Plein Air Artist Jacalyn Beam Uncovers Unexpected Beauty
The Chester County native paints in all weather to capture scenes we often take for granted.
Many visitors are drawn to this area by the beauty and historic character of its landscape. But for those of us living here, it’s easy to rush through the seasons unaware—until the artist reveals what was there all along.
Plein air oil painter Jacalyn Beam spends countless hours standing in the fields, on the hillsides and by the streams of the Brandywine Valley capturing a moment in time. “You feel the atmosphere, the weather, the temperature,” says Beam, a Chester County native. “People say to me: ‘I feel it.’ The reason they do is because I felt its unique qualities. I can’t do that in a studio.”
While most people spent the past winter avoiding the cold, this high-energy artist packs her paints and easel as soon as the snow starts falling. “When the leaves fall, the landscape reveals itself. You can see farther and better. It’s one of my favorite times of year to paint,” says Beam, who sometimes goes home empty-handed, having sold a painting right off the easel.
Beam has had a whirlwind year, with several solo shows locally, plus juried shows in Florida, Virginia and Ohio. The highlight was being voted into the Washington Society of Landscape Painters, a prestigious group whose membership is limited to just 40 East Coast painters. Entry requirements are rigorous, and there is always a long list of applicants.
“Artists who are in that group are of the highest caliber, so it’s an honor to have them vote me in,” she says. “You paint at different venues, then have a critique. When you’re with people you respect and admire, they hold you to a different standard.”
This recognition is especially meaningful given that Beam began painting in earnest less than 15 years ago. While walking along the beach one day, she saw an artist painting by the ocean. She said to herself: “I want to do that.”
Beam had always loved art and toyed with the idea of making it a career in high school. Though she ended up studying music in college and earned her PhD in music education, creative expression in paints remained a key part of her life.
Beam took to plein air with a passion. She and her husband, Steve, had moved back to this area in 2003, and the couple enjoyed rediscovering its history and unspoiled landscape. This fresh perspective became the subject matter for her painting.
Because of her interest in local history, it has dismayed her to find that some structures she once painted no longer exist. She points to a painting of Chester County’s historic Dilworthtown crossroads, with the old Arden Forge—now a renovated office building—as its focal point. “We are really documenting history when we paint plein air,” says Beam.
In March, a month-long solo show of Beam’s work is being held at the Station Gallery in Greenville, Del. The exhibition spotlights the cultural legacy of the du Pont family, including paintings done on location at Winterthur, Longwood Gardens and Mt. Cuba Center. Station Gallery co-owner Alice Crayton says Beam “has a good eye for picking out places that we go by every day and take for granted.”
Beam paints in a distinctive Impressionist style, capturing a barn or historic structure with just enough detail to make it recognizable. “In the beginning, you’re trying to figure out all the mechanics, the drawing, the colors,” she says. “When that becomes second nature, you’re painting from your feeling—how you see it. It’s almost like speaking to someone without words.”
Painters who inspire Beam include the Wyeths and those from the Pennsylvania Impressionist movementin and around Buck County, Pa. She recalls a humanities teacher who discussed the cultural heritage of the region and first exposed her to Andrew Wyeth’s art. Though it didn’t resonate at the time, she came to appreciate him more and more as time went on.
“As I learn more about art, I learn more about why he was so important,” she says. “What’s profound about him is that he’s a draftsman extraordinaire,” she says. “But if you look at his very intricate work, there’s also some simplification within it. He’s a great abstract artist.”
After Wyeth died, Beam painted a large landscape of the old mill complex where he lived. The leaves were off the trees, and she spotted the property from the west side of the Brandywine. Pulling off the road, she painted a small canvas with the river’s shape and the placement of the buildings. “The perspective of Brinton Mill was unique,” she recalls. “That evening, I captured the view on a large canvas.”
Another aspect of the artistic process important to Beam: the marriage of a painting with its frame. When she was commissioned to paint historic Buckley’s Tavern on Kennett Pike for its reopening several years ago, she worked with a framer who has raised frames to an art form. Washington, D.C.-based frame conservator William Adair echoed the pineapple motif on the Buckley’s tavern sign by etching tiny pineapple cartouches in each corner. He also added punch work and trefoil motifs on the 22-karat water-gilded frame.
Similarly, a frame for a snow-covered night scene has an etched motif of minute pinecones, with a thin glaze of white to echo the snow. “You always incorporate something within the painting in the frame,” says Beam, who adds with a smile that she’s become something of a “frame snob.”
Painting plein air has its hazards. Beam once set up her easel, only to discover a very long snake slithering toward her. But the gratifying side is meeting people who enjoy art and appreciate her work.
For her, that connection with a client is the most meaningful. “A person purchases your painting and likes it enough to put it in their home, which is a very personal space,” she says. “What greater award can you have as an artist?”