The day I joined Leslie Baum in the Garden of the Phoenix, we chose a location at the edge of the pond, looking out over the balanced landscape with its small trees and well-placed rocks and its footbridge in the distance. This was my first time visiting this garden on Chicago’s south side, although it’s only a ten-minute walk from where I work. Leslie unfolded a small table, and as we chatted she took out sets of watercolors and pads of paper. We spent a couple of hours there, side by side, looking at the quiet scene around us and painting. It was an experience characterized by the unhurried passage of time and the enjoyment of this unscripted activity together, although one of us was clearly the much better painter.
Back then, in the summer of 2018, I was the latest person to join Leslie for an outdoor painting session. She had begun her Plein Air Project a year before, as a kind of personal counterbalance to newly emerging realities—the distortions and centripetal pull of Trump’s presidency. Reflecting on its origins, Leslie says, “After the 2016 election, my work changed. I wanted to immerse myself in beauty and connect with something larger than the present moment, to not lose perspective.” And so she stepped outside to paint with friends and acquaintances, one by one, in places around the city of Chicago and occasionally farther afield. There was an open-endedness to what Leslie was doing; she had established basic guidelines and a sense of purpose, orienting herself in the world through painting, but this determined a path more than a destination.
Leslie herself has been a dedicated painter for many years, using watercolors as a steady part of her practice, but she hadn’t painted outdoors with any regularity. The choice to embrace plein air painting isn’t an obvious one for a contemporary artist today. This mode or genre can seem overly traditional at first, or it can evoke, perhaps a little too readily, the kind of landscape paintings sold in pretty tourist towns or made by hobbyists on weekends. And yet for Leslie, there was something energizing and empowering in this choice. Perhaps it’s because this type of painting values the experience as much as the outcome. Or maybe it’s precisely because the stakes of plein air painting seem to be low—unburdened by the pressures of making resolute artworks in the studio at a time of disorienting political urgency.
As we sat in the public garden that day, I would look over from time to time at what Leslie was painting. Her sheets of paper would gradually fill with compelling compositions and color combinations that were unexpected but still in tune with this place. Her sketches were infused with hazy auras. Sometimes she broke the landscape down into solid shapes and put it back together. With attentiveness and enviable ease, her casual paintings showed how traditional territory can still lead to surprising outcomes. But the aim here wasn’t to make masterful paintings, necessarily, or even artworks that would be seen by many other people. Like all her meetings in parks or gardens, this was a painting-shaped escape hatch, for both Leslie and her guest. An outdoor painting date nurtured a shift in attention and came as an invitation to step away from your own fixed patterns. For an hour, at least, you got to recalibrate your senses to your environment, letting the verdant setting loosen the hold of other preoccupations and uncertainties. The ever-present temptation to scroll through the news feed or social media on your phone—as if searching for answers or the next sign of danger—fell asleep for the moment, while something else inside woke up.
This whole scenario, from the beautiful setting to the unassuming tools, gave non-painters like me the permission just to arrive and get started and let things unfold. Since most of her guests, I gathered, had limited experience with watercolors, we probably weren’t going to be making great paintings. Knowing this was both reassuring and slightly uncomfortable. It required letting go of any desire to be in full control and dialing down the familiar urge to always be performing one’s success. Leslie was asking each of us to embrace a measure of vulnerability, which she describes this as “the project’s emotional component.”
At the end of each plein air painting date, Leslie keeps all the small paintings, both hers and her companion’s. I wasn’t especially proud of the watercolors I made that day, but they felt, most of all, like traces of our afternoon—passing moments seeping into the sheets of sturdy white paper. I was happy to entrust them to Leslie for safekeeping, knowing she might look at them at some point, even if I never saw them again. I didn’t think much of it then, but my small handful of paintings soon joined many others and together they grew into an archive.
There is a strong social dimension to The Plein Air Project. This became more evident and remarkable when I visited Leslie at her studio, months later, and I stood there looking at dozens of small watercolors pinned to one of her walls. The loose grid of images represented many different days and places, and many different people, with just as many different styles. The Plein Air Project was solidifying into a collective creation. In doing so it was also mapping out a scattered community of sorts, with Leslie as its roving center. And we all left behind signs of what we had seen.
