Artist Steve Wetzel was hanging his works in the Homeland gallery when a resident stopped to watch.
“This is the first show they’ve hung at Homeland since the pandemic,” Wetzel said. “He was happy to see new art going on the wall.”
Wetzel installed his “plein air” nature paintings exhibit in Homeland’s cheery Florida room gallery. The show stems from Homeland’s longstanding partnership with the Art Association of Harrisburg, which organizes exhibits of its members’ works at public spaces throughout the area.
“I like hanging works in places where people might not have the opportunity to get out and see a little art show,” he said. “They have it right in their home.”
Wetzel is a member of Harrisburg’s legendary Seven Lively Artists, an invitation-only group founded in 1956 by seven distinguished artists (although membership usually hovers around 15). Quality of work is a hallmark of The Seven Lively Artists, who exhibit together and separately around the region.
A retired state official who always knew that he would pursue a second career as an artist, Wetzel smiles as he recollects his first piece: a drawing of Santa Claus made on a brown paper bag when he was 3 years old.
“My mother hung onto that drawing for all of her life,” he said. “When she gave it to me, I thought if it meant so much to her, I wasn’t going to throw it away.”
Wetzel specializes in the “plein air” style of painting – French for “open air.” He started learning the craft in the early 2000s when he took an Art Association of Harrisburg class. The result is a series of paintings capturing nature’s moods, from sunny to stormy.
There are hazards to plein air painting. Wetzel has held an umbrella over his easel while painting during a torrential downpour. He remembers a December excursion to Cooperstown, NY when temperatures dropped into the single digits, and he layered on every item of clothing he had packed.
One of the pieces displayed at Homeland, a striking rendition of a rugged Maine coastline, tells a harrowing tale. To get the right vantage point, Wetzel clambered down some rocks. He was carrying his easel, a 10-pound plein air painting kit, and another 10-pound bag of supplies. His foot slipped, and he came down hard, badly bruising his hip.
Then he set up his equipment and painted the scene.
Some of the paintings at Homeland depict familiar local scenes, including the Harrisburg skyline along the Susquehanna River and the famous Rockville Bridge. Others are products of travels with Wetzel’s plein air-painting friends to places of rugged beauty, including Maine and Rhode Island’s Beavertail Lighthouse.
All reflect Wetzel’s talent for depicting dynamic atmospheres. They also testify to the skill of plein air painters to capture nature’s rapidly changing moods quickly and methodically.
“You try to get the feel of what’s going on,” said Wetzel. “They normally say that you have a two-hour window to paint before things really change, and a lot of times, you don’t even have that, especially if you’re trying to capture a sunset. Those things change by the moment.”
In those fleeting circumstances, he will try to frame out the permanent fixtures of the scene – landscape, structures, horizon – and save the details of the sky and reflections in the water for last.
“They call it chasing the sky,” he said. “If you keep trying to chase the changes, it just looks messy.”
Wetzel loves that several of his works have made their way to London, purchased by a visitor who saw a show at a Harrisburg bed and breakfast.
“Maybe he’ll hang one in the front window, and when the queen walks her dogs, she’ll see it,” Wetzel jokes.
Wetzel and his wife live in the Chambers Hill area of Harrisburg. They have three grown children and five grandchildren, ages 4 to 21.
He likes to think that his works will boost the residents.
“There might be some former art teachers here, or some artists. It might jog some memories,’’ Wetzel said. “It might be someone who’s been to Maine or who’s familiar with the Rockville Bridge. It might bring something back.”