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Essay of the Month: Grand Canon of the Colorado River 2011

Grand Canon of the Colorado River is the title of a 1902 essay by John Muir. While Muir is best known for his writings and work in California regarding Yosemite, the Sierra Nevadas, and the big trees, this essay was in lengthy praise of the beauty and grandeur of the Grand Canyon.  The essay is what first stimulated my interest in the canyon and led me apply for an artist-in-residence position at the park. My only contact with the park had been a quick stop at the south rim during a southwest trip some years ago. My first impression was the crush of the tourists and it tainted my impression of the canyon itself.

Muir’s essay let me see the canyon interpreted through his passionate prose such as, “It seems a gigantic statement for even nature to make, all in one mighty stone word, apprehended at once like a burst of light, celestial color its natural vesture, coming in glory to mind and heart as to a home prepared for it from the very beginning. Wildness so godful, cosmic, primeval, bestows a new sense of earth’s beauty and size. Not even from high mountains does the world seem so wide, so like a star in glory of light on its way through the heavens.”  When I stood at the edge of the north rim for the first time and thought back to his words I was taken with their accuracy. I was seeing what he had seen nearly 110 years ago and probably very close to what people saw 30,000 years ago standing in the same place. Thanks for this remarkable continuity goes to naturalists such as John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt and from their efforts the national parks system which has preserved this remarkable place. Due to its vast size and difficulty of access it may be that the canyon preserves itself, but I would never underestimate the capacity of man to exploit even the most inaccessible place on earth if it involved a profit. Humans have, in fact, stopped the carving of the canyon. The dams on the Colorado River have harvested the rivers energy to make our toast and light our homes rather than continue creating this great natural process.

My aesthetic reaction to the canyon was somewhat unexpected. While it held all the beauty and more that Muir had written about, it seemed to me a purely experiential event. It was not something that could be communicated with words or produced images, however well crafted. Certainly the scale had something to do with this reaction. The vastness of the canyon can conceptually be extended when one comes to realize that from the north rim one is only seeing about 10% of the canyon, a fact that boggles ones perceptual understanding. It seems the old “tip of the iceberg” cliche but is really a nice metaphor for how little perceptual faculties show us of reality. This led me to think of how I, as an artist wanted to deal with the experience I was having. I knew, due to the very uniqueness of this environment, that I wanted to focus my efforts on works for my “Sentient Landscape” series. This series attempts to produce images that go beyond our perceptual abilities and create visual experiences that make us think in new ways about our relationship to the natural world.

I decided that instead of depicting the canyon from any of the hundreds of beautiful viewpoints that I experienced in the first several days of the residency I would find elements of the canyon and the glorious ecosystem of the rim and put them together in new ways that expressed my reaction to the canyon. The first two paintings (I always work in pairs) were quite different compositions. The first was a view of the Grand Canyon from Transept Canyon where my cabin was located. To that view I added items that had captured my imagination on my walks — an exaggerated agave plant  in full bloom, a burned pine being engulfed by an enlarged buffalo berry bush, the sky filled with a pattern of leafy asters. The painting evolved through many changes, something quite unusual for my process. I added new elements and left others out until the painting was complete. The second painting was of an unanticipated subject matter, the Colorado River. From the northern rim you can only see a few small pieces of the river from the overlooks. When I saw these small distance strips of green river it quite literally took my breath away. There was something so subtly beautiful and powerful about the images. This was the engine that in a short six million years had created this unequaled landform. For my painting I decided to focus on a short strip of river that I later found out also contained an area that had centuries ago supported a large village and complex irrigation from the river. My intent was to paint the river and surrounding landforms in a fairly naturalistic manner and add a variety of elements in surprising proportional relationships. On completing the river and landforms I abandoned that approach and instead converted the plateaus above and below the river into a close up of the puzzle-like ponderosa pine bark.

