By Allison Teague
Like many who take up the arts following a first career, Tony Conner needed only the right moment to act.
When downsizing loomed in 2003, this former AT&T account executive leaped at the chance to paint full-time.
He’s glad he did.
But painting the rural landscapes of Vermont and New England, and tackling commercial work, is not all Conner, now a Bennington-based watercolorist and teacher, does — and many, many other artists are grateful to him for it.
Conner is a founder, and the event director, of Plein Air Vermont, now in its fourth year. This year’s event runs Sept. 3-8 and gives artists four days in the open air to paint what they like among what Conner calls “exciting designated sites across the shires.”
At the end of four days’ painting — in an expanded geographical area this year — the artists will exhibit their work.
There’s a main competition offering 11 prizes totaling more than $6,000 in cash, merchandise, and purchase awards, and a “quick draw,” offering nine prizes totaling more than $1,200 in cash and merchandise awards.
Conner (tonyconner.com) says that painting en plein air — outside, and without the aid of photography — is flourishing as an art form, and that this season’s competition is attracting some of the best in the field from across the country.
He says he’s pleased to hear how appreciative the visiting artists are to find the beauty in the local surroundings, and their place in it. The event even functions as historical record: “It’s documenting the iconic buildings and landscapes of the area — providing a history of how things change,” he says.
And it’s certainly true that Conner’s longtime connection to the Bennington community has brought it economic benefits. People come in from all over the country to take his workshops: particularly the plein air events.
Not only to paint, but to admire the process. “People want to see the artist working and then to see the finished work â€¦ Many, many people want to know what art is and what people do to create it, to see the magic of it.
To them, an artist seems like a magician — as if they’re pulling a painting out of thin air,” Conner says. And while they’re here, they shop, stop in for meals, stay over, attend other events, explore. “It must be having an effect” (economically), Conner surmised.
Looking back, Conner said he wouldn’t have wanted to be an account executive forever. When he took his corporate buy-out, his severance and some training funds eased his transition to a new career in the arts. But, as anyone who has risked a new venture knows, it takes a few years to really get up on step and making money, if it happens at all.
And the way forward wasn’t always easy. Though he’d been painting since the mid ’80s, his first exhibit was a juried show at Southern Vermont Arts Center in 1991. That was a welcome turning point. “The most prestigious and meaningful are the shows that have professional artists as jurors, who decide which (paintings) will be included and which ones won’t. I got my first painting into that show and it sold,” he said.
And, he added, “By the late ’90s I had been in a number of shows and had won some awards. With jurors accepting my work, it gave me confidence. It made me feel like I had a least had a future in this.”
Plein Air Vermont lists three jurors: Juror of Selection Diane Panarelli Miller, an award-winning Boston-based plein air painter of color and light for more than 30 years, a signature member of the New England Plein Air Painters, and a Copley Master in the Copley Society; Juror of Awards Charles Reid, artist, teacher and author, who has long been considered a master of watercolor; and Quick Draw Juror of Awards Stapleton Kearns, a professional painter for 30 years.
Along with producing Plein Air Vermont with his dedicated team, Conner teaches day classes at a community college and a retirement center. He gives five classes a week, and aims to add one weekend workshop a month.
Free of a desk, he also travels widely for workshops: “I’ve expanded out and do two in the Bennington area; two in New Jersey in May and June: one in Geneva, N.Y., in June,” and another in September in Haverhill, N.H. He doesn’t schedule summer day classes, and has work showing throughout New England.
“It’s not corporate income,” he says, “but it’s pretty good. I’m busy, and I’m much happier.”