Spiritual and Creative Inspiration in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

From Thoreau to Ansel Adams to Richard Schmid, poets, photographers, and painters have found inspiration in the American landscape. It’s no surprise then that the Cuyahoga Valley National Park – home to rugged forests, broad rivers, and rustic reclaimed farms – draws artists of all kinds to its varied landscapes.

Vincenza Harrity is one of them. Based in Broadview Heights, the oil painter discovered her own special muse at Spice Acres, Ben and Jackie Bebenroth’s 13-acre farm in the National Park, after a chance encounter with Ben, a chef, at a dining event at the Cleveland Botanical Gardens.

“He was so charming, so down-to-earth…he could probably talk a dog off a meat truck,” Vincenza says of Ben. “When I found out he had a farm, I knew I had to paint it.”

In September 2014, Vincenza launched her Spice Acres Project, a visual meditation on the farm’s ever-changing landscape, mainly done by way of plein air painting, a venerable approach to nature that emphasizes working outdoors. In essence, the technique requires a complete immersion in the sights, sounds, and even smells of the chosen landscape. Emphasis is placed on capturing the transient light at one particular moment in time, so paintings tend to be small and quickly completed. Yet detail remains essential: plein air painters strive to communicate the vagaries of light and shadow – even the color variations in a single blade of grass – with sensitive precision.

A life-long artist, Vincenza turned to painting about 14 years ago, while living in Louisville, Kentucky, with her husband and two children. She originally conceived the farm project as a year-long study of seasonal changes. Two years and more than 50 paintings later, Vincenza is still setting up her easel on the farm several times each week to paint barns, bee hives, hay bales, wildflowers, and the other attractions. “I keep going over there,” she admits. “I just can’t seem to let it go.”

And she can always count on a warm reception. “It’s like my own private Giverny,” Vincenza says, referencing Monet’s famous French gardens. “And it’s all mine. Ben and Jackie have been overwhelmingly generous with me. I can go there to paint any time, with anybody, and they welcome me.”

But even a cursory glance at her paintings – luminous studies of rustic beauty that effectively recall a bygone era of small family farms and rural lifestyles – suggests she’s called by something that transcends mere convenience.

“Not to sound hifalutin,” Vincenza says, “but coming out here, I can’t help but be in awe of the beauty around me. When I paint it, it draws me closer to that experience of God, to taking part in His workmanship.”

The very nature of farming, she suggests, can become a meditation. Take, for instance, the chore of weeding. “Why do we weed?” she asks. “Because weeds choke out the good. In weeding, we are removing the bad to clear a path for the good, just as in life we strive to remove the bad to clear a path for God. And there is no getting around it: there is something spiritual about that.”

Her aptitude for dealing in metaphors comes to the foreground in pieces like Cherry Blossoms, Hope of Spring, a stark-yet-blushing promise of things to come, captured on a still-frigid day this past March.

“Ben texted me and said, ‘You should see this,’” Vincenza recalls, regarding the painting. “The tree had just blossomed and the light was fantastic. I ran right over, took some pictures, and by the time I got home and started painting, it was snowing again. Yet the truth is that those blossoms gave us hope…it reassured us that better days were actually going to come.”

The farm series also reflects Vincenza’s growing respect for working the land. An enthusiastic home cook and gardener, she says that painting the farm has brought together her two true loves – art and food.

“I love everything about food: how to grow it, how to cook it, and how to eat it. And spending this time at Spice Acres has spurred me on to learning more,” she says. “I’m a little bit more aware now in my choices. It shows up in our diet, in the things we eat, and in the things we don’t eat. Even my German-Irish husband has learned to tell the difference between fresh food and not-so-fresh food!”

Citing The Third Plate, a book by James Beard Award-winning chef and sustainability champ, Dan Barber, she’s become a particularly passionate proponent of “eating the seasons,” both for environmental and culinary reasons.

“After World War II, it was clearly important to address global hunger, giving rise to industrial agriculture,” Vincenza explains. “But today, maybe we’ve gone overboard. We think we should be able to eat a strawberry in February. Why? And how far has that berry traveled to get to the store? Eat strawberries in June, and buy them from local farms,” she says. “Eating fresh food, eating real food, is the way to go. To think you should have sweet corn in March is crazy!”

Those insights have instilled a passion for agriculture. “Artists are known for documenting the changes we see in our world. In light of the changes in agriculture, I wanted to do this project in part to remind people of the importance of the farm-to-table movement. Farming is the backbone of our country. It’s the basis of much of our economy and a vital part of our community, and it’s important to choose local foods. I hope my work can help draw attention to that.”

Using plein air technique to focus on farming is only natural, Vincenza suggests. “As an artist, when I go out and experience the natural world, there is an exchange that takes place, – from the land, to my mind, to the canvas. You are trying to put that on a canvas in a way that people will recognize and that you will remember. You have to see it fresh every day.”

And when it comes together, the artist says, it’s like magic. “The highest compliment I get is when someone tells me, ‘I want to walk inside that painting.’ We long for the land. We long for the earth. I think we find a centeredness there, a rightness. I want my viewers to wear that beauty.”

Vincenza is member of the Ohio Plein Air Society, a signature member of the Akron Society of Artists, and host of Cable 9’s “Artists at Work” series. Her work has been displayed and sold in galleries and exhibitions throughout Kentucky and Ohio, including Chagrin Falls Center for the Arts, Cleveland Botanical Gardens, Fairmount Center for the Arts, and Group 10 Gallery. Her paintings are currently on display at Spice Kitchen + Bar in Cleveland’s Gordon Square Arts District, All Matters Gallery in Chagrin Falls, and online at her blog, Studio Vincenza.

“To paint is to pray,” says the artist, echoing early 20th-century painter John Singer Sargent. “For me, painting is a connection with my spiritual life. You look at God’s creation – this earth we live on – and every single sunset is different. Every blade of grass is different. And I want to paint it all.”


Editor’s Note:
Two of Vincenza’s paintings, Light through the Forest and Morning Snow at Spice, were recently accepted into the Akron Society of Artists’ 85th Anniversary Juried Members’ Exhibit at Summit Artspace, where they can be viewed through Nov. 19.

Her painting Morning on the Path at Hinckley was recently accepted in the Ohio Plein Air Society’s Parks en Plein Air show at the Springfield Museum of Art in Springfield, Ohio, which continues through Feb. 4.

And at least for the foreseeable future, Vincenza herself can often be found in the Cuyahoga Valley.