Urban Plein Air: Celebrating the Beauty All Around Us in THE BLOCKS

“I’d really like Utah to be viewed as an arts hot spot,” explained Nick Rees. “There are so many great artists here, but Salt Lake City is still not considered an artistic hub. I think events like Urban Plein Air help give this area some justified exposure.”

Rees was one of four artists that set up an easel and canvas to paint along downtown’s Main Street earlier this summer as part of THE BLOCKS third-annual Urban Plein Air event. The artists—who also included Richard Boyer, Minil Ryum and Ashley Long—were provided with a $200 stipend, an easel and a 12-inch canvas to paint a scene onsite anywhere along Main Street from 400 South to South Temple on July 15 and 16 from 5 to 10 p.m. Though the artists faced rain on the first evening, and a windstorm on the second, all produced at least one fully complete, original landscape painting. According to THE BLOCKS Operations Manager Cassandra Yerkes, Urban Plein Air checks several of art-activation boxes she’s been tasked with checking. “It gets artists paid and gives them some public exposure. It helps educate the public about the process of creating art. And it gets people to look up. So often, when people are in Salt Lake City, they don’t notice the incredible architecture all through the downtown core,” Yerkes says.

Mostly by happenstance, the artists assembled for this year’s Urban Plein Air event represented a diverse cross-section of makers at distinctly different stages in their artistic journey. Rees, who is a self-taught acrylic and oil painter, didn’t pick up a paint brush until he was 30 years old. “I just didn’t think about it,” he says. Now, he captures the full breadth of Utah-based landscapes, from the red rock desert and high-altitude mountain settings to the countryside and urban landscapes around his day job as a general contractor. More of Rees’ work is available on his website and at the Sugar House neighborhood’s 15th Street Gallery

Mixed-media artist, Minil Ryum, moved from his home state of Maryland to Utah four years ago and had been meaning to get more involved with the downtown arts community when he saw THE BLOCKS’ Urban Plein Air call for artists on Instagram. “Being an artist can be kind of isolating, which is another reason I applied,” he says. “I have always wanted to work outside, and I found that being out in the city with people commenting and complementing you on your work was a really cool experience.” 

Likely the most seasoned and celebrated artist of the bunch is Richard Boyer. Accolades he’s received for his mostly nighttime urban landscapes include an Award of Excellence from the Oil Painters of America, having his work featured on the cover of American Artist magazine and receiving several Arts for the Parks honors. Boyer participates in outdoor painting events throughout the summer months, mainly for the social aspect. “I paint most of my nighttime scenes in the studio from photographs that I take, and so plein air events are a great way to get to hang out and paint with my artist friends,” he says. Boyer is represented by several galleries in the Pacific Northwest, Southwest and there in Utah at downtown’s Southam Gallery (152 S. Main Street) and the Illume Gallery of Fine Art in St. George.

Urban Plein Air’s fourth artist, Ashley Long, paints and draws the way many of us do—when she can fit it in between work and being a mom of two children, ages 3 and 5. “Art was always my favorite and best subject when I was in school, but then when I met my husband and we started a family, it took a back seat for a while,” says Long, who primarily works in watercolor, acrylic and pen and ink. Like the other Urban Plein Air artists, Long loved the experience of creating a piece from start to finish surrounded by the energy of downtown. “I’d painted and sketched outside before, but it was usually as something I do the side while my family and I are outside doing something else, like fishing,” she says. “Painting with the intent of creating a finished product within a certain time period with all these other things going on around me was certainly a challenge.” But a challenge well worth Long’s while: while participating in Urban Plein Air, she received an inquiry about creating a commissioned piece for a passerby.


THE BLOCKS Urban Plein Air has been held in September 2018, March 2020 and July 2021 at different locations throughout the downtown core. For participation details, contact Cassandra Yerkes at cassandra@downtownslc.org. 


Written By Melissa Fields