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2018 Artist in Residence Program at Guadalupe Mountains National Park

At Smith Springs Visitors Center, Guadalupe Mountains National Park

If you’d asked me as a kid what my perfect vacation was, I’d probably have said that it needed to include water slides, horseback riding, and unlimited candy. If you’d said, “How about spending two weeks out in nature, drawing every day and then making a painting from those drawings?” I probably would have said, “Hmm, that sounds pretty good too.” As an adult, I’ve found that an artist-in-residence program is my perfect vacation: visiting a new place; spending lots of time hiking and observing; talking with rangers about native bees and wildflowers; and hours and hours of drawing, culminating in a final painting that captures the spirit of that place. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to do three of these programs through the National Parks Service (and that I’ve been able to drag my family to all three places). My first AIR program was on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, back when my older daughter was a toddler; the second was in Hot Springs, Arkansas, when I had a toddler and an 8-month-old baby. Most recently, my family and I traveled to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in West Texas, where we spent two weeks in the arid Chihuahuan Desert.

I love the desert; I spent most of my teens living in the dry foothills of Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains. In my twenties, I met my husband helping to run a trip that takes high schoolers to Joshua Tree and Anza-Borrego. When he moved to Prescott, Arizona for a spell, we explored the pine forests there and took trips to Sedona to admire the lovely red rocks. So when Guadalupe Mountains National Park appeared on my radar, my interest was piqued.

 Guadalupe Mountains sunset

I’d driven through West Texas years before on a cross-country road trip, but didn’t remember what kinds of plants we saw, let alone birds or other wildlife. A little research revealed that the Guadalupe Mountains are part of the Chihuahuan Desert, where summer thunderstorms provide much of the year’s rainfall (unlike California’s Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, where it generally only rains in the winter). Because of this, the native wildflowers, yucca, cactus and agave bloomed throughout spring and summer, making it tricky to pick what time to visit. I settled on springtime, hoping that there would be enough flowers in bloom and therefore enough pollinators to draw too.

With an April/May trip in mind, I began making preparations. As I packed a suitcase full of kid clothes, I wondered, “Am I crazy to take two little kids to the desert, where there are all manner of poky and spiny and poisonous things?” My husband reassured me that we would be fine, that we successfully managed to take a toddler to Grand Canyon. How much harder could this be?

 Guadalupe Mountains (from NPS website)

We arrived in El Paso in late April, loaded too many bags into a rented Hyundai, and set off for Guadalupe Mountains National Park. The stretch of highway between El Paso and Guadalupe Mountains is a lonely stretch of desert highway, with yucca, cactus, and agave dominating the rocky landscape. The big ol’ Texas sky was a rich blue and filled with the sort of fluffy white clouds we don’t often get in coastal California (a treat for my weather-obsessed husband). After a while, mountains appeared in the distance; as we drove closer, we saw how they loomed above an otherwise flat landscape, the highest point in the whole state. 

As we drove, I worried that we’d chosen the wrong time to visit, that the landscape was too dry for the botanical piece I’d envisioned. But then I caught tiny flashes of red as we sped along—ocotillo was blooming! The familiar sight of the red-orange blossoms atop the tall, thorny branches made me smile; it was one of the first Sonoran Desert plants I learned, in Anza-Borrego on the trip when I met my husband. I knew that if ocotillo was blooming, we’d see bees and hummingbirds, and probably other flowering plants too.

 Ocotillo flowers

The thing about the desert is that it seems barren and dry but it’s actually teeming with life, which you notice as soon as you start looking closely. Deserts are excellent places for ground-nesting solitary bees; there are hundreds of species of native bees in Guadalupe Mountains alone. I also figured we would see butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators. When we arrived at the housing area where we would be staying, I noticed evening primrose flowers unfurling in the dusk and knew we’d see sphinx moths too. And judging by the lists on the park’s website, we were likely to see songbirds, roadrunners, rabbits and hares, lizards, and (if we were lucky) a javelina or two.

Unlike Carlsbad Caverns National Park, an hour to the north, GUMO (as it’s called by the staff) isn’t very developed; there are no roads up to the peaks or into the canyons, so it’s a hiker’s park. On one of our first days, we decided to hike the Smith Springs trail. We plodded along among prickly pear cactus and yucca, bribing the four-year-old hiker with gummy bears (our youngest hiker was safely confined to a backpack). In the distance we could see a tree-filled canyon and promised her we would stop for lunch as soon as we got there. As we got closer, we heard what sounded like a creek, and eventually walked under a canopy of bigtooth maple and blue oak trees. A clear spring ran through the canyon, which was filled with birdsong and little brown butterflies flitting by. We ate our lunch in wonder that these lush green trees could be part of the same desert terrain as cactus and yucca.

