Imagine a romantic scene in one of the most quixotic and artistic cities in the world: Painters dot almost every corner, depicting lush, iconic landscapes of the city they love dearly. Couples walk around hand in hand, watching the artists contemplate their work. Shops throw open their doors and offer sips of wine, local beer, and coffee. The sun sets over the smaller, pastoral buildings on the outskirts of town… Are you imagining Paris? I was describing Fuquay-Varina.

The 5th annual En Plein Air Paint-Off in Fuquay-Varina was a two-day event featuring over twenty local artists painting in “open air” scenes and landscapes inspired by this historic town. The public was able to view as the artists painted live on Friday evening until dusk – or until the artists retired for the evening – and Saturday until adjudication began. Three guest judges chose the top three winners who received cash prizes and the opportunity of a lifetime – their works will be reproduced and enlarged for display upon the very walls of their downtown. As adjudication was completed and the paintings were moved outside for public auction, guests enjoyed wine, beer, coffee, and snacks as the sun dipped low in the 70-degree, slightly breezy, air. The evening could not have possibly been planned any better.

Flanked by several of the winning murals from past years, the adjudication and public auction of the twenty-three oils, acrylics, and watercolors took place on Depot Street, where jazz combo Quarter Moon, representing the Moonlighters Orchestra, entertained with lively blues and jazz fusion. Participating artists ranged from third- and fourth-time competitors of the contest in varying degrees of professional and amateur status to art enthusiasts and a recent graduate of Fuquay-Varina High School, Taylor Forzaglia, who was taking part in her first-ever professional exhibition. (Her painting sold at auction for $350.)

The winners and honorable mention were announced after Mayor John W. Byrne congratulated all the participants. Honorable mention Rocky Alexander painted a stunning watercolor of a classic NC backyard, complete with Adirondack lounge chairs, azaleas, and sun-dappled trees and fences (sold for $700). The third place winner was Dan Nelson, who painted one of my favorites of the night – an oil and acrylic of the historic Ruffin home in a more impressionistic style than some of the other, more realistic depictions (sold for $1250). A past winner of this very contest, Jeremy Sams, took second place with his “A Long Way From Home,” an almost photo-realistic acrylic of a view in the Varina District (sold for $2000).

The favorite and first place winner of the evening was Tonia Gebhart’s “Old Mack,” a rustic oil painting honoring the town’s first fire engine with dazzling use of perspective and lovely color. Bob and Pat Barker placed the winning bid of $3200, the highest of the evening, and then graciously gifted the painting to the Fuquay-Varina Fire Department. Gebhart is previously known as a public artist through her work on Trader Joe’s shop murals.

From the pastoral to the urban, the paintings depicted iconic locations in town as well as secret pathways, country landscapes, and charming tableaus of city life. The goal of the festival was to bring together many members of this quaint but rapidly growing town. The wealth of talented artists certainly drew a large and supportive crowd. More of the FVDA’s community events are listed on their website and photos of the winning pieces of art are posted on the organization’s Facebook page.

Who knows? Maybe Fuquay-Varina’s reputation as a small-town arts hub will continue to flourish and the charming little historic village will take its place among other cultural centers of the Triangle. Gatherings like this one certainly build the town up with the potential for greatness.