Plein Air Writing

A Columbia Gorge Invention: Art of words joins local tradition of outdoor painting

The Plein Air Writing Exhibition is an annual writing festival that is special to the Columbia Gorge. Plein Air painting events (painting in the outdoors) happen in many locations — there is even a magazine devoted to it — but adding writers to the mix and showing creations from both groups of artists gives the Columbia Center for the Arts’ Northwest Plein Air Event added depth and texture.

As participants in the Plein Air Event, painters and writers visited five locations in the Gorge over five days and presented their best work for display.

This year, 14 writers participated and a wide diversity of work emerged. From poetry to essay to short fiction, each writer found a way to express a connection to an outdoor site. One writer developed a synopsis for a play. The writers’ only limitation was to create something 500 words or fewer, which helps to give Plein Air writing a sense of freshness and immediacy.

“The location jump-starts the creative process,” said Julie Jindal, program manager for the Plein Air Writing Exhibition. “Once writers get going, there’s no telling where their imagination will go. But a word limit means that every word matters. It’s a writing challenge that requires imagination but also discipline, in a short period of time.”

In addition to the gallery display, the writers gathered to read their favorite works to the public on Sept. 9 at CAST Theatre. From sweet nostalgia to wry humor to thoughtful reflection, the writers enjoyed a supportive response from the audience.

“Rarely do writers get to witness the effect of their work on others,” said Jindal. “It was absolutely electric.”

The Columbia Center for the Arts will release the 2012 online anthology in a few weeks, featuring two works from each writer. To be notified when the anthology is ready, contact the gallery at 541-387-8877, ext. 115.


Plein Air writing is inspired by an outdoor location, preferably written on the spot. These two examples from this year’s Plein Air Writing Exhibition evoke a sense of place; more poems, short stories and essays are displayed at the Columbia Center for the Arts.

The Turtle Waltz


(Inspired by Waterfront Park)

The little girl clings tightly to her mother — tall, pink and elegant — as they gingerly make their way as one across the rocky river bottom. A cool breeze pushes back their sweaty blonde curls and they smile.

The water reaches their hips and now a waltz has begun. Mother wears an inflatable turtle float ring around her waist and propped on top — the little girl. Together, mother and turtle buoy the little girl upon the gentle waves and they twirl. The water, cool and undulating, bobs their lithe pink-suited bodies

Up and down,

Up and down.

Mother holds child close.

Their arms extended in pose.

They twirl.

They bob.

She whispers.





(Erin Keefe is currently working on her first novel. She writes fiction, prose and poetry.)



(Inspired by the Mills residence)

I miss these trees. Their dry smell: dust and fortitude. Their lopsided, scruffy shapes. Their orange bark contrasting with the green. The way the wind tickles their long, elegant needles and gently sways their crooked branches while the entirety withstands, unmoved. Lone sentinels, they prefer small groups to the boisterous, competitive groves of Douglas fir.

I miss the muted swoosh of the wind, whisking down from Cooper Spur, through their boughs. The sound is soft, murmured, reassuring, as if the wind were trouble and the tree were God, saying: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of most of this.” Leaving me rustled but still here, breathing pine-scented air and pondering deep-rooted complexity.


(Kristy Athens is the author of “Get Your Pitchfork On!: The Real Dirt on Country Living.”

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