Each participant was translating into visual form their experience of being present in a place—perceiving and recording it in the form of a painting, or at times letting one’s observations spin off into some weirder expression. This was part of what gave the moment its energy as it happened, but at the time it all felt self-contained. Later, with the accumulated watercolors arranged side by side, a more expansive reality came forward. The many images on Leslie’s wall were manifestations of different ways of looking, evidence of what each person observed, and how. This brought to mind an interview that the painter Thomas Nozkowski gave in 2010, where he says:
“One of the reasons I love painting, this singular thing, is the communal part of it, all sorts of people in different times and places, all trying to catch and hold some part of the visual continuum, all of them doing the same thing, no matter the context… And there’s the big question of why you look at this and I look at that, you know—are we really seeing the same thing? Or do we both really see colors the same way? Do we see shapes the same way? Do we understand scale in the same way? And painting is a way to battle that out, to try to work out the possibilities, the meaning of visual knowledge.”
The project that Leslie was patiently orchestrating, person by person and place by place, brought out similar questions; within its own bounds it condensed the kind of visual continuum Nozkowski describes. It might seem at first like an obvious observation: that everyone will paint a landscape slightly differently. But that doesn’t make it a simple observation at all. This took on new weight as I was looking at Leslie’s growing collection of watercolors. These paintings embodied an ongoing effort that was intimate, personal, cumulative, expansive, and shared, all at once.
Leslie’s own watercolors are a part of this informal archive, too. They are a recurring presence within the trajectory of the project, but they don’t hold any extra weight, like one might expect them to. Her paintings are more like a metronome, something that keeps pace, that carries things forward. On the Plein Air Archive site, her watercolors appear alongside those of her companions. It’s revealing, however, that she also quietly gave titles to her watercolors in a way that shifts the focus to the people she was with, suggesting that their presence had been the vital thing all along. Scrolling through her artist’s website, the names of her watercolors become a gentle roll call: untitled: with nils, untitled: with dana, untitled: with magalie, untitled with annie and many more, and in a few cases, untitled: alone.
In a different artist’s hands, the Plein Air Project might have ended there, as a collection of watercolors made by many friends—satisfying as a gentle experiment in social painting, as a testament to good times when they were sorely needed, and as an archive of different ways of seeing (through the eyes of both trained artists and others more unskilled). For Leslie, though, the first phase of the project eventually gave way to a second phase, in which the activity of making art returned to her studio and became solitary once again.
Back inside, Leslie spent time looking closely at the watercolors that everyone else had made and left in her keeping. She realized that this provisional archive could yield its own discoveries: elements within these various plein air sketches became the starting point for new paintings. As certain parts caught her eye, Leslie made color photocopies of her companions’ watercolors and cut out these elements, combining them with others to create preliminary paper collages. She then repainted these new compositions in acrylic paint on gessoed canvases. In many cases, she modified the composition further as she worked.
As I looked at one of these new larger paintings on the wall in her studio, she revealed it was partially inspired by one of my own watercolor sketches; she had merged it with elements from two other people’s plein airpaintings. I couldn’t immediately identify what part of this new constellation was originally mine, but the outcome held me transfixed: its layering of planes created a set of internal collisions and obstructions, all anchored around a central contrast between an area of dark green and surrounding lighter tones. This painting was an echo of the garden I had sat in with Leslie—it held within itself a fragment of the landscape I had painted—but the final transformation was also filtered through Leslie’s way of seeing. Like each of her new works, it was comprised of the details she was drawn to within someone else’s sketch, layering her eye onto theirs.
This is not the first time that Leslie has looked to other people’s paintings as source material or inspiration. In earlier bodies of work, Leslie would turn to paintings by Henri Matisse, Paul Cézanne, Joan Miró, or Helen Frankenthaler and isolate shapes or motifs within them, which she then borrowed as formal starting points for paintings of her own. When I first saw some of those works, I took them to be homages of a sort, but she was clearly willing to take liberties with the work of famous dead artists—honoring them while also generating something new. Her methods seemed unhaunted by the “anxiety of influence,” as Harold Bloom described in 1973, when he argued that all poems rise out of older poems, as each poet struggles to break free from the preceding “masters.” Leslie’s work feels more aligned with Jonathan Lethem’s counter-position, cleverly constructed in a 2007 essay in Harper’s, in which he makes the case for an “ecstasy of influence” instead—claiming all art as an exercise in love and theft, in which originality is inextricable from appropriation, borne out in an endless stream of adaptation, combination, and reinvention.
