Plein Air Goes Underground

Extreme painting in Missouri’s Onondaga Cave during recent Steelville Arts Council Plein Air
by Marcia Willman

Onondaga Cave photo by Veronica Brown

The Twins, Onondaga Cave, photo by Veronica Brown

Eighteen artists descended over 150 feet underground into a geologic wonderland of towering stalagmites, dripping stalactites, intricate draperies, and active flowstones in Onondaga Cave. Many regional artists participating in Steelville Arts Council Plein Air 2015 have toured one of the 5,550 caves found in Missouri, but none before had spent six hours beneath the earth on an extreme plein air adventure. Described by many of the artists as “surreal” and by Henryk Ptasiewicz as “an overwhelming privilege of painting a sacred space, like a cathedral,” Onondaga Cave is one of Missouri’s most spectacular natural wonders.

Onondaga painting by Nyle Gordon, Rock of Ages Room, Purchase Award.

“Underworld” by Nyle Gordon, Rock of Ages Room, Purchase Award.


For Nyle Gordon it was unlike any prior experience, surpassing extreme painting in Mineral Point, Wisconsin in February. Gordon reflected “it was like being in outer space with no straight lines, no reference points, making it necessary to rely on drawing skills and color and value relationships to define space.”


Manda Sofia’s first impression was a feeling of autonomy, of being completely alone in the darkness of a magical space until the deep silence was broken by artists’ conversations echoing softly from afar.


Spencer Meagher painting Onondaga Cave, photo by Ellen Bowles

Spencer Meagher painting, the Queen’s Canopy, photo by Ellen Bowles

Spencer Meagher thought painting in a cave unappealing at first glance, but quickly recognized a rare opportunity once underground. The lack of harshness made the cave a difficult subject and it took Meagher a while to get his bearings. Without realizing he was looking into a stream, he later discovered some shapes were reflections rather than fluid and flowing formations.

"Underground Nocturne" by Spencer Meagher, painting of the Queen's Canopy, Honorable Mention, SOLD.

“Underground Nocturne” by Spencer Meagher, Honorable Mention, SOLD.


Queen's Canopy, Onondaga Cave photo by Veronica Brown

Queen’s Canopy, Onondaga Cave photo by Veronica Brown

At first blush, the experience harkens to nocturnes, without the bugs and wind, but with challenges intrinsic to a subject formed of water flowing through darkness. These novel challenges leveled the playing field between novice and professional artist and resulted in more abstract paintings than typical of other venues.

Onondaga Cave by Bryan Shaner, SOLD.

“Onondaga” by Bryan Shaner, SOLD.

The dramatic cave formations were well-lit creating strong contrasts between shape and shadow but the ambient light was less than expected and some nocturne lights proved insufficient for color mixing. What appeared to be artists pumping up their colors was an inability to see local color on palette and canvas. Nathan Jones mixed dark colors only to find out later, in the light of day, they were quite bright. Bryan Shaner contended with the deception of darkness and “the multiple layers of formations which made it difficult to distinguish near from far.”



Onondaga Cave’s Lily Pad Room photo by Veronica Brown

And those drips . . . like rain falling from millions of stalactites and soda straws overhead, forming speleothems as artists painted and leaving unexpected designs on canvas and paper, created abundant challenges especially for the watercolor artist. Onondaga is an active cave continuously building formations by water filtering from above ground. An early morning thunderstorm was evident as cave drips grew in number and the naturally high humidity intensified until one could see one’s breath by mid-day in the constant 57°F.


Veronica Brown "en plein air" in the Lily Pad Room, Onondaga Cave

Veronica Brown “en plein air” in the Lily Pad Room, Onondaga Cave

Painting in a cave had not been on Veronica Brown‘s bucket list, but after spending the day in Onondaga  cave, she believes it should have been.


Queen's Canopy painting by Joyce Hartmann, Second Place Award, SOLD

“Onondaga Queen” by Joyce Hartmann, Second Place Award, SOLD.

Joyce Hartmann summed up the experience for all artists when she shared that never in her 81 years, most of these years spent painting, has she ever participated in such an awesome event. Hartmann wrapped up by saying “plein air takes you places!”

Onondaga Lily Pads painting by Veronica Brown, photo by Rosemary Gruver

“Onondaga Lily Pad Room” by Veronica Brown, Available. Photo by Rosemary Gruver.

Because the resulting paintings were unique and portrayed magnificent subjects of interest to area patrons, many sold quickly. For this and all the planning that went into making such an awe-inspiring event occur, the artists are immensely grateful. From the volunteers of the Steelville Arts Council, especially Nancy Jeffers, who dreamt of artists painting in Onondaga Cave and doggedly pursued arrangements, to volunteers of Onondaga Friends Association and their president, Lorian Moore who carried the dream forward, to the manager of Onondaga Cave, Maria Potter, who rallied the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, gaining permission for the privilege of painting in the belly of the earth.

“Hail to the Queen” by Marcia Willman, Honorable Mention, SOLD.

A special thanks to Veronica Brown for her beautiful photos of Onondaga Cave formations.
Click here to see more of Veronica’s cave photos.

To view  all paintings from the Onondaga Cave expedition, visit Steelville Arts Council Plein Air.

Marcia thrives on the challenge, camaraderie, encouragement, and support of collectors, spectators, and other plein air artists at regional outdoor festivals and while painting on the streets of urban Kansas City.

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2 comments on “Plein Air Goes Underground
  1. I enjoyed reading your article Marcia and seeing your photos Veronica. This was a really good project and your story makes me wish I had been able to participate. Congratulations to all the award winners and those who sold their paintings.


    • Hi Dan, Hopefully we will have a repeat opportunity next year and you can join us in Onondaga Cave. My wish is to get the word out about Steelville Arts Council Plein Air: always a fabulous time with wonderful friends. I’m glad I got to meet you there. Thank you for your comments about the article. Veronica’s photos truly capture the beauty of the cave.

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