It's been too long since we knew the artist as adventurer, the explorer of the unknown frontier, bringing back images of a landscape only imagined by the vast majority of the population. At least it had been too long, before Curt Walters laced up his hiking boots, packed an easel on his back, and headed 5,000 feet beneath the surface of the earth.
Two weeks ago, a group of 15 top western landscape artists set out on an adventure down the Colorado River, gauging their way into the deepest regions of the Grand Canyon. A week later, the Independent met them at the bottom of the Canyon, trailing them on their 9-mile hike out, peering over their shoulders as they painted, and drinking up stories of their journey like a dehydrated day-hiker in 120 degree heat.
The trip, coordinated by artist Walters, was an unprecedented attempt to convene a summit of artists to work their way down the Colorado River, from Lee's Ferry to Phantom Ranch, boating paint and canvasses with them, along with sleeping bags, sunscreen, and insect repellent.
Down the river
"I knew that if I went to the bottom and painted on just an ordinary trip, that there would be no way to do a comprehensive study at the bottom and paint and get out of it what I wanted to get out of it," Walters explained in an interview on the South Rim of the Canyon, 5,000 feet above the path he had taken over the past eight days. "I came up with the idea of taking all of my artist friends down with me."
Walters shared his idea with Geoff Barnard and Katrina Rogers, President and Development Director, respectively, of the Grand Canyon Trust, a nonprofit conservation advocacy group that has championed efforts to restrict overflights in the Grand Canyon, to address river management issues, to preserve seeps and springs in the Canyon, and to be watchdogs for gateway development and visitation management. Walters was able to invite 14 colleagues on a trip to paint the Canyon from the bottom up, donating a portion of their completed work to support the Trust's fund raising efforts.
He developed a three-fold criteria. "First of all, they had to be physically fit to go on the trip. I also wanted well-known artists who were really good painters and who were known for painting outdoors. Plus, I wanted artists who were environmentally sensitive."
Walters' invitations were greeted with an unequivocal desire to join the expedition.
Among the artists completing the trip was a Colorado contingent including Mary Helsaple from Manitou Springs, Joseph Bohler from Monument, and Eric Michaels from Trinidad. After eight days of painting in the morning and afternoon while floating or shading up in the mid-day heat, the artists ascended through 21 distinct geological layers chronicling nearly two billion years of Earth's history. They were able to see the Canyon on foot from one end to the other, a perspective only one percent of the Park's visitor's ever access.
"It opens up your eyes to the real geology of the canyon that you really cannot get a sense of in any other way other than riding a boat down the canyon," Walters said, a sense of awe coloring his conversation. "The canyon is like a big mountain, it rises up and the river cuts through the center of it. You see layer by layer by layer by layer, the river starts cutting through all this stuff and you watch the progression of all these geological layers sort of unfold in front of you every mile that you go down the river. You become intensely in tune to the color of those formations and the grandeur of them all. It's an unbelievable experience."
Out of control in the plein-air
Joseph Bohler greeted the Canyon with the insatiable appetite of any artist, finding wonder in "the shades of the warm colors, the reds and the yellows and the golds. Cool colors, the blacks mixed in the different layers over the centuries."
Bohler is in the middle of a unique three-week stretch that will find him painting in three national parks in three weeks, moving from the Grand Canyon to Yellowstone and finally to the Grand Tetons with scarcely enough time to do his laundry and kiss his wife between stops.
"You get more feeling, emotion, with your outside painting than you do indoors," Bohler confided as he finished a painting at Shoshone Point. "Indoors, everything's control. There's supposed to be a tree in there so you put it in. The temperature's just fine, there's no wind, there's no breeze. So it's more of an intellectual thing. Outdoors there's more passion, feelings, and painting from the heart."
One of the realities of the trip was the challenge of working on a smaller scale, generally not much bigger than 9"x12" canvasses. In addition to the limitations of transporting the materials on the raft, each artist had to ultimately deal with the backbreaking reality of hiking their work out of the canyon. The process of pulling all their work out at their last camp on the river to decide what to pack out and what to trust with the rafters, continuing down the river for two more days, inspired an impromptu art show at the river's edge.
