In plein site

I’ve written versions of the sentence, “the Adirondacks have inspired and attracted artists for centuries” a zillion times. (Now, a zillion and one times). It’s true - the jaw-dropping landscape and dramatic seasons offer a never-ending selection of subjects for artists of all genres. 

I’m one of them. OK, actually I’m more of a mediocre charcoal pencil drawer and classically-trained professional iPhone photographer. But when the mood strikes (or there’s only 2 days left till Christmas and I need something for Mom), I’ll pull out those pencils or paints and try my hand at creating a masterpiece that only a mother could love.

Recently, the mood struck, or rather, art seemed to be calling me. It was a few days after the recent conclusion to a lengthy and stressful political season, and I found myself thinking about ways to immerse myself in artistic distraction.

Coincidentally, there was an event occurring in a place that I think of as having a giant beacon  that exerts a gravitational pull specifically on artists. Saranac Lake, adirondacks, usa. 

Saranac Lake is THE place to go for arts immersion. This particular weekend was one of the Artists At Work Studio Tours. The event is run by Saranac Lake Artworks, and has occurred annually or semi-annually for more than 7 years.  

I was intrigued by the idea of visiting the artists in their native habitats and surrounding myself with their work. So, I downloaded the map and directions to all of the artists’ studios, and headed toward that imagined beacon.  

I arrived in Saranac Lake and reviewed the map I’d printed out, and was immediately overwhelmed.  On the list, there were eight studio galleries and twelve artists studios involved in that weekend’s tour. That was going to be way too much for just one afternoon.  

So I decided to start at one of the studios located outside of the village and eventually make my way back to Main Street; low stress art tour style.

Racing shadows  

My first stop was at Point of View, the studio of artist Diane Leifheit located in Gabriels, about 12 miles from Saranac Lake. Now, I’ve seen her work before - notably I remember a lot of news stories about a collection of portraits that she did in 2014. The project included 185 one-foot-square portraits of community members, and was enthusiastically embraced locally. 

I spied the telltale ‘Artist at Work Studio Tour’ sign indicating that I’d found the right place. I walked in to find a bright room and a person greeting me with an even brighter smile. Spoiler alert: it was Diane. 

Just like the community portraits project, she had she had just completed another goal: 31 paintings in 31 days during the spectacular Adirondack fall. The series was featured prominently on one of the walls of the small room.  

Diane Leifheit's 31 for 31

I was immediately struck by the variety and by the rich colors in the paintings. Applying my in-depth knowledge of art, I asked her if they were oil or acrylic. She answered politely that they are pastels.    

In my mind, when you say “pastels,” I think of those big, messy, chalky pastel crayons that we used in elementary art classes. Diane pointed to her huge selection of pastels (that I hadn’t noticed right in front of me) near the window. She explained that the rich color of the pigment from these pastels is the basis of many other artist materials such as oil and acrylic paints. She showed me a sanded paper that she uses, which made complete sense as a “sticky” surface for the pastels. These weren’t the same materials I used in 3rd grade. Side note: I now want my own pastel set.

Most of Diane’s works are painted “en plein air” - outside while looking directly at the subject. She does, as many artists do, take photographs of the subject sometimes to help her to replicate the light and colors as she finishes the work back in her studio. This latest project, conducted during fall, had its added challenges. “The shadows move very quickly this time of year,” she told me. Well, in my expert opinion, she did an outstanding job, during this season when the sun is low in the sky, to win the race to both capture the image in time, and to meet her daily goal. 

I had a number of other places on my tour to hit before the end of the day, so I left Diane to chat with another art studio tourer (tourist?), and headed back toward Saranac Lake. 

Pastels, not oils 

Paintbrush Packing

My second stop was to see the studio of my longtime acquaintance, Sandra Hildreth. Her studio is located in her house on a hilly back street in the Village of Saranac Lake. Sandra, like Diane, paints almost exclusively en plein air. As such, her studio is usually wherever her hiking boots take her within the millions of acres of mountains and lakes of the Adirondacks. 

However, her indoor studio, located on a closed-in porch with tons of windows, is a terrific space as well. Sandra paints with oils and watercolors, and is an amazing landscape artist. Her realistic works really make you feel as if you’re there, in that particular field with that particular view of that specific river. She also does a really unique style of mandalas - which she describes as oil and watercolor paintings in the distinctive style she developed based on Tibetan Buddhist mandalas.  

Some of Sandra's paintings on display at her house
I noticed a backpack on the floor of her studio, and asked her how hard it is to tote all of her painting stuff around. She showed me; her setup allows her to bring two painted surfaces back at the end of the day, and her pack includes her easel, paints, brushes, extra canvasses, as well as being loaded up with food, water, and any layers of clothing she needs for the day. All told, she carries more than 30 pounds around on her back. That, my friends, is plein old dedication.

Next up, I decided to check out a couple of artists whose studios are right on main street. 

Sandra Hildreth totes all of these brushes 

Treasure Hunt

I was on my way to the Artists Guild, when I saw another studio tour sign pointing to Mark Kurtz Photography’s upstairs studio. 

I also know Mark, but have never been to his studio. It’s at the top of a really cool staircase lined with a stair-angled radiator and some of his photos on the wall. When I arrived in his well-lit second floor digs, there were a few people from Montreal perusing his prints.  

