By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The wooden box with sticks jutting out is Margie Moss' briefcase. The sticks can be repositioned and extended so that the box stands about waist-high on three legs. Boards on the top bend on hinges to stand almost upright -- perfect for holding a painting or sketch pad.
Almost every part of the wood is stained in a variety of colors, from the bold hues of oil paints to the lightened cracks of exposed wood, where gravel or concrete stripped splinters away. Inside the box Moss keeps tubes of paint, a palette, some spare change, business cards and even a bottle of holy water, which was a gift from her daughter.
"She knows I like to pray before getting started," Moss said. "Though I've painted for a third of my life, I still have a bit of anxiety before I start. Praying tends to calm me, so by the time I finish I don't want to quit."
Moss, the owner of Joplin Decorating Center, has had the easel for more than 20 years -- ever since she started painting en plein air -- the painter's version of photography. She has taken the easel to all sorts of environments and as far away as Estes Park, Colo.
Her work around the Joplin area will be featured in "Joplin: An Outside View," an exhibit on display through December at the Post Memorial Art Library. The exhibit includes her pictures of familiar sights around town, including a Japanese bridge at Missouri Southern State University, the cross at St. Mary's Catholic Church and a round barn in Saginaw.
"Hopefully people will see these sites with a new eye," Moss said. "Maybe when they are driving by, they will see the light on the bridge, the reflections on the water, a fresh approach to their favorite places in Joplin."
En plein air is a style of painting where the canvas, brushes and paints are taken outside and used. Also known as peinture sure le motif, the "open air" painting technique started becoming popular with impressionists in the late 1800s, Moss said. The style was also aided by the innovation of packing paints in toothpaste-style tubes, which increased portability dramatically.
Moss, 61, discovered the technique about the time she started painting. Taught to her by her teacher Jeff Legg, she explored the technique minimally while sticking to the studio. Once she was painting on her own, she explored it more, and really took to it.
"It's a conversation that you're having with nature," she said. "In the period of time that you're experiencing, nature is speaking to you. It's an experience that I love. It's so much more fun than painting a still life in a gallery."
Moss has hauled her easel, which is bulkier than a backpack, to a variety of locations in order to paint. She has taken it to lakes, on hikes, to parks and other places. When inspiration strikes, she'll rush to get it and spend as much time as she can on her art.
The environs matter little: As long as the easel can stand and it's not raining, she'll paint -- even if she has to deal with wind or crowds of onlookers, which are always a good thing to have, she said. She's made a few sales of other works during painting sessions.
"People like to interact, and I've met some new friends," Moss said. "Interacting with the public can be a good thing."
In addition to painting and teaching art at Local Color Art Gallery in Joplin, she is also a member of the Daytrippers, a group of plein air painters recently featured in an exhibit at artCentral in Carthage.
Plein air painting is a style that lends itself to group work, Moss said. She often meets with others for painting sessions.
Knowing when to quit
Moss said the style offers painters several challenges, including how to narrow focus to capture one particular sight.
"When you are surrounded by 360 degrees of beautiful nature, you have to figure out one little segment that translates to the canvas," Moss said. "That's the hardest thing."
Because paintings tend to get knocked out quickly, it helps for artists to have a solid foundation of techniques and styles. Moss usually completes a majority of her work on site, then refines it a little in the studio.
As for keeping focus, Moss admits to what she calls cheating: She'll snap a photo on her smartphone and use that as a reminder of what she's going for.
But the most important part is knowing when to stop, she said. Plein air painters work quickly, and it's easy to rush through then overcompensate later, she said.
"I'm always trying not to overwork a painting," Moss said. "When I'm working with thicker paints, the textures can be so sensual and beautiful, like icing on a cake."
Moss said one of her paintings of the Japanese bridge at MSSU underwent a lot of reworking. She and artist Jesse McCormick, with whom she said she has an artistic kinship, painted the bridge on scene.
"It was a 24-by-36, and I painted it pretty quickly," Moss said. "When I got it back to the studio, I practically painted the whole thing over."
Not all of Moss' subjects involve the beauty of nature. She was one of several painters asked to paint the House of Hope, a tornado-damaged house that volunteers signed.
Initially, she didn't want to paint the house, she said. Walking around the perimeter, she said she couldn't find any beauty in the wreckage.
"I was normally used to painting beautiful landscapes," Moss said. "I just thought it was so ravaged. It was not a pretty subject to paint."
That changed once she stepped inside the structure and saw the recorded messages of hope left by volunteers. She took a few pictures with her camera and created an image that is now the cover of "House of Hope," a book by Tim A. Bartow.
Her image features the messages "God bless Joplin" and "Down not out." Angelic-looking clouds blend into sunbeams in a dark blue sky, and the broken house appears to glow.
"Walking inside ... gave me feelings that welled up," Moss said. "There was a feeling of hope in that torn house. My paintings before this one don't look like this."