The second week of the residency saw a second set of paintings. Both were influenced by the concept of looking through something small to see something big, as in the river painting. The first was inspired by an aspen tree that had a large, natural, vertical wound in the trunk that could be called feminine. I took that section of the trunk and into that wound I placed a view of the canyon featuring a famous spire from the far north of the canyon. The second painting was inspired by a small cave under an overhang I discover on one of my trail hikes. My concept was to place an image of the river at the back of the cave and have a variety images in the foreground of the cave. After painting the cave and the river I painted a half dead pinyon pine in the foreground. As I was painting the dead branches of the pine that reached toward the river I automatically let the branches dissolve into the river. It was perfect. It was all the painting needed. I added no other elements and it is one of my favorite works of the residency.

The third week brought the final two paintings of the residency. Since the five years I spent in the southern Black Hills living amongst ponderosa pines and often painting them, they have been my favorite trees. The north rim of the Grand Canyon is home to a great forest of ponderosa pines that extends into Kaibab national forest that surrounds the park. Outside my cabin stand a grove of the trees, some maybe three to four hundred years old. As I was admiring the trees one evening the thought passed through my mind that if landforms of the region had developed a bit differently and the Rocky Mountains had drained into a different path for the Colorado River, this raised plateau of the forest would have continued over where the canyon now exists. This thought lead to one of my final paintings that depicts the canyon, again from the transept, but with a forest of ponderosa pines floating over the top. I moderated the natural awkwardness of the trees ending in nothingness by depicting the bases of the trees as burned. That leads me to the final painting of the residency. I used a burned pine in the the first painting of the series and fire has been big influence on my experience on the north rim. Nearly everywhere in the park there is evidence of fire, some old and some recent. During my three weeks at the park there were numerous fires. Most were controlled burns but as I prepared to leave lightening started a major fire north of the northern most overlook. The park service presents fire as natural and needed component of the ecosystem. I have agree with this approach. I think many people are disappointed when they drive into a burned area, as they wish to see  pristine forest, not understanding that fire is the way a forest stays pristine. The problem is that we prevented fires for so long that the dead materials on the forest floor create so much fuel that when the fire comes it consumes all.  Back to my painting, as I walked through a heavily burned area of ponderosa pines I found the charred remains of some extremely sculptural. One of these became a symmetrical focal point of my final painting. With a northern view of the canyon in the background and a raven perched on top, the pine was my final piece. I had known for some time that I wanted to use a raven in one of the paintings. I had ravens in my North Cascades and Olympia paintings for the Sentient Landscapes series. There are plenty of ravens at the canyon, but for the first two weeks they avoided me and would not let me approach close enough for photography. In the third week that all changed. It seemed everywhere I went was raven ready to strike the very pose I wanted for the painting. It happened half a dozen times. I was pleased with the results of the final work and completed all but the metallic in the border which I finished in my studio at Boise.

In most cases I would rather have a month for a residency but in this case I was ready to head back to Boise and my comfy studio after three weeks. The altitude at the north rim is nearly 9000 feet at some points. This is a far cry from the lowland 2300 feet of Boise. I displayed all the symptoms of altitude sickness that there are and as a ranger told me, “It will start to get better in about three weeks.” The second problem was allergies. I have always had a bit of trouble in new locations, but this was a new record. Sneezing, eyes watering, and not being able to breathe persisted for the three weeks. Finally, my chronic back pain just continued doing its thing. Despite all this I am very happy I came, had these experiences, and made these paintings.

The Grand Canyon, especially as experienced from the north rim, is an extremely rare place. It is every bit as wonderful as expressed in Muir’s 1902 essay. In large part we have the U.S. Park Service to thank for that. I am not certain what role my art has to play in this world. I am only certain that I need to make. To think about and then visually express my reaction to place as magnificent as this seems to be a credible use of my efforts.

Copyright 2011 Mark W. McGinnis

(scroll way down for all images)

Grand Canyon #1, Acrylic on Panel, 2011

Grand Canyon #2, Acrylic on Panel, 2011

Grand Canyon #3, Acrylic on Panel, 2011

Grand Canyon #4 Acrylic on Panel, 2011

Grand Canyon #5 Acrylic on Panel, 2011

Grand Canyon #6 Acrylic on Panel, 2011

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