The Wave and Beyond

October 24

My hosts included me on a special-permit trip into the famous Wave formation on North Coyote Buttes. So I made my pilgrimage to that celebrated spot in the company of 3 botanists on a mapping/collecting mission. Normally it requires a reservation long in advance or a win in the previous day’s lottery to be one of the 20 people allowed in daily.

It is indeed a world-class spot—but there are so many spots even in the immediate vicinity. From The Wave we climbed up to the top of the butte to view “The Alcove,” – a wind-scooped, semi-circular, light-bounced, fluted cave with its own resident sand dune; then we went along to “Melody Arch,” – really two arches with a picture window out to the north-east. Along the way we traversed ponds full of primitive life, dried waterpockets with oceans of tiny moki marbles (spherical ironstone concretions), gnarled weathered sandstone looking like crumpled paper, and finally a short, purple, slot canyon exit.

A long day: as near as I can tell, botany is as good a rationale for wandering around looking at stuff as geology or painting ; – )

The three botanists wayfinding across Coyote Buttes

The three botanists wayfinding across Coyote Buttes

Portrait of Suze Woolf in Utah canyon, "The Wave"

The usual Wave photo

Trilobite descendent? About 1/2 to 1-inch long...

Trilobite descendent? About 1/2 to 1-inch long…

Sand Cove Slot - a short canyon in the wash below the Wave

Sand Cove Slot – a short canyon in the wash below the Wave, watercolor on paper 11″ x 15″


Glen Canyon

October 22

I join friends for a boat ride upriver. I fill my entire camera card with photos. It was like a mini-Grand Canyon raft trip, similar spectacular scenery but louder and without all the sand in your food. Ospreys and herons every quarter-mile. However it is well-beloved of fishermen and duck hunters; unlike the Grand Canyon solitude is unlikely. And it was bizarre to round the last corner and see the dam. Also strange to see the Colorado so clear and green: because it’s coming out of the bottom of Lake Powell it lacks the silt and sediment of its enormous watershed. I am reading Tim Egan’s Lasso the Wind; he reminds me of the great irony of the lake behind it named for John Wesley Powell, who argued for climate-appropriate development in the arid southwest and failed.

Photo of Glen Canyon Dam from the Colorado River

Glen Canyon Dam from the Colorado River


45-minute sketch of a buttress in Glenn Canyon

45-minute sketch of a buttress in Glenn Canyon

Suze Woolf painting in Glen Canyon AZ

Painting on the beach in Glen Canyon


The North Cascades with Color*

October 21

While hiking in the lower Paria River canyon I make the classic tourist mistake. I was boosting myself up a sand bank after crossing the river and put my hand down on a small cactus. In my own defense all the flooding in September covered many surfaces with a layer of grey mud that made it more difficult to see such things. I got most of the needles out with my trusty Swiss Army knife tweezers.

At one point I came around a corner to behold a set of tall towers with giant sand dunes in front of them. I sat down to paint and literally watched the colors change before my eyes. When I began the cliffs and towers were a deep vermilion; within 20 minutes they became a red-brown. Sun angle? Eye fatigue? I don’t know. In any case, I was so struck by these familiar shapes – change the Navaho sandstone to granite and the sand dunes to snow, and they could be the Alps or my own North Cascades.

Suze Woolf watercolor painting, "Lower Paria Towers"

Lower Paria Towers, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″

*It is a long-standing joke that Zion National Park is “like Yosemite but with color.”


Archeology, Near and Far

October 18

Today just inside the SW ranch gate I found a dried-out old Pink Pearl eraser and not far from it, a broken but beautifully-flaked pink arrowhead (as well as a horse shoe and a rusted top from a baking powder can. How long has it been since baking powder was 25 cents?)

Found baking powder lid, graphite rubbing

Found baking powder lid, graphite rubbing


(And how long has it been since they stopped putting the cents sign on keyboards?)


Which Way

October 17

I have been thinking about the Grand Canyon Trust’s experiments to improve grazing practices. Out behind the barn lie coils of old barbed wire, laboriously unstrung from fences by volunteers. A smooth lower wire still keeps the cattle in but allows antelope to crawl under them (and me, too). So I set up some of the rusted barbed wire for a tightly rendered study… exactly what I am going to tell my students not to do, “drawing with a paint brush.”

