I only planned to stop in Zion for a few days, just long enough to say a quick “hello” to my friends and revisit a few of my favorite places. I came with my usual “list:” Ride my bike to the end of the road, stopping for soft serve ice cream at Zion Lodge. See a couple of movies. Spend time with my favorite cottonwoods along the Virgin River as they turn from green to gold. And hike at least one trail I’ve never hiked before. But once I arrived, so did Indian Summer. The November weather was nothing short of perfect, with warm sunny days and highs in the 70’s, and brisk clear star-filled nights with a “super moon” on the way. How could I possibly leave?
Another treat awaited me. The Plein Air Invitational was underway, this one the “Centennial Edition” in celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service. For those followers who might not be aware, “plein air” is a French expression that means “in the open air,” whereby the artist paints outdoors, capturing the natural light of the environment. Every year during the first full week of November, Zion National Park hosts this event, inviting 24 landscape artists to participate.
During the week, there are daily demonstrations to watch the artists paint as they give a narrative of their process. There are evening lectures about “Art in the Parks.” And the event concludes with a “paint-out” during which time all the artists paint on the giant lawn in front of Zion Lodge. The fruits of their labor are then sold in a silent auction. To quote the Zion NP website, “Event proceeds go to the Zion National Park Foundation to support important projects in the park including the successful Zion Youth Education Initiative which creates opportunities to bring school children into the park and have a potentially life-changing educational experience.” One such program is “Concrete to Canyons,” whereby intercity kids from Las Vegas are brought to the park for a three day wilderness experience, often times their first experience in a National Park.
These 24 artists paint over 300 paintings to be sold to benefit the parks educational programs. This means not only will they be painting during the organized demos, but if your timing is good, you will also encounter them out “in the wild,” painting whatever scene inspires them. And what’s not to inspire? I once said about Hawaii, “If you can’t fall in love while visiting Hawaii, you must be dead.” I will make a similar claim about Zion. “If you can’t be inspired while visiting Zion, you must be dead.”
I had the good fortune to make one of these encounters one late afternoon while riding my bike up the canyon road. At the end of the road at the Temple of Sinawava, I met pastel artist Arlene Braithwaite, standing there all alone looking quite “dwarfed” by the imposing walls on all sides of her. Everyone is dwarfed in this canyon of red rock skyscrapers, but Arlene even more so. She is not much bigger than the easel on which she paints. I didn’t realize at the time that she was one of “THE” 24 artists, so I struck up a conversation.
I remarked how impressive her box of pastels was, spread out on the ground before her. We laughed about our childhood memories of the thrill of getting a new box of Crayolas, all lined up in perfect gradient order. I can still remember the smell of the paraffin, and how in my OCD fashion, I vowed to keep them all aligned in the right order. We talked about the inspiring scenes on all sides of us, when Arlene said something that stuck with me. “The thing I love about being an artist is that it teaches you to SEE!”
This was a bit of an epiphany for me. From that point on as the week progressed and I attended more and more demos, I began to see edges and angles of light rather than ledges and cracks of stone. Instead of brown, I saw deep purples. Red rocks were now “florescent orange” and “quinacridone coral.” I have long been a fan and collector of watercolors, but “pastels” were new to me. I found it fascinating how up close, the painting can look like nothing more than “abstract chalk marks” but from a distance, it’s a compelling landscape.
I began to develop a passion for pigment…
I’ll never be an artist. I can’t even draw a decent stick figure. Believe me, I’ve tried. But at least for a week, I was able to see a little of what they see…
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” ~Edgar Degas