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During the pandemic, these artists continue to thrive with plein air painting and art restoration

On a February day when the air is chilled and the ground is adrift with snow, most folks long to hunker down indoors. Howard Park and Lisa Miceli venture out. Both are artists, and they gather accoutrements from their studio inside Stonington’s Velvet Mill and tromp off in search of a captivating place to paint.

On this day, it was to Stonington Meadows, but their scenic sites have included the likes of Haley Farm and Denison Homestead.

Plein air painting may have become a more popular avocation over the past year — creating art while socially distanced and in the great outdoors is pandemic-friendly, after all — but Park and Miceli were enthusiasts long before COVID-19 existed. That said, they recognize the value of this method of painting during this time.

“We’re firm believers, especially during COVID, that being able to paint and teach and continue to plein air paint has helped us sustain,” Miceli says. “A lot of my friends, they’re viewing the videos we did (of plein air painting) … People are trying to find things to do that are different from their normal routines.”

Park and Miceli, who are business partners, have continued teaching their plein air workshops, too, throughout the pandemic. In the sessions, Park uses oil paint while Miceli does watercolors, so students can see each of them working on the same scene but in different mediums.

Cold weather isn’t a deterrent. They paint under all conditions, except heavy rain.

On a bitter cold day at Haley Farm, Miceli says they lasted maybe 45 minutes, got down as much as they could on the paper and finished in the studio.

And on another frigid day, the water froze on Miceli’s paper, and Park’s paint became viscous, so they finished the works in the studio.

“We’ve had some of our most interesting experiences painting in the cold and the snow,” Miceli says.

The speed with which you paint in adverse conditions, Park says, forces you to concentrate on large shapes and value shifts, leaving out the details — “abstracting the initial painting.”

While Park and Miceli haven’t had to change their plein air plans because of the pandemic, where they can exhibit their work has definitely been altered. Park loves the Stonington Village Fair, for instance, but that was canceled in 2020. While many galleries and museums reopened over the summer, a lot are still offering virtual exhibitions for viewers wary of being in a public space. (They note that people tend to be more hesitant to buy a work virtually, though, because they want to see it in person, on a wall.)

And galleries and museums are not holding the usual in-person opening receptions for exhibitions, as they usually did.

“The major change for us … is that we can’t have the gallery experience,” Park says. “The gallery experience isn’t just going up and standing next to your painting. The gallery experience is being able to walk around at the opening with lots of other people, hearing what they say, looking at a painting and discussing it, talking to a perfect stranger about a piece of art, and the connection you can have with someone you never met before, never talked to before, and you’re talking about something you’re both looking at and seeing in a different way. It’s astonishing. That whole thing is such a revelation ... That’s what I personally miss.”

People getting art restored

Park and Miceli work out of ParkArt studio inside the Velvet Mill in Stonington. The space is packed with art; paintings crawl up and down the walls, half-done works sit on a couple of easels, and pieces await restoration on a work bench.

Park and Miceli also do art restoration — cleaning, restoring and repairing fine art and antique objects. One of the pieces they’re restoring now via his HGPark FineArt business, for example, is a watercolor that had numerous problems to fix: it was torn; paint was lost; and the frame was broken.

People have been bringing in their paintings to be repaired throughout the past year. Miceli says restoration work has been an important mainstay for them during the pandemic.

Park adds, “I’m surprised there’s been a sort of steady flow. Not what it used to be, but there’s been a steady flow … Just about the time we’ve got something done, something else will show up on the horizon.”

He says it might be that art owners recognize that they’re not spending a lot of money on things like going out to dinner or on trips, so they figure they can use the money to maintain their collection. Plus, he notes, everyone is home more often, so collectors are looking at the art on their walls more than usual.

Their backgrounds

Park, who lives in Stonington, attended the master of fine arts program at Tufts University and studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He spent time in the Merchant Marines and then worked as a photographer and art director in Boston. He has always had a love of the water, though, which is why he ended up managing a boatyard for a while and then sailing around the world (and painting along the way) — a circumnavigating dream he achieved over four years, ending in 2001, and he settled in Stonington. He also founded the Noank 9, a plein air group that he still paints with.

Miceli, who grew up in Groton, studied art with Park as well as with instructors at Granite Street Gallery and the Lyme Art Association. Her grandmother — who was an illustrator, watercolorist and WPA artist — was a major influence.

They paint and teach week-long workshops at the Fisher’s Island community center in spring and summer. During the pandemic, they both have showed work at the Lyme Art Association and the New England Watercolor Society at the Plymouth Center for the Arts, and virtual shows including at Mystic Museum of Art (where they began teaching a class titled “Plein Air en Studio” on Jan. 27 and will start “Abstracting Reality” in March).

‘Talent is something you develop’

More people in general are painting over the past year — parents, for instance, are having their kids paint — and Park says, “Everyone is trying to do whatever they can so they don’t go crazy during that isolation, basically — you’re isolating yourself from the rest of the community. It’s very difficult.”

While adults might shy away from art, thinking they can’t paint well, they actually can. Park says everybody had that ability but at some point, something might have happened to make a person stop doing art — maybe an offhanded critical comment from someone.

“Talent isn’t something you’re born with. Talent is something you develop,” Park says.

Everybody has creativity within themselves, he adds.

“Not everybody is going to paint like Rembrandt, but everything you do, you do from the heart, right? And then (if) you kind of transfer that to the painting, you’re going to make a good painting.”

Park says with a smile, “What else are you going to during a pandemic? You paint.”




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