The Journey Begins
An artist residency on the north rim of the Grand Canyon kick-started my journey as an interpretive artist. Here is my journal.
AIR Week 1. May 23, 2012
Helloooo down there! I’m up on an island in the sky – a plateau 8200 feet above sea level. It’s also a dessert island – the humidity is 5%. The air is thin too – just starting to adapt, although the 800 foot climb up yesterday from below the rim was tough.
The Park service gave me a week off to explore. I needed it too. The scenery here has blown my sense of scale. The grandeur has certainly shifted my perspective away from the petty details of everyday life.
The cabin I have is rather luxurious with a rim-side view of the sunset. I still haven’t figured out the heating system – just now into a cold snap, down to 38 last night. I had to break out my down sleeping bag. Daytime is bright and sunny in the 70’s. The air is so very clear and the stars are amazing.
The day I arrived we witnessed an annular eclipse. That’s where the moon blocks the body of the sun and you can see a thin line of light around it. You can see the moon just starting to pass in front of the sun (lower right corner). We had special glasses for viewing the eclipse from a sun porch carved into the side of the cliffs. There was an interesting group of viewers – we even had folks dressed up as goddesses, shamans, and general "hooters and hollerers". No wolves howling, though.
I am happy to report that I’m adapting, especially with regard to my fear of heights. I made it below the rim twice now: today via mule. I also witnessed the view from each of the major vantage points on the North Rim. One place, Cape Royal, I renamed “Cape Fear” because of the narrow road and switchbacks to get there. Husband, Michael had to hold me down while I photographed a panorama because I was afraid I’d be blown off that vantage point. The wind has been pretty extreme 3 days this week – gusting to 40 miles per hour.
Despite my week off, I moved forward on my project called “Colors of Time”. I am almost finished measuring the colors via camera every two hours – 7 times between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. For reference, I am also mixing a palette of colors and painting them on silk and watercolor paper on the same two-hour schedule. I have finished 8 and 10 a.m. and noon’s palettes. This is the noon palette. I am simply looking at color and disregarding the foggy effect of the dust that gets blown up in the canyon by the wind. Between early morning and noon, I saw progressively more color differentiation, especially the greens. Also, the sky went from cerulean to a mauve-violet.
So, to sum up – this past week has been a time of adaptation and processing. Michael has decided that I must do all the NPS residencies so he can act as scout and cheering squad. He left this morning after getting me onto solid ground for the final two weeks of my residency. (He saw a mountain lion on the way out of the park –woo, woo).
AIR, Weeks 2 - 3, May 30 – June 10, 2012.
I met with Robin Tellis, who coordinates the interpretive program on the North Rim. She is a well-respected leader according to her staff and she impressed me with her insights about effective programming for visitors. We came up with a plan for my visitor programs with hands-on and overview components.
For the overview component, I “staffed” off-hours at the desk where folks book mule rides. I used a 10-minute, PowerPoint, slide show to explain my medium, digital silk. I also had examples of my work and the “tools of the trade” to show how it’s done. The mule desk is in the lobby of the North Rim Lodge, near the waiting area for dinner reservations. That way, I could rope-in small groups of 2-4 for a personalized tour of my work. Even though I had to encourage them a little, they were very appreciative afterward. I made these presentations Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sundays from 5 – 7 pm of my second two weeks. It was more than expected and I missed some of my favorite light for photography; but I believe it was a good outreach, especially since most folks are only there for a day or two.
I taught 2, hands-on programs on the sundeck of the lodge. The Park Service put up a shelter, some tarps to protect the patio, and a couple of tables. This worked out great. The shelter kept us comfortable, and the curious were drawn-in just by it being there. The tarps allayed the Park Service’s fear of damaging a historic building with spilled dye. We got around 20 visitors each time. (no dye was spilled)
The first program sensitized visitors to the colors in the vista before us. I organized them into the red team, the blue and neutral team, and the green team. We used paint store swatches to match against the scene. Each team came up with 3 or 4 colors which I mixed using my dye. (I had mixed up some base colors from my palette experiments of the previous week – so I only needed to adjust them to match – this saved a lot of waiting-around time.) Once our 2 p.m. color palette was ready, each visitor painted the colors onto strips of watercolor paper to take home as a remembrance. I also printed the scene lightly onto watercolor paper so that they could paint-over it later. I suggested markers, acrylic paints or watercolors. I was pleased that so many were glad they took the time to tune-into color as a way of appreciating the view in a new way.
In the second program, visitors began a collaborative silk painting. (The finished work will be donated to the park.) I printed a photograph of the vista before us onto a 13 x 19 inch piece of silk. I used the color palette the visitors from the first program selected. Each participant got a paintbrush and in turn painted parts of the sky and the cliff shadows onto the silk. Once the image was broken down into shapes and areas, the painting was easy. I was surprised at how successful they were. We had children as young as 8 in the program. It was easy for them to do the sky in a wet-on-wet manner. The adults did the shadow shapes. I got several of the participants to sign their names so that I can give them credit for their work when the piece is framed.
