Sonoma Plein Air at 16

Posted on September 10, 2018 by Sonoma Valley Sun
Keith Wicks paints in the plein air style (“open air” in French), capturing a Sonoma moment and scene on canvas.
Keith Wicks paints in the plein air style (“open air” in French), capturing a Sonoma moment and scene on canvas.

By Jackie Lee | Sun Arts

To most people, Sonoma Plein Air and Keith Wicks are synonymous. Keith is the founder of the group and guiding light of activities for its 16 year history. In 2000, when his daughter, Walker, told him there were no art activities in school, he discovered the State’s meager budget of $2 per student per year was woefully inadequate. Smaller schools were especially hard hit, and it became necessary for teachers to buy art supplies with their own money.

The 2018 festival runs Sept. 11-15

Keith endured a labyrinthine 18 months of government bureaucracy trying to establish a non-profit for a plein air painting organization with the sole purpose of funding art in schools. It was finally approved in 2002.

His good friend Judy Vadasz, an ardent fan of plein air paintings, was the first donor to fund seed money for the effort. She was a Board member for ten years and remains Board Member Emeritus. Keith speaks highly of Judy’s efforts, and says they would not be in this solid position today if they hadn’t been graced with Judy’s extraordinary sense of management and reasonable approach to everything. She exemplifies the heart and soul of their mission.

They now award annual grants to all the elementary and high schools, 14 charter schools, ArtEscape, Arts Guild of Sonoma and others. 18 Board members and President Mandy Bolling oversee various directives during the year, and all participate in managing the Plein Air Event at the Plaza. They’re also not averse to cleaning up trash after the show…whatever it takes.

Mandy Bolling, President of the organization since 2016 and younger than the directors, is interested in encouraging further involvement with up-and-coming artists and is working toward that end. Referring to the management, she says “It’s important to mention that the Board is all-volunteer, each director has a job taking care of committees, grants, school liaisons, the gala and annual festival. There’s lots of work for everyone, but all of them fervently believe in our mission.”

Keith says his artistic tendency was encouraged by his teachers from the age of 11, and he has never stopped creating. Because of that experience, he feels strongly about his desire to pay it forward to others. “Kids need encouragement – it’s important to their development, and art is essential. Human beings are all creative in some way; even if the kids become lawyers, art enriches their lives and gives them a well-rounded thinking process.”

While he is primarily a studio painter, he enjoys the process of painting en plein air, especially when traveling. “I’m invigorated by the immediacy and spontaneity of sights I see. It’s all instrumental in keeping the muse alive, viewing landscapes in different moods and colors,” he says. “I try to travel at least once a year, accompanied by my family whenever possible.”

Wicks in his studio.
Wicks in his studio.

He has a long-term history of teaching figure drawing, or painting, at San Francisco Academy of Art, and says he especially loves teaching.

This year the Academy set up a 30-day plein air workshop opportunity for him in Florence, Italy. A side benefit of additional bus trips to Venice, Montepulciano, Rome and Tuscany allowed Keith some personal time to paint 30 plein air paintings. They are on display in a solo exhibition at Bump Cellars, 521 Broadway, for the month of September. 

Each year, Sonoma Plein Air receives 200-400 applications online from across the country — 50 go to the final judging process and 35-37 artists are accepted. Keith says the main core is a great group of artists; they travel around and see each other at the other shows in Maui, Telluride, Carmel, San Juan Capistrano, La Quinta and other venues. Friendships are easily made, and it’s like a family.

'Grizzly Peak View' by Paul Kratter
‘Grizzly Peak View’ by Paul Kratter

Highly respected artist Paul Kratter says his wife, Tia, was in the first event 16 years ago. As a spectator, he was attracted to it and applied the second year; he hasn’t missed a year since then.

“I also attend the other events across the country, but this one in Sonoma is by far the best. There are such spectacular scenic hills, and it’s my favorite place to paint. Everyone is so friendly, we have warm and welcoming host families, and I can’t say enough about Keith. He always puts on a good event. He’s just an all-around great guy.”

'Fresh Morning Sonoma' by Debra Huse
‘Fresh Morning Sonoma’ by Debra Huse

Artist Debra Huse agrees. “I’ve participated all 15 years so far and will be there this year for the 16th anniversary. The reason I like it so much more than the other venues is because the scenery and rolling hills around Sonoma reflect the way California used to be. When I drive in, I already see paintings. It’s a special place, and the host families are like family now.” 

 Other participating artists have their own stories to tell and they all enjoy chatting with the public. There’s no better venue than the Plaza on a glorious sunny day, celebrating the 16th anniversary and viewing paintings of scenic, serene Sonoma.


Jackie Lee is an artist living in Sonoma. A supporter of the local visual arts scene in all its forms, her focus is on showcasing individual events and artists as well as those represented by established galleries. Reach her at [email protected].


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