A similar current runs through The Plein Air Project, whether one calls this practice sampling or appropriation or something else. But while her project grows out of her previous work in this respect, Leslie has now changed the terms in significant ways. Leslie’s paintings from the second phase of The Plein Air Project—the ones she made in her studio—are all titled shaping the day, a name for the series that overtly echoes one of her earlier studio series, titled shape of the day. In the past Leslie borrowed shapes from canonical artists like Matisse and Miro; here, in contrast, she is embracing the influence of people she knows in everyday life. In the paintings that stem from her watercolor dates, she’s attuned to the people sitting right beside her, and letting them shape the work she does even after she’s alone.
There is always an embedded ethics in acts of artistic appropriation, no matter what form it takes, and whether it’s openly acknowledged or not. One can think about the artist’s positioning as they draw from what other people have created, infused with potential power differentials and complicated questions around authorship and permission. Rather than exerting control over someone else’s work here, Leslie is enacting a kind of friend-merging, in which a blessing has been granted and things begin on even ground. Leslie lets herself learn from her friends how to see in different ways, a process that preserves the shared moments that first gave rise to these images.
The original watercolors by her friends remained mostly behind the scenes at first, made visible only through Leslie’s new paintings; she let everyone’s paintings remain protected and private, safeguarding the vulnerability that she recognized early on. (Eventually, with everyone’s permission, the watercolor paintings will later shift into view online, as part of the Plein Air Archive.) In a continuing spirit of care, Leslie uses the titles of her new acrylic paintings to allude to the people who inspired each of those works, without revealing everything. The titles all follow a similar pattern, using initials rather than a more explicit act of naming: shaping the day: ct, hs, kl, for example, or shaping the day: ph, mg. As multiple initials appear side by side, the titles of her new paintings might evoke gatherings of multiple people, although some of them may be meeting for the first time within this composition. This suggests how a social dimension continues to be important in Leslie’s second stage of The Plein Air Project, although it is presented more covertly and takes a new, poetic form. If the original watercolors from Leslie’s plein air dates mapped out a network of friends, her subsequent studio paintings transform the map into something new, as if the streets in a city were folding on top of each other, connecting one neighborhood to another.
We are, in some important sense, the people we know; our accrued moments with them shape our days and, in profound ways, ourselves. This shaping occurs long after any meeting or moment is over. In each of Leslie’s new acrylic paintings, she integrates her friends’ watercolors into the new composition, repainting and rearranging them and letting them merge. This is similar to how memory works as well. A memory is not a static thing, filed away in a drawer awaiting retrieval; research shows that every memory is mutable, subtly reshaped every time it is recalled, holding its form but also changing, influenced by every experience one has had since that moment in the past.
I began this essay by describing a serene moment in the summer of 2018, sitting in the Garden of the Phoenix with Leslie Baum. This essay started with a memory of its own, and I begin to wonder how much that memory has been affected by what has happened since. Flash forward to the spring of 2020, a few months ago now. As the pandemic arrived, everyone in Chicago began to shelter in place and social distancing became a new imperative. The very possibility of meeting someone to go paint together disappeared. The outside world felt suddenly menacing. To relax somewhere that is not your home, or to sit beside another person you don’t live with for hours at a time—all that was newly inconceivable. These activities, once so relaxed and almost ordinary, became only memories or modest hopes for the future.
During the weeks of lockdown in Illinois, Leslie did a number of painting sessions over Zoom. She and friends could still paint and talk, but they were now separated, mediated by screens, and always looking at two different places. This concession to the pandemic tested the original terms of the project, pushing at some of the qualities that had originally imbued it with meaning: a sense of togetherness, an immersion in the outdoors, a chance to feel at ease and simply paint. The Plein Air Project had been a way for Leslie to reorient herself through painting in the wake of Trump’s election, but it became necessary to reorient all over again. The new conditions underline different aspects of the project that were perhaps there along: one might be a deeper, unspoken recognition that there will always be a distance between the experiences of two people, who can never fully know what it’s like to be the person beside them, no matter how close they might be.
