Heading out in the West again

Packed up again and this time heading to Zion National Park for “In the Footsteps of Thomas Moran,” their annual fundraising painting competition.

photo of fully loaded car

My faithful car, loaded and ready to head for Utah

Despite the early snowfall I experienced in Stehekin (see posts for September/October), there was little left on the inland heights of eastern Oregon, Idaho and Utah. In the Puget Sound basin we’ve experienced an unusual run of pea-soup fog, so it was a relief to rise up over the coastal ranges into full late fall sunshine. The cottonwoods, aspen, willows have turned into brilliant yellows, golds and oranges. I saw pumpkins, some still in their fields, some in harvested piles. In both the eastern Cascades Mountains and the high plateaus of eastern Oregon, sub-alpine larches presented a color span of lime to orange, vivid against their dark green evergreen neighbors. It is a glorious time to be on a long drive in the West.

City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho. All those shapes made me laugh when I saw them.

City of Rocks National Reserve, Idaho. All those shapes made me laugh when I saw them.

It’s true there is beauty, often unexpected, everywhere. Someone who paints industrial maritime scenes surely knows that! But I’m reminded each time I cross so many parts Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Arizona –  those thinly-populated, high, semi-arid vast vistas of botany and geology – of my deep love of these landscapes. Is it a kind of misanthropy, I value places without people in them? Or that I can see so much farther than in any city or forest? As a painter, I love distance because it smears out the details I tend to get too mired in.

Willard Bay, near Brigham City, Utah

Willard Bay, near Brigham City, Utah


The tyranny of sight

Now that I have been home almost a week, the memories of Stehekin are inevitably beginning to recede, and the annual painting competition in November in Zion looms next. Getting the supplies, the car winterized, teeth cleaned, bills paid and so forth before leaving again takes focused attention.

I still have quite a few Stehekin drawings waiting to be turned into paintings, and I contemplate which of my studies from there will become larger paintings. I worked on one post-location sketch during this busy week: just below Heaton Camp on McGregor, where we met the snow- and alpine larch-line (about 6500 feet). It was a spectacular place on a perfect day, everything I hoped for in coming to the residency.

Still inspired but somewhat freed from the reality of the place, the feeling comes through. You can see difference between my photographic note-taking and the painting. Much as l love painting in the actual environment, sometimes not being there allows you to channel the emotion, freed from matching what you see. For those of us driven to represent places, sometimes the look of the place gets in the way of the spirit of the place.

Suze Woolf photo of McGregor Mountain

The photo I took, roughly the same view that I drew while standing in the snow.

Suze Woolf painting of McGregor Mountain trail

“Just below Heaton Camp” watercolor on hotpress paper, 11″ x 15″

Stehekin meant “the way through” in a local Native American language. The dip in the distant blue mountains of the picture is the low pass through the crest of the North Cascades, and the source of the river that flows through the Stehekin valley — a fitting last day.

Stehekin Farewell – almost

Two full days left. I will hate to leave. The weather has turned for the better, at least for the next few days; the autumn color is at its peak. My paintings are getting better (I think): less precious and tight, looser and more inspired.

Suze Woolf watercolor painting of the old Stehekin schoolhouse

The old Stehekin Schoolhouse is on the register of National Historic Places. (watercolor on paper 15″ x 11″)

While they will grow somewhat in the next two days, here are some descriptive stats for the last 25 days:

-26 completed paintings (two were 51” individual large burned trees, see my website for examples)
-10 drawings still to paint
-19 journal pages
-2,047 blogged words (including these but excluding photo captions)
-597 photos (yes I have backed up my computer to an external hard drive!)
-143 trail miles on foot (there were 6 days where I did no walking at all)
-28,800 feet of elevation gain
-178 hours painting, hiking to painting locations or delivering programs
-6 dinners residents invited me home for
-Countless waves on the road

Suze Woolf watercolor painting of fireweed

Fireweed in the Rainbow Bridge fire site (watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″)

(Yes, I am a little compulsive…)

Apples for the teacher

Today I gave a watercolor lesson at the Stehekin School. There are seven children; they were all attentive and willing to concentrate. We painted some color mixes and then moved on to apples. I paraphrased Robert Irwin’s “seeing begins when naming ends.” Too fun! I can’t believe I only have four full days left.

Photo of class apple paintings

Our paintings on my watercolor paper; they had red/blue/yellow temperas, so I used my red/blue/yellow watercolor pigments. (There are 9 paintings because mine and the teacher’s are there, too.)

I will get fooled again!


‘Tis better to get out and get rained on than never to have gotten out at all…

A break in the rain seemed worth trying, so I headed for the bluffs above Rainbow Creek. Just as I got to the overlook the sun disappeared and rain surprised me from the northeast. I thought the prevailing winds were south westerly. By the time I got half-way down the sun was back out, and by the time I reached the trailhead I was completely dry again. The big leaf maples were spectacular backlit.

photo of fall maple trees

Leafy sunshine on the Stehekin Valley Road near Harlequin Bride

On the other hand, several days of rain mean several new paintings:

Suze Woolf paintings from the Stehekin Valley

Three paintings adorn the side of my fridge: the fire near Rainbow Bridge, fireweed in the Rainbow Bridge fire area (2010), and Castle Peak from Buehler’s Bluff


Closing public land

A number of people have asked how the government shutdown that has closed the North Cascades and other National Parks is affecting me. In some ways, not so much. I am technically a park volunteer; luckily some of the places I want to paint and walk are on private land. On the other hand, six of my big burned tree paintings are hanging in the Golden West Visitor Center, which is now closed, so no one is seeing them. But at this last weekend’s community cider pressing, I displayed two more of the big trees, as well as the work I’ve done since I arrived three weeks ago. (See my previous post on Community.)

I felt warmly welcomed and appreciated. As a result I’ll be giving a painting lesson at the one-room K-8 school this week. So I’m serving the Stehekin Valley community if not the Park’s visitors. Though to be sure, at least one attendee I spoke with was a Pacific Crest Trail through-hiker turned back by our heavy, early snowfall.

It has also made me wonder about the meaning of “public” land: federal ownership of these jewels of our geography now means we tax-paying “owners” can’t visit them. But many of the trails and pioneer homesteads in this valley existed long before the Park received them, and the idea that something too vast to patrol or maintain is somehow closed to public access seems at least puzzling, if not a bit absurd.

October 4: A sunny day at last

What joy! Snow in the mountains; crisp, clear air in the valley. Now the big leaf maples really are turning, and when they’re backlit, I can see barely-orange larches up on the high ridges. ~10 miles on road, trail and brush; ~1600 feet of elevation gain; one painting, five drawings, 83 photos.

Suze Woolf painting of Lake Chelan

Lake Chelan from the Rainbow Creek trail, watercolor on paper, 10″ x 15″

Community and what I’ve learned about it here

I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that the level of sociability is inversely proportional to the number of people in the society. Stehekin is the smallest town I’ve ever been in for more than a night, but I have been acknowledged, made to feel welcome, introduced to a head-swimming number of people, invited for dinner, waved at on the road…

The story I hear is becoming familiar: “I came for the outdoors, but stayed for the community.” I’m equally sure I can apply the behaviors at home: greet everyone, even if you don’t agree with some aspect of their lives; help others get what they need to do done; and above all, celebrate the place you share.

Suze Woolf display at Harvest Fest, Stehekin WA

Suze and work on display at Harvest Fest, the annual Stehekin cider pressing. This year it was held at the school since the Buckner Orchard is part of the closed national park.