by the collection of more than 200 plein air paintings that hang in their charming home near Dubsdread Golf Course (and in their second home in Daytona Beach).
Adds Komanski: “There’s no way to thank them enough.” Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been gestures of appreciation: In 2011, for example, Stringer’s service earned him the museum’s inaugural “Sower Award,” which is named for an iconic Polasek statue of a muscular figure in full stride, scattering the seeds of good in his wake.
A COLORFUL BACKSTORY
Of course, if you live in Winter Park, you already know about Paint Out, which marks its 15th year in 2023. It’s when several dozen selected artists — some local, some from other cities and states — descend upon the City of Culture and Heritage and set up their easels wherever they find inspiration.
The works they create — sometimes at the blistering pace of one or more daily — are notable for their whimsy and spontaneity as well as for their lose brushwork and gleeful disregard for the formal conventions of studio painting.
Seeing artists at work on the Polasek’s lush grounds — or anywhere in and around Winter Park — is a delight for residents and has become an important fundraiser for the museum, which was once the home and studio of Czech-born sculptor Albin Polasek, who died in 1968.
According to Komanski, the sale of paintings created during the event — the proceeds of which are split evenly between the museum and the participating artists — have cumulatively topped $1 million since 2009, with prices for individual paintings ranging from the hundreds to the thousands of dollars.
Stringer, 65, is a native of Gainesville who earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Florida and a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Central Florida.
He says his interest in plein air painting was primarily due to Miller, 72, who earned a degree in art from Columbus State University in Columbus, Georgia, and was already an avid plein air collector when the pair met in 1996.
“It’s Kevin who had all these artist friends,” says Stringer, who found the creative types fascinating and was welcomed into their ranks. Several years later, as it happened, Stringer’s sister-in-law, Carolyn Goddard, opened a gallery and spa in Crescent Beach (just south of St. Augustine).
The gallery, Island Fire Art, was looking for a boost, and Winter Park-based artist Cynthia Edmonds suggested holding something called a “paint out” — which was then not particularly commonplace. “I asked, ‘What’s a paint out?’” recalls Stringer.
Nonetheless, in 2005 this energetic career-long techie agreed to lend his considerable organizational savvy to spearhead the first Crescent Beach Paint Out. Because he held down a demanding day job, vacation time was consumed with learning, planning and organizing the event.
The inaugural outing, although successful, revealed the drawbacks of holding a paint out in the summer, especially in Florida. “Surprisingly, it was hot,” says Stringer, tongue planted firmly in cheek. The staging and viewing areas were moved indoors during the event’s subsequent four-year run.
But for Stringer, the best — and the busiest — was yet to come. He soon found himself drawn back into the plein air world, this time closer to home, when the Polasek board of directors returned from a fateful trip to the Czech Republic.
While overseas, the board — including Komanski — had attended the opening of a museum in the sculptor’s home region. While being shuttled across the country in a rickety bus to visit other historic sites, their vehicle had broken down — leaving plenty of time to brainstorm while awaiting rescue.
Gary Hollingsworth, owner of Orlando-based Hollingsworth Fine Arts Restoration, had suggested the possibility of a plein air event to Komanski. “I said, ‘Debbie, we’ve got all the elements,’” he recalls, noting the city’s overall beauty and its abundance of likely settings. Plus, he added, “we can build this incredible body of artwork about Winter Park.”
Excitement over the possibilities continued to grow following the board’s return. Among the boosters was Orlando-based artist Tom Sadler, who worked with Hollingsworth on restorations and was a participant in the Wekiva Paint Out in Seminole County.
Go for it, Sadler advised — but make sure that the people drafted to run the event know what they’re doing. Fortunately, Sadler added, he knew just the guy to pull it all together.
The artist arranged a lunch gathering with Stringer, Hollingsworth and Komanski. It took little persuasion, Hollingsworth and Komanski recall, for Stringer to enthusiastically sign on as the founding chair of what would become a defining event in Winter Park.
“After that, it was Hal’s thing,” says Hollingsworth. “It’s his and Kevin’s baby. They were all in from the start, and none of what’s happened would have happened without them.”
Stringer — who retired from his real job in 2019 — has chaired the local paint out every year since its inception in 2008. Miller, a member of the planning committee, has helped to select artists and happily run himself ragged as a volunteer at related activities while providing logistical assistance for Stringer. The pair also hosts social gatherings at their home for participating artists.
“Sometimes the life of an artist is pretty solitary,” notes Stringer. “So we like to give them a chance to hang out with other artists and build some camaraderie.” In addition, Stringer and Miller host events for the Wekiva Paint Out, which usually features many of the same artists who participate in the event at the Polasek.
WINTER PARK PAINT OUT
WHERE: Headquartered at the Albin Polasek Museum & Gardens, 633 Osceola Avenue, Winter Park, although artists paint in locations all over the city.
WHEN: Sunday, April 23, 1 to 4 p.m.; Monday through Friday, April 24 through 28, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, April 29, 9 a.m. to noon.
ADMISSION: You can visit the Polasek free throughout Paint Out.
WHAT: Twenty-three acclaimed plein air artists will set up easels on the Polasek grounds and at other locations throughout Winter Park and Orlando. The public is invited to watch the artists at work and attend free painting demonstrations.
HOW IT WORKS: Paintings will be on display in the Polasek’s “wet room” as soon as they’re completed. Stop by to see and purchase works or view what’s available daily on the museum’s website, polasek.org. Proceeds are shared by the artists and the Polasek.
THE GRAND FINALE: Paint Out concludes with a Garden Party, where attendees can mingle with the artists and purchase their creations while enjoying food, drink and live entertainment. The Garden Party is Saturday, April 29, from 6 to 9 p.m., and tickets are $125 in advance and $135 at the door.
A DYNAMIC ARTS DUO
Miller, despite his art degree, doesn’t paint these days. “It’s kind of like being on a basketball team,” he says, adding that he isn’t a fan of his own work. “There can be only so many players on the court at one time.”
Collecting, Miller says, is just as exciting as creating, especially when most of the artists are also friends. Among the pieces owned by the partners are works by plein air veterans Edmonds and Sadler as well as Stephen Bach and Albert “Berto” Ortega, both Central Floridians, and Natalia Andreeva from Tallahassee.
Although the collection is, not surprisingly considering the genre, mostly landscapes, there are some notable exceptions. Among them: A portrait of Miller by Winter Park’s legendary Don Sondag and an abstract graphic canvas by Jules André Smith, founder of the Maitland Art Center.
As the song says, every picture tells a story. So there are stories behind most of the acquisitions, usually related to personal connections with the artists. “These pieces represent experiences,” says Miller, who has sometimes commissioned studio paintings based on plein air works and has recently begun collecting sculpture as well.
But even if you don’t know the stories or the artists, the collection remains a visual feast thanks to the deftness of the creators and the beauty of the scenes that inspired the free-spirited canvases. Selections have comprised two exhibitions: Captured in Paint: Central Florida in Art (staged at the Polasek in 2017) and Around the Bend (staged at the Daytona Beach Museum of Arts & Sciences in 2019).
Stringer and Miller not only donate their time to manage the event, they also spend plenty of money to buy works that they like. “There’s so much joy during that week,” says Komanski, who adds that her two so-called unpaid employees exemplify the spirit of the Winter Park Paint Out: “They are such generous spirits.”