As I’ve been writing this essay, in the summer of 2020, the U.S. has begun opening up again. We’ve learned that COVID-19 is more likely to spread through the air and close contact indoors, while outdoor activity brings lower risks of transmission. Masks are common now, in a way scarcely imaginable a year ago, and people are congregating again in public parks, laying down blankets and bringing folding chairs. The Plein Air Projectresumes. Leslie is inviting people to join her again, outdoors, and their watercolor sketches are accumulating once more, brushstrokes and colored washes giving shape to visions of the local terrain. Only now, Leslie and her companion sit six feet apart. A year ago, the two of them wouldn’t have seen their surroundings in exactly the same way, a fact the lent her project energy, but now their vantage points have shifted just a little farther out of register.
This new distance—still close but measuring out a prescribed gap—feels like the literalization of a metaphor: a physical reminder of human differences in experience and understanding. With compounding effects, so much has happened since Leslie first began The Plein Air Project: a global pandemic and a failed government response; the fall of the U.S. economy and record unemployment; and widespread uprisings against police violence and systemic racism, all of which continue months later, in various forms. These moments and movements are experienced in ways that are both inescapably personal and often widely shared. They also vary profoundly depending on who you are, maybe most pointedly by race and class, so deeply intertwined in America, though also by age, gender, physical ability, and where one lives—just some the many things that inform a life and yet fail to describe it fully.
This could be the subject of another essay, but even noted here briefly this set of observations weighs on the central terms of what we’ve been talking about. Plein air painting may be grounded emphatically in the here and now, allowing an immersion in beauty, but it has a history of its own. That history, and adjacent truths, bear revisiting, whether this means considering the limits of who has time for leisure, or how the effects climate change—like the smoke-filled air from wildfires—drive people indoors, or the tacit barriers to who can use, or fully enjoy, public green space. As Alexis Okeowo observes in a recent article, “After all, Black Americans have long feared white hostility in natural spaces. During segregation, Black visitors to city parks, pools, and beaches were harassed, attacked, and prevented from entering.” While today it may vary in different places, in too many ways this hostility still hasn’t changed, as illustrated in incidents this year shared widely on social media, such as the experience of a Black birdwatcher in New York’s Central Park, who recorded video as a white woman called the police on false pretenses after he asked her to obey park guidelines and leash her dog. (While unrelated, they shared the same last name, Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper.) Even the phrase “plein air” begins to sound different now: en plein air, translated from French, is often taken to mean simply “outdoors,” but it says more literally “in the open air.” The ability to sit outside, or to breathe freely, is more tenuous than it might seem and it’s not a pleasure guaranteed to all.
My descriptions of this year’s many overlapping hardships are an imperfect shorthand for what is unfolding around us in the summer of 2020, and surely there is more to come, but they might still point to the possibility that new ways of seeing and being are emerging. On the smallest scale, the act of sitting together in person with someone, outdoors, feels more beautiful and grounding than ever, the joy of closeness amplified after months spent in relative isolation. And protests for racial justice demonstrate the power of convergence in the open air with a collective energy and purpose that underlines far greater stakes and how much more there is to do.I return in my mind to the Garden of the Phoenix, where I met Leslie that afternoon a year ago to paint beside the pond. Its placidity feels like a dream, but that hardly defuses the memory. I’m thinking now about what kind of rebirth may be possible, for this country, for art, for every one of us. Can we hope for a rise from the ashes, since that’s where it feels like we’re heading? In one way or another, we might all find new ways to connect to something larger than the present moment, as Leslie set out to do in 2017. Moving into an uncertain future, we might need to. What forms can communion take, and how might it encourage different ways of seeing? Leslie’s Plein Air Project will continue to find its own path through this larger landscape, refracting it at different angles, looking at the world through her eyes and others, in whichever location they choose.
 Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
 Jonathan Lethem, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” Harper’s Magazine, February 2007, https://harpers.org/archive/2007/02/the-ecstasy-of-influence/
 Alexis Okeowo, “Good Nature,” Ssense, August 5, 2020, https://www.ssense.com/en-us/editorial/culture/good-nature