By Heather Leszczewicz Special to Published May 25, 2007 at 5:18 AM

On the streets of Paris, it's not uncommon to see artists painting on street corners, out in the open. In Milwaukee, on the other hand, it's atypical. The Downer Avenue Merchant's Association and the League of Milwaukee Artists, however, say that it's time to take art to the streets and into the fresh air. Beginning Saturday, May 26, artists will be painting outdoors for the 2007 Downer Avenue Plein Aire Painting Competition.

Judith Reidy, chairwoman of the competition, says that this is a chance for the public to see the creative process at work rather than only seeing a finished product. She will be involved in the competition as well, she'll be out at dawn so she can paint Lake Michigan at sunrise.

"When I was looking for a spot for the League of Milwaukee artists to host a plein aire event with community merchants, Downer struck me as being the best opportunity in the area," she says. "It is a nostalgic, bustling, walking, diverse community situated in a lovely neighborhood of old homes, parks and new development near the University (of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) and Lake Michigan."

Painting plein aire has been around for ages, but went out of style as the millennium approached. Reidy says it has been a dream of hers to bring a plein aire event to Milwaukee.

"I love artists and the making of art. Seeing artists interface with the community has an intoxicating effect," she says. "I have dreamt about how to bring artists and the art making process to the general community, so that the community may enter into the creative process more closely. I have seen it happen when Plein Aire artists in diverse communities develop a relationship with the community over a weeks painting time."

Reidy says some of the best feedback she has ever gotten was from people who came to watch her paint and watch the process.

"There's something really excited about engaging the community while you're out there painting," she says. "People become invested in the paintings after they've seen you paint for days. It becomes their own."

This weekend marks the "maiden voyage" of the competition. Artists will have a week to complete their pieces of art and submit it for judging. The judges will be UWM professors, Stephen Samerjan, an associate professor of art, and Jeffrey R. Hayes, an art history professor.

Reidy says that Samerjan and Hayes will have the tough job of judging the artists, some of whom are professional artists and others who only paint for fun. Reidy says there will be all sorts of artists out there painting, just like the varied environment that they will have to capture.

"The community has its share of artists, writers, poets and musicians as well as medical, government and business professionals. Handicapped regulars meet and greet the students who always add a bit of fresh enthusiasm to their lives," she says. "The young exchange life with the elderly who carry their groceries and stop at the shops as they make their way home. This environment is rich with life for either a landscape or figurative artist."

The week of creation will be topped off with the announcement of prizes -- the top prizes are $1,500, $700 and $400 -- and an exhibition/silent auction on June 3. The proceeds from the auction will be split between the artists and the group Artists Working in Education.

Artists Working in Education has a truck which acts as a studio during the summer months, bringing art to neighborhoods and the children in them. The truck will be parked on Summit Avenue near St. Mark's Church for children to make their own pieces of art during the silent auction.



Heather Leszczewicz Special to

Originally from Des Plaines, Ill., Heather moved to Milwaukee to earn a B.A. in journalism from Marquette University. With a tongue-twisting last name like Leszczewicz, it's best to go into a career where people don't need to say your name often.

However, she's still sticking to some of her Illinoisan ways (she won't reform when it comes to things like pop, water fountain or ATM), though she's grown to enjoy her time in the Brew City.

Although her journalism career is still budding, Heather has had the chance for some once-in-a-lifetime interviews with celebrities like actor Vince Vaughn and actress Charlize Theron, director Cameron Crowe and singers Ben Kweller and Isaac Hanson of '90s brother boy band Hanson. 

Heather's a self-proclaimed workaholic but loves her entertainment. She's a real television and movie fanatic, book nerd, music junkie, coffee addict and pop culture aficionado.