During the artists’ reception for the 2008 Scotchman Peaks Wilderness Plein Air Paintout, Aaron Johnson and Jared Shear approached organizer Neil Wimberley with a few words: “We want to paint in the back country.” Neil pointed at me and said, “Talk to him.” They did, and the Extreme Plein Air was hatched.

The painter's copy of Melissa Basin that he worked from. Photo: Sandy Compton

The painter’s copy of Melissa Basin that he worked from. Photo: Sandy Compton

The Paintout, parent of the Extreme Plein Air, is held each fall around the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness, a rugged, roadless chunk of glaciated rock and steep, well-watered canyons on the Idaho-Montana border near Clark Fork, Idaho east of Sandpoint. For three days, (October 3, 4 and 5 this year), artists paint the Scotchmans, then frame and hang new art for a Sunday reception and art sale to benefit the Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness and the artists themselves.

The Scotchmans, managed as wilderness since the 1970s, have nearly achieved Wilderness designation several times. But not quite. So, in January, 2005, FSPW was born. The Paintout was conceived to raise public awareness about the peaks and FSPW’s goal of congressional designation and to give artists a chance to paint an incredible landscape and a place to display the art they make.

"...Johnson, Shear and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get to a waterfall in full view that was only a quarter mile away. We didn't get there. We may never get there."

“…Johnson, Shear and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get to a waterfall in full view that was only a quarter mile away. We didn’t get there. We may never get there.” Photo: Sandy Compton

The Paintout is headquartered at Outskirts Gallery in Hope, and organized annually by Wimberley and his wife Ann and Kally Thurman, owner of the Outskirts and a tireless advocate for the arts, the artists and the Scotchmans.

Much of the art made during the Paintout captures vistas from around the edges of the Scotchmans – worthy, indeed, of capturing – but what painters Johnson (of Moscow, Idaho) and Shear (Thompson Falls, Montana) wished to do was go inside – into the interior – and make art in the raw, wild heart of the place. As program coordinator for FSPW, and a guy who considers the Scotchmans his “briar patch,” it has since become my annual chore to lead artists into the back country. Oh, darn.

The Paintout was conceived to raise public awareness about the Scotchman Peaks and to give artists a chance to paint an incredible landscape and a place to display the art they make.  Photo: Sandy Compton

The Paintout was conceived to raise public awareness about the Scotchman Peaks and to give artists a chance to paint an incredible landscape and a place to display the art they make. Photo: Sandy Compton

This year marks the sixth such trip. Johnson and Shear have been on five of them. They missed 2013 (something about having babies and gainful employment). This year, no excuses, and at press time, we are planning an incursion into the East Fork of Blue Creek and a new view of a place with seemingly endless views.

Each preceding trip has been memorable. And somewhat easier than a standard pack trip on a guy old enough to be the artists’ father. Like good children, they ask expectantly and often, “Can we paint now?” This means I can lay my pack aside for an hour while they sit cross-legged with their palates at their side and their work in their laps. There is a cadence to it. Look up, the brush poised above the paper. Look down and the brush rushes across the piece, leaving behind a tree, a rock, a waterfall, the edge of the sky. Look up. Repeat.

Grotto waterfall watercolor by Aaron Johnson. Photo: Sandy Compton

Grotto waterfall watercolor by Aaron Johnson. Photo: Sandy Compton

The Scotchman Peaks, in comparison, is not a very large wilderness – only 88,000 acres – but the nature of the place allows it many secrets. Those well-watered canyons are full of tag alder, devils club, Pacific yew, cliffs large and small and a few dozen other impediments to easy navigation. Three years ago, Johnson, Shear and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get to a waterfall in full view that was only a quarter mile away. We didn’t get there. We may never get there.

The expeditions have enjoined painters, sculptors, pencil artists, photographers and a film crew (Wildman Pictures has made two movies about the Scotchmans). They also draw casual observers. Not that there is anything casual about backpacking in the Scotchmans. There are trails running into the peaks, but not many run through. Connecting the dots can be fun, but daunting. It’s always good when someone says, “Can we paint now?”

Much of the art produced during the Extreme Plein Air and Plein Air Paintouts is on display at the Outskirts Gallery in Hope, Idaho (Outskirtsgallery.com). To learn more about the Scotchman Peaks and the effort to make the area part of the National Wilderness System, visit Scotchmanpeaks.org. //

Sandy Compton is the coordinator at FSPW and a regional author whose books can be found at www.bluecreekpress.com.

Cover of the Grassroutes DVD

Cover of the Grassroutes DVD

Wildman Pictures and the Scotchman Peaks

In 2010, Jake Glass, Joe Foster and Matt Stauble with Wildman Pictures (www.wildmanpictures.com) came to make a film about Friends of Scotchman Peaks Wilderness and the place they advocate for. Out of that trip and a subsequent visit by Glass and Foster came two films: “En Plein Air” (January 2011) and “Grass Routes: Changing the Conversation” (March 2013), which focuses on FSPW as an organization and some of the non-traditional approaches they use to build collaborative support for wilderness designation. The films can be found online at vimeo.com/46852120 (En Plein Air) and vimeo.com/61338296 (Grass Routes). //