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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

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