Growing up, Sandy Brooks’ parents forbid her from making art. They didn’t see it as a way to earn a living, certainly not the same way their science degrees could. Brooks saved her babysitting money anyway, until she could afford to buy a full set of Rembrandt pastels.

“They were $23 a piece, which when you’re making a quarter an hour, is a lot of money,” Brooks remembered.

The pastels sat untouched while she pursued a career in pediatric physical therapy. Then a disability forced her to shift gears and she remembered those pastels.

“I was going to sell them on eBay, but decided maybe I’ll play with them first. So for the last four years, I have opted to be an artist.”

Brooks quickly immersed herself in art making and in November 2016, she founded the Academy of Nature and Wildlife Arts to merge science and art.

“Da Vinci and Einstein both said that the scientist’s lab and the artist’s studio are the two places left for free thinking and exploration,” Brooks said. “They come at it from different perspectives, but they are both trying to solve problems.”

This spring, the Academy will host the inaugural Paint St. Louis Plein Air Festival (May 18-20), a three-day celebration of the artistic and ecological diversity of the region. The festival will include painting events, workshops and family friendly activities throughout the St. Louis County Parks. Local and national plein air artists will paint at various landmarks including the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Kirkwood Farmers Market and sunset over the river bluffs at Fort Belle Fontaine. The public is encouraged to observe and participate during the painting events.

“Art is something we all need to be doing to decrease our own stress, to express ourselves, to increase our understanding of what’s going on in the world around us,” Brooks said.

Paint St. Louis Plein Air Festival culminates on Sunday in Queeny Park with Explore the Arts, where there will be free art activities for all ages. Event partners include Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis Artists’ Guild and Craft Alliance (all A&E grantees), among others.

Brooks hopes the festival will grow to a full week in the future that can leverage the variety and vibrancy of St. Louis’ arts and culture opportunities to encourage more residents and tourists to appreciate St. Louis as a vibrant destination.

The Paint St. Louis Plein Air Festival is funded in part by support raised through the Arts and Education Council’s stARTup-StL Crowdfunding platform. The festival runs May 18-20. For more information, visit