Unsurprisingly, Humboldt has its fair share of plein air painters – folks who regularly haul paints and canvases to handsome outdoor places, braving the elements to prop up an easel and capture whatever fleeting scene is before them.

For nearly three years, Cyndy Phillips, a local artist and director of SequoiaSong Publications, has been working to document a slice of all that plein air art in a thick anthology of 36 Humboldt artists. Phillip’s book, “Looking for Beauty: Humboldt’s Plein Air Community Shows why Art Matters,” will be the first of its kind – no other Humboldt-centric anthology of plein air paintings has been published in a book – and looking back on the massive but rewarding undertaking, she hopes others will follow suit and produce more books chronicling the many types of artists who live and work in Humboldt County.

“I’m doing this because I love art, and I love our community. And it feels like it needs to be done,” Phillips told the Outpost. 

Phillips – who isn’t a plein air artist herself but has ties to the local plein air community – let her idea sit for a few years until she learned how lacking Humboldt’s artist anthologies arsenal is. 

“Why don’t we have a collection like this out there? We have so many painters and so many artisans in our community, why don’t we have more books out there featuring them, so that they become part of the global canon and we have that legacy here for Humboldt?” Phillips said. “That really motivated me.”

With support from helpers around the community, she started the project several months before the pandemic. The artists featured in the book were referred to Phillips by Paul Rickard, a local artist who facilitates a weekly plein air painting group. The 36 artists – including beginners and professionals from many walks of life – submitted paintings to accompany their short essays inspired by the question: “Does art matter in this crossroads of our time?”

And then COVID threw a huge wrench in the project. ​​

A page from “Looking for Beauty: Humboldt’s Plein Air Community Shows why Art Matters”

“The funding dried up, the help dried up, and it became just me,” Phillips said. At times, she was sure the book would go unfinished. 

“[The essays] became a founding source of strength for me and the book. During COVID, all the support for the book fell apart and it was basically just me working in a dark room on a computer by myself day after day. I just felt miserable about the project. I wanted to walk away,” Phillips said. 

“I needed to hear people tell me why this matters, why art matters. And as the primary editor of this book, I had to read [the essays] over and over and over and proof them and copy edit them, and so they became kind of ingrained in my head. And their words would just replay every single time I thought: ‘I can’t do it anymore,’… I would hear their words and I would keep going. So I thought, if that’s what this is doing for me, who knows who might read this book and be inspired by that and not give up on their dreams and on their goals.” 

Now Phillips is steadily working toward releasing the book in April. But printing still hinges on completing a Kickstarter campaign that is now just a few hundred dollars shy of its $12,000 goal, which will close on Jan. 25. (Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing platform; creators only get the money if their fundraiser goal is met.)

The Kickstarter page is where folks interested in owning an extra-spiffy, limited edition version of “Looking for Beauty: Humboldt’s Plein Air Community Shows why Art Matters” can buy it, as well as tote bags and bookmarks adorned with art from the book. The book is itself a fundraiser; half the proceeds will go toward Humboldt’s Annual Paint Out, which is sponsored by the Redwood Art Association

Additionally, Phillips expects that hardcover versions of the book will be available to purchase from local bookstores and online distributors. And, whether or not the Kickstarter goal is met, a digital version of the book will be available for free to all through Humboldt State’s Digital Commons. 

Although the book was often a single-person effort, Phillips was supported by Humboldt’s plein air community, HSU Press, and at least a dozen professionals, she said, including photographer Kristy Hellum and videographers Dean Hubbard, Beau Saunders and Nandi Johannes. 

Some artists featured in the book may be nearing the end of their painting careers, Phillips said, and one artist, Rick Tolley, passed away in October. 

“This book is just a really honorable way to secure their legacies in the world, in the global canon of artists.”

Some of Humboldt’s plein air artists. | Photo courtesy of Cyndy Phillips