My goal is to make art accessible to all and to encourage using artistic means to enhance the experience of nature’s majesty. I also encourage folks to find an artistic medium that fits them – even to make one up as I did. I explained how “digital silk” enabled me to combine the things I love to do so that I could better communicate my love of nature. It doesn’t have to be silk either – you can print digital images onto paper, you can collage with them, tile them, or paint over them. A viewfinder in a camera or on a phone can tune-in and heighten your appreciation of your surroundings. Even if no work of art results from the “viewfinding” exercise, breaking down a huge vista into gemlike vignettes can be an immensely rewarding way to tune into the scene.
On my own…..
Although I brought a trunk load of art supplies, I found that collecting was the best use of my free-time. I visited all of the overlooks and day-hiked most of the trails. I went to every geology talk I could. I completed my color and time experiments. I trained my eye in composing the “grand landscape”. I spent a lot of time in silence and gratitude.
The images that have or will find their way into completed works of art were gifts. No matter how many miles of trail I walked, or how strategically I planned for the proper angle of light, the images were still gifts.
One of the requirements of my residency was to make a presentation about the park and the Artist-in-Residence program in my home community. The Ann Arbor District Library graciously agreed to host and to promote my talk.
I decided to enter one of the panoramas from the lodge’s sundeck into ArtPrize, the world’s largest art competition. It is held each Fall in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Over 100,000 visitors attend. I secured the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum as a venue. The link to the Grand Canyon was a bill he signed into law that doubled the size of the Grand Canyon National Park and restored hunting and farm land to Native Americans.
When I looked at my color/time studies, I decided on the image with 8 a.m. shadows. However, from my color studies, I found the greatest variety of colors culminated between 2 and 4 p.m. I found that greens began to differentiate around 10 a.m. At noon, the magentas arrived. Between 2 and 4 in the afternoon, the reds expanded into peaches, mauves, cranberries, rusts, and oranges plus the yellows of the sandstone sprang into view. So, my piece, “Colors of Time” used the photo from 8 a.m. and the color palette from mid afternoon. I used many of the same colors the visitors chose in my first program.
I really had only 2 1/2, disjointed months to execute the work. I decided that my piece would consist of three, panels. Once, I finalized the image using Photoshop Elements, I added a layer for a line drawing. I expanded the line drawing to 30 inches by 48 inches and printed it on a large-format printer similar to the one architects use for blueprints. I traced the design onto silk and started my painting. After wasting 5 panels, I decided I couldn’t work that large all at once because with silk painting, you can’t “undo”. I decided to paint the shadows onto the panels, then appliqué the rest. Fitting the pieces onto a 13” wide printer was too complex and disjointed. Finally, I made the decision to subdivide each panel into 5 horizontal, sections that did not exceed my 13” threshold. It took the first month to get this far.
The rest of the time, I spent painting. I admit that my biggest obstacle was myself. My enemies: perfectionism, myopia, fear, and hypersensitivity to my environment. My friends: loved ones, early-morning starts, yoga, naps, and meditation. I finished the last panel the night before my framer’s last day on the job before vacation and 3 days before the delivery to ArtPrize.
Colors of Time – the Journey / the Pilgrimmage, a Calling with Destination Unknown
“Colors of Time” is huge: 4 feet tall by 71/2 feet wide. I was surprised to find that it hung together as a whole, despite working piecemeal. The part I enjoyed most was discovering patterns in the lines and shadows that must have inspired Native American art and graphic sensibilities. As I let my imagination flow, so did my brushstrokes.
Despite the frustration, it was good to take on such a big challenge. I finally carved out the time and attention needed to hone my artistic skills – the old “immersion” method. I am so thankful that instead of deserting me, my friends cheered me on. Husband, Michael and son, Matthew were patient with my outbursts of frustration and frequent impatience and moodiness. They fed me like a queen.
My artistic journey became a pilgrimage – stretching my self-imposed limitations and where I faced my perceptual, artistic and spiritual inadequacies. Yes, it was a spiritual journey: the brutal truthfulness needed for vision, the “giving it up” and letting go of outcomes, and deciding that my efforts were worthy of prayer. I also learned that I can’t decide what’s worthy and what’s not. All I know is that I have a strong calling and that judging my effort or my calling is not my job.
So, I begin a new chapter. I always wanted to be a national park ranger. Maybe I can be one by being a national park artist and bringing the parks home. I sincerely hope that I can inspire folks to enjoy their park lands, to metaphorically “dip their brushes” by using artistic means (music, words, images, constructions) to tune into nature, and to become stewards of the environment and supporters and protectors of these national treasures.