His studio was very messy. Or so I thought. There were prints piled everywhere in no particular order, and a collection of antique cameras here and there. While the other visitors contemplated which of the prints they wanted to have him frame, he explained the setup to me.  

"Messy" display

He discovered his current system by accident when he was distracted one time and left a few prints haphazardly on a table. When he turned around, he found that there were people handling and looking at the images he had left piled on the table. He had (and still has some of) his printed work neatly organized in vertical displays that folks could shuffle through like papers in a giant file folder, but apparently it’s human nature to like a treasure hunt. So, he keeps prints of his photographs strewn across a couple of tables, and visitors enjoy pawing through to view his great images and find the ones they want to take home. Brilliant.

Aside from being the official photographer for the annual Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, Mark has developed his fine art images using traditional silver darkroom process for more than 25 years. Now that digital printing has progressed to a higher level of quality, he offers images in both traditional silver and digital prints - the latter being less expensive.

His studio features some of his creative, academic series with subjects like the curbs, lines, and grates of a street in black and white. And of course, it also features a variety of landscapes and nature scenes showcasing the stunning Adirondack landscape I might have referred to in the past. 

I left Mark with an offer to provide advice should he switch to professional iPhone work. Haven’t heard from him on that yet.

Mark Kurtz Photography  


I then stopped at the Studio Tour headquarters. Saranac Lake ArtWorks does not have a brick and mortar presence, so the Adirondack Artists Guild serves as Studio Tour Central. In addition to that, they were showcasing the latest juried show winner, and always have a rotating exhibit of their amazingly talented members’ works. After I had perused the displays, the volunteer of the day asked me if I had gone to see Georgeanne yet. I said no, as I didn’t know what she was talking about. She pointed across the street and insisted that should be my next stop.  

 Artists Guild

Size doesn't matter 

I found the studio tour sign across the street and headed upstairs to Georgeanne Gaffney’s studio. Apparently she had recently moved to this location - which has a big front room with a huge window facing Main Street. There was a large painting on one wall, several small items on on a table, and another work in progress on an easel.  

I introduced myself and asked her what type of paint she used. She told me it was primarily acrylic on wood panel. I was interested in the process and she explained how she paints a layer, then sands the surface down, and adds more paint, refining the subject, repeating the process. I’m not likely describing it correctly, but I was amazed.

Though the large format painting on the wall immediately commanded attention, I noticed on the table in front of the big window that there was a tiny painting. Georgeanne paints landscapes and portraits from photographs, and showed me how she sometimes paints different versions, sizes and sections of a subject. 

As I found out, she is also the one who organized this particular event. As I was about to leave, one of her fellow artists, Peter Seward, walked in and invited me to stop at his studio on my way home, which I did. But not until I stopped at Small Fortune Studio.

 Georgeanne Gaffney


I have been to Tim Fortune’s studio before, but since I was on a tour, I thought I’d stop and say hi. Tim paints wonderful watercolors and oils, most featuring aspects of nature. 

His studio is located right on the main street, and one can watch him paint from the sidewalk. He said that he feels like he’s in a zoo, but that sometimes it’s entertaining as people stand just outside the big window - only feet from his work table - and talk about him as if he can’t hear! 

 Outside of the window view of Tim Fortune

Last Dance

As promised, I headed to see Peter Seward’s new space — a building on Route 86 with big windows and a view of Lake Flower and a small park. The space includes his, and his designer-wife Karen Davidson’s offices, shelves with products he’s designed, a moveable exhibit wall, and depending on the day, art workshop attendees or piano-playing farmers' market shoppers. It was late by the time I arrived there, and we chatted for a while about their intentions to use the space for a variety of community purposes. I look forward to seeing what’s there next time I stop in!

 Peter Seward Studio

Up next

This organized tour is held once or twice a year, but don’t despair if you missed it.

The good news for all of us is that all of the artists I spoke with noted that they offer either regular open hours or are available by appointment. In fact, Diane Leifheit suggested that winter is a great time to catch up with work of your favorite artists, and that art travelers should use the brochure of ArtWorks member artists to design their own tour; just call ahead to be sure the artist is in the studio. 

And while you’re at it, Saranac Lake ArtWorks hosts a number of events you should add to your calendar. Their annual line-up includes 3rd Thursday ArtWalks, Adirondack Plein Air Festival, Hobofest, as well as the Artist at Work Studio Tour, to name but a few.

This day’s adventure provided just a cursory glance at the community of artists in Saranac Lake. I fully expected to view some terrific works and meet the artists, but this behind-the-canvas experience provided much more. It really allowed me to gain a more personal understanding of the artist and their motivations and processes. And, equally important, I also learned the difference between oil paints and pastels.

While I was touring, I took a professional iPhone picture of the view from my car window - a reminder about how the landscape here can’t help but inspire these artists.

 Professional iPhone photograph


- Kim Rielly is the director of communications for the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism. Her professional iPhone photos are a big hit with her small list of Instagram followers.



This week in related ADK behind-the-scenes news:

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Bird brain

The man behind the myth…and Rudolph, too

Skating on glass

We make it snow

All lit up

Snowshoes & Sasquatch

Author:Kim Rielly
Categories:Exhibits, Arts
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