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MC Student Artist Measures Up to Professional Competition at Statewide Plein Air Painting Event

Emma Knowles, a rising senior studio art major at Mississippi College, approached the Plein Air Painting Competition as a learning experience that would help develop her time management skills.
Emma Knowles, a rising senior studio art major at Mississippi College, approached the Plein Air Painting Competition as a learning experience that would help develop her time management skills.

An award-winning Mississippi College studio art major recently left the confines of the Gore Arts Complex to join seasoned artists in a statewide competition that saw her complete two remarkable landscape oil paintings in just seven hours.

Emma Knowles of Birmingham, Alabama, participated in the second-annual Plein Air Painting Competition at Flowood Nature Park on April 13. Cohosted by Pacesetter Gallery and Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks, the event included more than 40 artists who spread out across the park to create unique works inspired by what they observed.

The upcoming senior applied for and received the 2024 Pacesetter Gallery Plein Air Competition College Scholarship, which covered the fees for the competition.

“I did not know what to expect from the competition or myself,” Knowles said following the competition. “I have painted for deadlines before, but not on the spot. I had to approach the competition knowing that if all else failed, it would be a learning experience.

“I was amazed by the artists around me, but I knew I had to focus on what I was doing and not try to compare my progress with others. This made me feel more like I was in a competition with myself, taking all of my knowledge, skill, and previous experience to produce a piece better than the last.”

This was not her first foray into plein air painting – Knowles finished second in the Oil Division of the Plein Air Painting Competition in October 2023 at the Renaissance at Colony Park in Ridgeland – but this year’s event proved more demanding.

During the 8 a.m.-3 p.m. competition time, she completed two paintings that were available for sale at the En Plein Air Show at Pacesetter Gallery in April. Recent flooding in the Jackson metropolitan area required event organizers to move the competition from the intended site of Le Fleurs Bluff State Park in Jackson to Flowood. Artists were allowed to create up to five pieces, but only one could be entered for judging.

“Our mission is to grow opportunities, and art sales, for artists and support them on their artistic journeys,” said Keri Davis, Pacesetter Gallery owner. “Emma Knowles has impressed me with her talent and dedication to her craft. She has been well-prepared and she is setting herself apart from her peers by creating art in public at the competitive level.

“I am looking forward to watching her career.”

A four-time recipient of the Art Department Endowment Scholarship, Knowles has already enjoyed considerable success during her undergraduate career at MC. In addition to participating in the Plein Air Painting competitions, she received the 2023 Studio Art Major of the Year Award, the 2023 Art Major of the Year Award, and the 2024 President’s Choice Award in the Competitive Showcase Undergraduate Scholarship.

Albert Smathers, MC professor of art, said Knowles is working with Emilie Alonzo Sanders, an MC graduate student, on a large, 1,100-square-foot mural for a local church.

“I believe Emma Knowles is an art student that has what it takes to be a successful artist,” Smathers said. “She should expect a long, fulfilling, and profitable art career. Emma has already shown these attributes, yet she remains humble and knows there is much about being an artist that only the journey can, in retrospect, show.”

“En plein air” is the French expression for “in the open air.” The practice of plein air painting dates back centuries, but was first made into an art form by the French Impressionists. Their desire to paint light and its changing, ephemeral qualities – combined with the development of portable paint tubes, canvases, and easels – allowed the practice to develop swiftly.

Pierre-Henry de Valenciennes is credited with developing the concept of landscape portraiture in which the artist paints directly onto the canvas while being situated within the landscape. Today, plein air painting is a flourishing trend: workshops devoted to the discipline have sprung up across the country.

Knowles’ creative expression was encouraged from an early age. Her mother, who taught elementary art once a month, provided the supplies that allowed her to explore different mediums. At age 15, Knowles began selling original floral paintings to help fund her participation on a mission trip.

“People were buying them to support me, but it piqued my interest,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I could do this long term?’ I knew I had enough interest to practice and improve my skills.”

She chose to attend Mississippi College after visiting a friend from high school who went to MC.

“I thought the campus was pretty,” she recalled. “I wanted to go to a Christian school for a degree in art. It seemed that MC was where I was supposed to be.”

Once she receives her bachelor’s degree, Knowles plans to pursue any number of artistic endeavors.

“I would love to travel, look for opportunities like short-tern national park residencies, have booths at art festivals, connect with galleries, take commissions, paint murals, paint weddings, and sell online,” she said. “These will allow me to work for myself so that I can be flexible for my family.”

She said the artistic experiences she has enjoyed while at Mississippi College – including the plein air painting competition – have prepared her for future success.

“MC generously gave me experience and support to improve my abilities and achieve my career goals,” she said. “I have had the opportunity to work alongside a professor and a fellow student on a mural this past semester. The annual Student Showcase Competition also prepares students for a career in art. It gives us an avenue to create pieces worthy of a juried show and the chance to win scholarship awards.

“I am thankful that I have gotten to take a majority of my classes in the new Gore Arts Complex and to see how we are growing as a department of art at Mississippi College.”