Which Way? Two pieces, each 5.5" x 15", watercolor on paper Suze Woolf paintings

Which Way? Two pieces, each 5.5″ x 15″, watercolor on paper

I revisited Lee’s Ferry to hike the Spencer Trail. It puts you on top of a plateau with wonderful views down into Glen Canyon – as well as the Page airport. Excellent cell coverage while contemplating the trio of puffing smokestacks of the coal-fired Navajo plant.

Looking into Glen Canyon painting by Suze Woolf

Looking into Glen Canyon

The view the other way was equally compelling, even on a hazy day. I loved serried silhouettes. Is it because of what my 80’s sculpture professor said, that repetition is compelling? Or that seeing a peek-a-boo view of anything occluded by something else is an invitation to exploration?

Suze Woolf painting of Vermilion Cliffs from Marble Canyon on a cloudy day

Vermilion Cliffs from Marble Canyon on a cloudy day

I walked down part of Cathedral Wash. Due to the flooding in September it has a fair amount of muddy waterholes, undesirable for someone who forgot her water shoes. It’s no Blacktail Canyon but the eroded and calcified limestone layer has a certain Halloween-y aspect.


Strange limestone formations in Cathedral Wash, Lee's Ferry AZ

Spooky limestone?

A Painting Day

October 15

I catch up with some of the drawings yet to be turned into paintings. Reading the log book makes me contemplate what I, as the first Kane Ranch Artist-in-Residence, will have to say two weeks from now.

Art, like the Grand Canyon Trust’s preservation/conservation/restoration is an act of faith, nonsensical to homo economicus. I do it because it brings me – and others – a pleasure of (landscape) recognition and a sense of common treasure. They are “public” lands, a theme that has come up before during my residencies.  I always have to do “the pretty stuff” first. Art depicting a place is a way of being deeply in that place. But beyond the souvenir, art can be a mirror, a goad, an encounter with important feelings and issues. What I shall paint to get at the issues here and the Trust’s work is one meditation as I walk.

And anyway, why do we respond so to vast panoramas, such as I see from this front porch? The sense of seeing farther? Fully satisfying those peripheral-vision neurons? Safety that no one can approach unperceived? Room for the new? The peace of solitude, alone with your thoughts?

Near the LeFevre Overlook

Near the LeFevre Overlook

A Walking Day: Eastern Crack to the Sand Hills

October 14

I follow guidebook instructions to climb through a cleft in the Vermilion Cliffs. Dramatic, not easy walking, but not technical or terribly exposed, I’m thrilled to be in these places. I have yet to see another soul, though foot prints suggest otherwise. History again hovers – pioneer cabin, rock art and arrowheads this time, though some graven graffiti from 1914 and 1952, too.

Snake petroglyph in the Sand Hills

Snake petroglyph in the Sand Hills

Near the top of Vermilion Cliffs

Near the top of Vermilion Cliffs


Mission: Aspen

October 13

While hiking up Saddle Mountain I could see the flames of intense yellow aspen high on the plateau above me. I had thought they were already gone, as I saw coming over Cedar Breaks in Utah. So my mission today is finding a grove to paint. I drive to Jacob’s Lake (no Internet access there either) and chase Forest Service dirt roads. Finally I do better on the main road – but I’m awed by how much there is to explore, and how much time it takes when you have 20 miles of dirt driveway round trip to negotiate. I decide to alternate walking and painting days.

Aspen grove on the Kaibab Plateau

Aspen grove on the Kaibab Plateau

Saddle Mountain Wilderness

October 12

I’m starting to feel more like myself as the fuss and anxiety of getting ready begin to drop away. I paint the house and drive a long dirt road to a hike that takes me to the edge of Grand Canyon National Park. It’s so windy it’s hard to keep the easel upright, and a fine layer of sand and dust sifts through everything. It reminds me of rafting the river (Colorado).

Kane Ranch AZ

The 1870 ranch house in the morning


Cane Springs

October 11

I head out for my first hike, the canyon behind the ranch house where its water seeps out of a spring several miles away. It’s always amazing to me how new ideas reach me while I’m walking. Usually it takes days of travelling on foot – just how is it my brain is so connected to my metatarsals ; – ) I spend the late afternoon painting on the porch, first the rift in the plain of sagebrush that hints of the great canyon to the south and west, and the Vermilion Cliffs to the north.

The Grand Canyon in the distance from Kane Ranch porch

The Grand Canyon in the distance from Kane Ranch porch

Vermilion Cliffs from the Kane Ranch porch

Vermilion Cliffs from the Kane Ranch porch