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.”
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
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
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?
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.
No, not like Christo – more like closing the books on the 2013 Zion Plein Air Invitational. It was so rewarding to be back in that extraordinary environment. I can well believe that visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis thought Frederick Dellenbaugh’s paintings were fantastical, made-up, unreal. I’m delighted to have parted with most of the pieces I painted there and raised a goodly sum for the Park’s youth outreach and art programs. Many of my pictures were bought by local residents: I take it as a sign they feel I’ve captured something of the beauty they walk in every day.
I also did a number of outline pencil drawings for paintings that I’ve worked on since I got home. You can see that at least part of my heart is still there.
I’m aware as I begin a composition of emotions that the shapes in my landscape evoke. Even apart from the subject matter (I’ve loved peaks all my life), the mere shape and its placement on a page have a personality and excite a response in the viewer. I’m struggling to articulate this: for example, when I see the peaks of Zion jutting into the sky, I feel an implacable and indomitable force, an all-seeing impassive presence, a kind of aloof authority. “We were here before you were born and we will be here after” — no matter my best geologic imagination fast-forwarding through eons of change. I’m sure my abstract painting friends are amused by this new light-bulb understanding of mine. I’m learning to look for shapes that have an inherent emotional impact quite apart from whatever they depict.
Dihedral above Many Pools, watercolor on paper, 15″ x 11″ — all those opposing triangles!
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.
The photo I took, roughly the same view that I drew while standing in the snow.
“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.
It strikes me as ironic, for someone who paints burned landscapes and trees, that so many of my hiking destinations are decommissioned fire lookouts. For nearly 100 years land managers tried to suppress fire; the lookouts were a distant early warning line in the pre-cost-effective aviation days. Correspondingly they always have magnificent territorial views and usually represent a respectable work-out to get there. The combination of beauty, vastness and isolation — plus a little pay — created a sort of artist residency of its own (cf. Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder et al.)