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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

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