Smith Springs trail

Another day we hiked through McKittrick Canyon, renowned for its glorious fall colors. Spring was pretty impressive too, though—flowers bloomed along the trailside, western tanagers flashed yellow and red in the trees above us, and a spring bubbled up here and there. The kids delighted in seeing lizards and birds everywhere and the grownups marveled at the diversity of landscape, from rocky washes to muddy creek banks to oak groves.

 Western tanager

As I took all this in, I paid special attention to the wildflowers and pollinators, wondering how a painting of bees and flowers could also capture a sense of place. Grand Canyon’s North Rim was higher elevation and more densely forested; Hot Springs gave one the sense of being enfolded in lush green foliage. My main sensation here was one of openness, with a big sky and sweeping landscape. As I sketched the flowers I saw blooming, I thought about how best to capture this, and settled on a sort of round frame with an open top, filled with pollinating insects (and a hummingbird, of course).

Wildflowers are good field sketching subjects, as they hold still for you as you draw. Bees and birds, on the other hand, aren’t so compliant. Thankfully, GUMO has a collection of insect specimens, and I was able to draw various bees and butterflies I’d seen around (along with a lovely little sand wasp I’d watched while sketching verbena flowers one day). The hummingbird I drew from photos and videos. Each sketch was done on a separate page of tracing paper, and when they were finished I scanned them in and assembled them into a layout in Photoshop. I shared this process—research and sketching, then assembling drawings into a composition—as one of two public presentations that I gave as the GUMO artist-in-residence, and explained how I would transfer the composition to watercolor paper and paint it in acrylic. I never did get around to that step during our time at GUMO—somehow, the days slipped by with hikes and research and sketching and hanging out with park staff, many of whom lived in the same neighborhood where we were staying.

Sketching insects from the collection, and sketching in the field

I’m home now, where I’ll finish the painting using my sketches, notes and photos to guide me. So as June gloom sets in here on the California coast, and the fog hangs heavy, I’ll work on my painting and think about that big open Texas sky.

 Final composition for artist-in-residence piece



The artist-in-residence cabin at Gulpha Gorge, Hot Springs National Park, AR (that bright green shirt was my volunteer uniform)

In 2015, I spent three weeks on Grand Canyon’s North Rim as one of nine artists-in-residence. A friend had told me before we left California that no matter how much I read about it, I would still be blown away by Grand Canyon, and she was right—it was more impressive than I could have even imagined. I went with my husband and toddler daughter, and we roamed the ponderosa pine forests and wide meadows, hiking at the lip of the canyon and, once, down into it (my husband got a pretty good workout that day, hauling a small child on his back up the steep Kaibab Trail). Although the scenery was grand indeed, I chose to draw and paint another aspect of the North Rim that compelled me—the wildflowers and insect pollinators that had emerged after the monsoon season. And during my stay, I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of work I want to do, and what my point of view as an artist is. I found that spending three weeks in one place, and working on a project that reflected that setting, really inspired me and helped me focus (I still have projects related to the North Rim that I’d like to work on someday…). With this momentum behind me, I began applying to other National Park Service artist-in-residence programs almost as soon as we arrived home.

Redbud and mystery bug

One of the parks to which I applied was Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. I had never been to Arkansas, and didn’t have a good sense of what the scenery or terrain would look like (although I had driven through the southern-most states on a cross-country road trip many years before). A friend who grew up in Oklahoma told me, “Oh, it’s beautiful there! I think you’ll really like it,” and gushed about how lovely the area was. Since she is an artistic soul too, I took her word for it and applied… and was accepted. One small matter stood in the way, however; after I applied, I found out I was pregnant with my second child. The staff at Hot Springs was kind enough to let me defer for a year, and so in late March, my husband and I set off for Hot Springs National Park with a three-year-old and an eight-month-old in tow.

Fordyce Bathhouse, where Hot Springs National Park's visitors center is located

As I packed multiple suitcases and bags with clothes, art supplies, books, kid stuff and baby stuff, I wondered, “What am I doing?” More than one person had raised an eyebrow when I told them what we were planning. 

“How will you get any work done?” they asked.

“My husband will be there,” I answered, but I’m not sure either party was convinced.

After a long journey with a pair of overtired but obliging children, we arrived at our cabin at midnight, happily collapsing into bed. In the morning, I peered out the windows of our 1930s stone cabin and was delighted to see that although trees hadn’t leafed out yet, the dogwoods and redbuds were in full bloom. We loaded the kids into a rental car and set about exploring, driving along Bathhouse Row, admiring the Edwardian architecture and stately magnolia trees. Surrounding the town of Hot Springs (which, if you didn’t know, is Bill Clinton’s hometown) is a forested area made up of pines and mixed hardwoods; wildflowers had already begun to bloom and I couldn’t believe how many tiger swallowtails I was seeing. It seemed that we picked just the right time to visit.

