The landscape of Pennsylvania has long attracted and nurtured artists who were called to capture her natural beauty. From individual artists pursuing their muse to the emergence of such notable groups as the 19th century Scalp Level School which formed in the western region of the Commonwealth near Pittsburgh, and the “Pennsylvania Impressionists” of the New Hope School to the east, just north of Philadelphia, the love affair between landscape and artist in Pennsylvania was strong and passionate.
It was this way as well in 1956 for seven friends who were working at the time, as illustrators, graphic designers and commercial artists, with various firms in and around the capitol city of Harrisburg. Seated on rolling chairs behind a draftsman’s table, the love for art far exceeded the boundaries of the stale fluorescent lit office spaces where their days were spent, and the lure of the landscape was just too strong to be ignored.
The Susquehanna River valley was abundant in fertile farms and fields, pristine trout streams, and lush meadows, all gently caressed by acre upon acre of deciduous woodland. Ridgelines of green through spring and summer erupted into every hue of red, rust and gold that one could possibly imagine during the autumnal harvest. To not be standing behind an easel in the glory of this surrounding landscape was unimaginable to these seven artists.
They had no conscious intent at the time to form an organized painting group. Theirs was solely a fundamental common desire to paint the landscape and to enjoy the camaraderie and academic fellowship of others who shared similar ideas. They found this in each other in those days, forging a bond that no one probably ever dared to imagine would thrive for decades and affect the lives of so many other painters. Their names were Bob Bartlett, Walt Huber, Charley Krone, George Logan, Meade Logan, Earl Blust, and Jack Slepicka…and together they called themselves “The Seven Lively Artists”.
In the fall of 1956 they met for what would be the first of many Friday lunches. The weekly Friday lunch gathering would become a staple of the group, for it was here where they would talk about their paintings, their methods and palettes, and where plans would be made for their routine weekend plein air outings. They painted in meadows next to the Yellow Breeches Creek, along the many bridges that spanned the Susquehanna River, and in places with names like Fort Hunter, Negley Park, and Boiling Springs. One year later they would hold the very first exhibit of their work.
Soon thereafter, others would be invited to join the seven. Four would enter the ranks in those first few years. Eleven more would follow during the 1960’s, and a total of twenty-one additional artists would be counted among the fold over the next 44 years up to the present moment. Between the harsh reality of losing some of their members through death, and losing others who periodically stopped painting with the group due to relocation, poor health, or for a variety of personal reasons, the active number of painters within the group at any one time usually ranged from twelve to eighteen. Despite the fluctuating number of artists over the years, however, one constant would never change, and that constant was the group’s name “The Seven Lively Artists”. It had become their identity, and through the years, whether the active current roster at any given moment numbered twelve, fifteen, or seventeen, the name has since always stood as a tribute to those first seven artists, all of whom, with the exception of Earl Blust, have since passed away.
For as many hours as they have logged painting local Pennsylvania scenes between the years 1956 - 2015, they have also put thousands of miles on their vehicles during this same time traveling along the east coast in search of new and invigorating plein air challenges. A fishing village on Vinalhaven Island off the coast of Maine was one of the earlier destinations in the group’s long and storied itinerary. Rows of fishing shacks, weathered piers and docks provided solid backgrounds for the rust-pocked hulls of the working vessels that sailed in and out of the village over the primed panels of these Pennsylvania artists.
From Maine’s Monhegan Island as far south as Kitty Hawk and Nags Head along North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the painters of the Seven Lively Artists would anchor their easels against the wind and go to work. The coastal towns of Cape May and Stone Harbor in New Jersey played host to numerous visits of the group, as did Tilghman Island in Maryland, where the “Livelies” would return for several years. Here Captain “Buddy” Harrison’s Chesapeake House, a popular fishing charter business sandwiched between Black Walnut Point and St. Michael’s along the eastern shore, became their home away from home, where the painting spots were as memorable as Captain Buddy’s Oyster stew.
Of the many distant locales visited by the group since 1956, however, one exceeds all others in the number of times they have returned to one particular destination. Trips to Cape Cod became an annual sojourn for over a decade. Sometimes as many as five or six cottages in the small community of Dennisport would be rented for the week and from there the caravan of artists would leave in the morning bound for the dunes near Truro and Provincetown, the town pier at Wellfleet, or down to Hyannis where the easels and gear would be loaded on board for the ferry ride to Nantucket.
Back in Dennisport, as the week progressed, the tiny cottages became transformed into miniature galleries of wet oil paintings propped against the wall on fireplace mantels, on windowsills, and along every available inch of exposed baseboard. In June of 2010, however, after all of the many trips to the area, and the hundreds upon hundreds of paintings that were completed there, the windowsills and fireplace mantels of the cottages in Dennisport were replaced by the main gallery walls of the Cape Cod Museum of Art where the Seven Lively Artists from Pennsylvania were honored with an exhibit of their Cape Cod works.
Meanwhile at the very same time, back in their home state of Pennsylvania, their paintings were also hanging in a special exhibit at the Governor’s Mansion in Harrisburg, where the group’s longevity and contributions to the Pennsylvania art scene were being recognized.
Little has changed for these men since 1956 where the weekly Friday lunch gathering is still an essential element of this group’s bond. Here they still meet to talk about a latest art book acquisition, or to see the proof of the next exhibit postcard, both of which are usually passed around the table before the menus have even been opened. Conversations turn to discussions about recent paintings or lodging details regarding the next group excursion. And most days, even after lunch is over, it’s not unusual to find some still gathered in the parking lot, hulking around the trunk of someone’s car, to look at the latest paintings of a colleague while holding an impromptu critique. With ages of the current members ranging anywhere between forty-three and eighty-five years of age, certainly one of the longest-running painting groups in the country plans to keep the tradition going strong for many more years to come.
I starting painting and exhibiting with the Seven Lively Artists during the Spring of 2004. The intent of this blog will be to introduce more people to the group's history and the work of those who continue the tradition. 2016 will mark the 60th year of the group's existence. It will be celebrated with a special exhibit to be held at the Cumberland County Historical Society in Carlisle, Pa., in May and June of 2016, and a special exhibit engagement in November of 2016 at the William Penn Museum, the State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. As these two events draw closer I will provide additional information. The website address for the group can be found at the very beginning of the blog.