During October I had the privilege of living and working inside the smallest – at least in terms of visitation – of Utah’s five national parks, Capitol Reef. This was my third visit to the Park. I stopped in a snowstorm on my way home from a similar residency in Zion National Park in 2012 and in May of 2017 served as the outside juror for the Utah Watercolor Society’s annual plein air week there.
Fall was a wonderful time to be in residence – golden cottonwoods along the Fremont River, temperate days and cool nights, low insect populations and possibly a bit quieter – though every time I was in the Visitor Center it was bustling. Fortunately for the flora and fauna, the preceding drought was easing, but unfortunately for the outdoor painter, there were a lot of wet days.
A gorgeous double-rainbow over historic Fruita, from my studio window — but of course this means it was raining….
Rain Comes to the Henrys Watercolor on paper 11″ x 15″
I spent a lot more time getting to know the east side of the Reef, enjoying extensive views of the country’s longest monocline, the colors of the uplifted layers, the slots that drain the angled spine, all presided over by enough snow in the Henry Mountains east of the Park to be skiable (at least by backcountry skiers’ measures).
My stay wasn’t long enough, so I was a bit frenetic about trying to get everywhere, see everything and produce as much work as I could, at the expense of getting to know staff or the nearby town of Torrey. I have six months to continue the work I began there before presenting a portfolio of choices for the Park’s collection. Here are some of my favorites (all watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″).
In Red Canyon Looking South
In Red Canyon Looking North
The Reef from the Knobs
Capitol Gorge Gateway
Value Study, The Reef from the Frying Pan Trail, watercolor on paper, 7.5″ x 22″
“The Muffins” from the Notom Road, watercolor on paper, 11″ x15″
Grand Wash from the Cassidy Arch Trail, watercolor on paper, 11″ x 15″
Snow in the Henrys
I’ve been delayed in rounding out my Glacier National Park residency reporting. For the OCD record:
- 25 paintings completed while resident (as well as 10 more after I got home, and more to come)
- 21 hikes of ~215 trail miles and ~40,000 feet of elevation gain (lots but half as much as a good through-hiker!)
As I compile a portfolio of images in fulfillment of my residency requirement, I’m struck by several subjects that influenced what I decided to paint – mostly unconsciously:
- iconic postcard vistas, and how many of them have burned trees in the foreground (31%)
Curly Bear Mountain, watercolor on paper, 11″x15″
Robert Fire Dog Hair across Lake McDonald, watercolor on paper, 11″x15″
- Vanishing ice (8% but 43% if you add the next category… and in some sense every mountain view shows the retreat of the glaciers)
Iceberg Lake, watercolor on paper, 30″x11″
Grinnell Glacier Moraines, watercolor on paper, 11″x 30″
- Mountain views (35%), my abiding love of alpine scenery
The Garden Wall, watercolor on paper, 11″x15″
Lake McDonald from Apgar Lookout, watercolor on paper, 15″x22″ (sold)
- Running water (11%), always a challenge for the plein air and studio painter
Baring Creek, watercolor on paper, 11″x15″
McDonald Creek from the west bank, watercolor on paper, 11″x15″
- Tourism nostalgia (14%), the vintage infrastructure of past ways of experiencing the park – the tour buses, boats and lodges
DeSmet Tour Boat, watercolor on paper, 11″x15″
Red Bus #3, watercolor on paper, 15″x11″
I learned so much about the place and its natural history. The trouble with all my residencies is that once I have learned to love a new place, then it becomes a part of me that I have to re-visit.
(I did get more of the work posted on my website, finally!)
It may be safe to assume that no one who works in Glacier National Park denies global warming. Proof of change is so overwhelming even the casual visitor can see it. It somehow seems more intense here – though perhaps it is just more visible. But from my interview with Dan Fagre, scientists working in the Park have confirmed a greater rate of change the higher in elevation you go, with profound implications for the species the Park is sworn to protect.
This week I saw my first alpine-zone burn: small and once-ancient, twisted, krummholz fir trees in vertical stripes running up steep meadows on the way to Siyeh Pass. Even the shrubby heathers, kinnikinicks and creeping junipers remain as blackened runners. Sooner or later these will get added to my individual burned tree series.
I’ve been here two weeks now. Because I have to drive into town to get sufficient bandwidth to post photos, my blogging is confined to grocery/laundry trips to Columbia Falls.
I have gotten oriented to the Lake McDonald valley area, done seven hikes and produced 13 paintings. Most are too tight — it’s clear to me I’m not yet fully at ease in the environment. (Forgive the low photo quality; I didn’t bring that equipment with me.)
Falls above Avalanche Lake
A theme is emerging – not surprisingly, my new knowledge of the Park’s centennial history, combined with the number of visitors I see on the roads, trails and in the lodge, and walking through burned-over areas suggests juxtaposing iconic tourist views with burned forests in the foreground. This is change writ large. In a sense, I’m returning to my Banff Centre work, back to the entire landscape and not individual burned trees.
Robert Fire Panorama
Up St Mary Valley (Reynolds Creek Fire)
You would think I would know by now, but I’m still surprised that themes emerge as a result of walking in nature. It’s almost like I need so many miles for reflective thinking – even though while walking I’m not aware of “deep thoughts,” just “find the right aerobic pace,” “is there a bear around the next corner,” “how much farther is it,” and “this is just gorgeous..”. If anyone ever asks me about artist blocks, I’ll just tell them to start walking.
I went to the first day of the Park’s annual Level 1 Bear Training and got a lot of information not only about bears but about how the warming climate is affecting local flora and fauna. Besides well-known glacier-wasting the typical extents and ranges of many plants are changing, possibly affecting many food webs. There is a great deal of science going on here – more than I have been aware of in other parks. I learned that last year the Park had its first alpine fire; I will definitely be seeking out charred krumholz to paint.
This may just be my ignorance, but a number of programs are housed at Park Headquarters and there seems to be a lot of interagency and inter-institution collaboration. They are justly proud of bringing the bears back from the edge of endangerment.
I’m afraid bear training didn’t make me feel any less apprehensive—just put more imaginary movies in my mind. The missing data for me are: number of annual visitor-bear encounters versus the number of annual non-bad outcomes per encounter. One has to assume the numbers are somewhere between the ~1 injury or fatality per year since the park began, and the 2 million visitors per year – but where?
It is a new kind of constraint, feeling that it’s unwise to hike alone and sit quietly painting plein air. So mostly I do a quick drawing on my watercolor paper while singing all the verses I can remember to “Roll On, Columbia” and paint it when I get back to the cabin. So far, four hikes, five paintings ; – )
A friend sent a 2012 article that cites Stephen Herero saying 98% of bear encounters where pepper spray was used have positive outcomes for both human and bear… a reassuring statistic though I’d still like to get a sense of the frequency of such encounters.
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 usual Wave photo
Trilobite descendent? About 1/2 to 1-inch long…
Sand Cove Slot – a short canyon in the wash below the Wave, watercolor on paper 11″ x 15″
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.
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.”