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies

People have always visited Hot Springs for, well, the hot springs—water bubbling up from the earth at 140 degrees, unusually pure and without the sulfur smell that accompanies all the hot springs I’d ever been to. The stately bathhouses were built above the hot springs, and people came from all over the country to take the waters. Today, only a couple of the bathhouses are still in use, and one of them offers the old-fashioned bathhouse treatments that a person might have enjoyed a hundred years ago (including something called a “steam cave”, which I found too alarming to try). One bathhouse is the visitors center for Hot Springs National Park; another has a gallery of artist-in-residence works; yet another contains the only brewery found in a national park. A lovely promenade rises up above the downtown area, and trails lead directly from downtown into wooded areas. Filling stations dot the central part of town, where anyone can fill up jugs with spring water; as many times as we did it, it still surprised me when the water came out of the tap hot

The studio in the artist-in-residence cabin

Our wonderful contact in Hot Springs took me around to see the artwork from other AIR participants, and I was intrigued by what inspired each artist—the tile from the old bathhouses, a bridge between two stands of trees, smooth stones in a creek bed. While part of me thought perhaps I should incorporate some element of water in my final piece, there was something about all those butterflies I’d seen around that I found so compelling—that, and the flowering trees and wildflowers that were so different from what I see during spring at home. Like my experience on North Rim, I wanted to paint a collection of flowers and insects, in order to draw attention to the flora and (insect) fauna of an area mostly know for its human artifacts.

Moth specimens from the park's collections

With this goal in mind, we set out on hikes around our campground, and my very accommodating husband took hundreds of photos of flowers and bugs for me. Our contact, Brian, introduced me to the collections curator, and I was able to peruse the park’s wonderful collection of insect specimens—all collected during one summer in the early 1960s, and all in excellent condition. In between hikes, trips to a local botanic garden, and visits to Quapaw Bathhouse to soak in the springwater, I sketched wildflowers: eastern redbud, flowering dogwood, fire pink, birdsfoot violet, trumpet honeysuckle, spiderwort. And once I had photos of the bugs from the collections, I started drawing them too—swallowtail butterflies, of course, but also a big carpenter bee, a hummingbird moth, and, tucked down into a corner, the little dung beetle that one of the rangers convinced me was too cute to leave out.

Sketching bugs and blooms

It was a challenge to get all this done, with so many things to do in town and with two kids competing for my attention. My husband took the kids for 3- and 4-hour stretches during the day so I could draw, and the cabin had a dedicated studio space where I could work late at night after everyone else had gone to bed. Hot Springs turned out to be a very kid-friendly town, and we often had people stop us on the street to admire our kids (or our hiking backpack, which was a source of many conversations with strangers). So while it may not have been the most relaxing of times, I was able to put together a solid concept for a painting, research it as much as I needed to, lay it out and transfer it to watercolor paper, and begin painting. As I take rather a long time to complete a piece, I was pretty pleased with this pace of work. Perhaps it was the compression of work time that forced me to choose subject matter and get working, rather than indulging in the sort of worrying and overthinking that usually delays me. In fact, motherhood seems to have had this effect on me generally—there simply isn’t as much time to worry about doing things just right; if I’m going to do a thing at all (painting, cooking, traveling, writing an essay), I’d better get on with it right now before the baby wakes up.

Doing a painting demo at Ozark Bathhouse

The painting still isn’t done; as compressed as time was in Hot Springs, it’s moreso here, with work and friends and garden and pets. But the urgency to see all of the beautiful things in that particular corner of the world has eased, now that we are back home among the familiar. I’ll continue working on my painting and will send it off to Hot Springs when I’m done, so that it can hang in the bathhouse gallery with my peers’ work. Then I’ll start looking online, to see where I can go next.

The unfinished painting


2015 Artist-in-Residence program on Grand Canyon's North Rim

Field sketching at Bright Angel PointIn August of this year, I had the great privilege to spend three weeks at the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park as one of five artists-in-residence for the 2015 season. Painters, photographers, musicians, sculptors, writers and other artistic types participate each year in these AIR programs at National Parks throughout the country, which vary a little but mostly follow the same format as the one at Grand Canyon—the artist stays in a little cabin in the park for a few weeks, immersed in nature and devoting the time to making art inspired by the park. In return, the artist donates artwork to the park and presents two to three programs to the public. (In my opinion, I had the much better end of the deal.)

