Behind the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a staircase that walks down to the Waterworks, where there is a small park. There are more, partially hidden steps that drop farther down to the river.

"There's this little-known spiral staircase that takes us down into this secluded corner of Philadelphia, where people come to fish," said artist Mat Tomezsko.

 

On this ledge — a narrow esplanade between a stone wall and the river's edge — Tomezsko will set up an easel this weekend for the Art in the Open festival. Twenty painters, sculptors, and sketchers will position themselves along the Schuylkill River between the Waterworks and Bartram's Garden, doing what they do in the open air.

This will be Tomeszko's first time painting en plein air. Normally, he prefers the controlled conditions of his studio.

"I'm very interested in nature, and I paint a lot of natural themes. And yet, I'm holed up in my room and working off photographs and off of my computer," said Tomezsko, a graduate of Tyler School of Art. "It may be more appropriate to be out in the world and actually experience things."

For Art in the Open, and plein air painting generally, weather always plays a factor. This weekend is forecast to be sunny and warm, but a recent storm passed through just days ago, swelling the river and turning it brown with runoff.

"It's pretty dirty right now, but sometimes there are really beautiful greens in the water, and blues," said Zach Martin, a young landscape painter who logs more time outdoors than in studio.

Sitting under the Market Street bridge, along the Schuylkill River Trail, Martin points across the water to the old U.S. Postal Service building on 30th Street, crisscrossed by Amtrak tracks, I-76, and the Chestnut Street bridge ramp. The river reflects the angled geometry of an environment built of concrete.

"I learned to paint in the country," said Martin, a native of Indiana and graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. "When I moved to Philadelphia it took me a long time to get used to the shift in colors and lines. The marks that represent the water have a lot of freedom to move about, whereas the bridges and the posts and buildings really keep me confined. I like having both of those."

A moving scene

The water is hypnotic, like watching a campfire. The moving river with slow eddying ripples, occasional floating log and the reflection of the city on the dappled surface are endlessly fascinating.

All the artists in the festival will focus, one way or another, on the river.

Carolyn Hesse will be literally on the river.

"I'm going to be kayaking on the river, looking for material that strikes me," said Hesse, who will be netting branches, bottle caps, plastic bottles, twigs and branches from the kayak she built by hand.

Hesse, a minimalist sculptor, will make site-specific constructions based on flotsam.

"The weirder the better," said Hesse, who works part time in the boat-making shop at the Independence Seaport Museum. "Half of what's so exciting about this is the unknown. Dealing with whatever happens, dealing with whatever I come across, or who I talk to or how the light is or if it rains. It's letting go of the preciousness of the object, and just dealing with the environment."

One of the most unknowable aspects of the environment — apart from the flora and fauna, the flotsam and jetsam — is the public. Artists participating in the Art in the Open festival will be working along the Schuylkill River Trail, a heavily trafficked path thick with walkers, joggers, dogs, rollerbladers, and cyclists.

All are encouraged to stop, look, and ask. Those interactions fuel the creative process, and artists would not sign up for Art in the Open if they didn't want to talk with strangers.

They can also be the biggest distraction.

"I'll bring my music and put headphones in," said Martin. "Sometimes I'll forget to charge it, but I'll still put them in if I don't want to talk to anybody. Just as a sign: leave me alone. I'm working."