Sketching flowers at Big Basin

Before coming to the North Rim, I reread the wonderful book The Forgotten Pollinators, which renewed my interest in pollinating insects and their relationships with wildflowers. Having never been to Grand Canyon, I hoped there would be at least a few flowers blooming for me to draw, so I might paint a portrait with their floral visitors. I needn’t have worried—we arrived toward the end of monsoon season, and driving into the North Rim entrance from Utah, wildflowers bloomed profusely along the side of the road, with backdrops of ponderosa pine forests, aspen groves, and wide, green meadows. I was so excited when we arrived at the entrance to the park, I could barely keep myself from bursting out of the car and running through the meadows.

The North Rim of Grand Canyon is on the edge of the Kaibab Plateau, well above 8,000 feet. Most visitors to the canyon—9 out of 10— visit the South Rim, which is lower in elevation, hotter, drier, and much more developed. I had imagined a sort of Wile E. Coyote landscape, with red rocks and cactus, but the ponderosa forest reminded me more of summers spent in the Sierras as a kid.

The artist-in-residence cabin

Normally an artist-in-residence is a solitary affair, so the artist can concentrate on his or her art and not be distracted by the demands of family. Since I am the mother of a small child, however, I was lucky to be able to bring my family with me. We stayed in a sweet little two-room log cabin, a mere 300 feet from the rim of the canyon. Once we’d settled into our cabin, our days followed a routine—coffee and breakfast outside the cabin looking out toward the canyon, then a hike on one of the North Rim’s gorgeous trails. After lunch we returned to the cabin so our daughter could nap, and I would go out to draw for the afternoon. I sketched paintbrush, lupine, skyrocket, penstemon, aster, goldenrod, thistle, and buckwheat in the field; butterflies and all kinds of bees flitted around me, totally unconcerned about my presence. In the evenings after dinner, I sat in the cabin and looked through the photos of these insects that my husband had taken on our hikes, making sketches from the best images. We also spent quite a bit of time with North Rim employees, who were incredibly welcoming and generous, and gave wonderful recomendations for places to hike and things to do. (We even went to NPS employee prom!)

 Wildflower drawings

A pen-and-watercolor study created from my wildflower sketches

After a few days of field sketching flowers, I mulled over what I would do with my drawings—should I be painting the canyon instead, since that’s what everyone comes to see anyway?—and decided that I would paint a micro, rather than macro, view of the canyon. I had noticed that one of the flowers I’d drawn, Wheeler’s thistle, was visited by bees, wasps, hummingbirds, carpenter bees, tachinid flies, hawkmoths, and butterflies. All you had to do was sit and watch the thistle for a while, and you’d be rewarded with a close-up view of a busy leaf-cutter bee or a beautiful painted lady butterfly. Here was a part of the park’s landscape that often went unnoticed, dwarfed by the scale of the canyon; perhaps if I painted it, I’d inspire people to take a closer look at their immediate surroundings.

Sketch for final AIR piece

Once I’d made my decision, I chose six pollinators to accompany my thistle: white-lined sphinx moth, California carpenter bee, painted lady butterfly, Hunt’s bumblebee, leafcutter bee, and black-chinned hummingbird. I sketched each of them life-sized on tracing paper and then cut them out so I could play around with a layout. Once I had an arrangement I liked, I transferred it to watercolor paper and began painting, and made some good progress while still at Grand Canyon. It’s as yet unfinished, but I have a year to complete it.

In the last week of my residence, I did a couple of field sketching demos, which gave me an excellent excuse to wear my official National Parks Service volunteer uniform. When I gave my final presentation at Grand Canyon Lodge, I had a captive audience of visitors waiting out a thunderstorm, and shared my in-progress thistle painting with 55 or so people. This was our last day at North Rim, and the canyon pulled out all the stops—thunderstorm, lightning show, rainbows, and an epic sunset.

My final presentation at the LodgeA quick demo during my final presentation

The next morning I turned in my uniform and we packed up the car, driving north across the Kaibab Plateau, then wrapping around the east side of Grand Canyon to the South Rim. What a difference! After three weeks of long hikes in ponderosa forests, it was a shock to be in massive parking lots amongst so many people. Still, the views were as gorgeous as they had been in the North Rim, and I loved being able to look down and see the Colorado River.

It was bittersweet to drive away from the red rocks that had become so familiar after the better part of a month, and to know that once I got home, I’d have a lot less time for drawing, hiking, observing and thinking. But I can feel how much enthusiasm and energy the trip generated in me, and I’m still carrying it. I have an idea for another North Rim painting that I would like to do, once I finish my thistle painting; I have a concept sketch and hope to start painting it before the end of the year. And I definitely plan to apply to more AIR programs. Spending three weeks fully immersed in nature and art was a powerful experience.

 The almost-finished final piece