There were even a couple of sales made when a "left brain" trip led by former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth walked over from their nearby campsite to admire the right brain work interpreting the Canyon they had just rafted.
Rather than narrow his focus to fit the smaller canvass, Bohler simply used smaller brushes, though he couldn't let go of his inch-and-a-half brush. "You can put the same thing down, it's just more confined, in a smaller area," he confided. "It's like, I play piano. I don't like to cut off a chord or use a small keyboard; I like the whole thing so I can work the whole area, up and down."
On the other hand, Eric Michaels found a mixed blessing in the small canvasses. "I found here, being down in the canyons themselves, when you're way down in them, light changes much more quickly than it does on the rim, because you've got these walls moving up and down and everything's moving along them very quickly. So there would be some problems working too large. You'd want to be able to do something in a couple of hours."
The short time frame gives the observer the dizzying effect of watching a photograph develop in front of your eyes, materializing out of the blank space and sharpening moment by moment. "You really have about a two-hour window to finish your painting," confirms Walters. "And if you don't grab it within that length of time you've pretty much missed it. Within a two-hour period your atmosphere and your light will change so drastically that it will be a totally different painting."
Soaking in the texture
Manitou's Mary Helsaple offered an alternative perspective to the plein-air painters, seeing the trip as an opportunity to focus on studies that she could bring back to her studio for more extensive work after extended rumination. "For me it's about immersing myself in the environment. ... I feel like I've got to sort of soak it through the skin, so to speak. I want to find out what lives there and how things interact within that environment. And how humans and nature sort of relate on this line that's always shifting."
Helsaple experienced this philosophy to the extreme when she was bitten by a scorpion towards the end of the trip. She persevered, painting through swollen fingers and the isolation of the Canyon floor, and still managing to kick the Indy's butt on the marathon hike out.
One of her paintings had its genesis in a walk to the Little Colorado to get more water for a painting she was working on. "The swirls of water were mixing. It's interesting to see the patterns in the water. You can see below the surface and see how all of that changes."
Helsaple reveled in the chance to mine the Canyon's abundant resources of light, color, value, shape, shadow, and texture, but it was content, ultimately, that captured her imagination. "When we got to the Little Colorado I noticed a dramatic shift in a different kind of habitat, a different kind of wildlife. Sometimes I can only feel this viscerally, but it's almost as if you can feel that the habitat is more untouched, more pristine, left alone.
"And all of a sudden these fish appeared, and you think, "ah, there is life in the river.' It isn't just about rafting and how high is the water going to be today when they let it out of its dam. So I guess that's why I look for the little niches of habitat. Less controlled, less managed."
The sound of the breakfast crew at work woke Helsaple one morning with the canyon still dark, surrounded by "black, dark brown, gray, vertical walls." Helsaple pointed out a larger painting with the dark impressionistic canyon walls crowned with a thick layer of shimmering gold. "All of a sudden," she continued, "you see this top of this rim just shot with gold. It looked liked artists had just gone along and taken gold leaf, really, it looked so yellow. If we really pumped up the color like it really looked, people wouldn't believe it. That for me was really exciting. It was kind of like "aaaaaahhhhhh,'" and she sang out something resembling a moderately high C. "You get up and you're kind of groggy and you've got sand in your teeth and you're wondering what you're going to do for the day and you look up and you see this. Everything else is sort of grayed down, and then the light just starts wafting down the wall. And you just want to stand there and soak it up."
Bohler and Michaels experienced the same sense of wonder, turn by turn of the river's winding path through the Canyon.
"One of the reasons that artists go outside and paint on location is because they seek the light," Michaels explained. "It's the way light falls on things. And no matter how long you paint on location, when you're subjected to something new there's an adjustment period. Everybody was just sort of getting the stride. Starting to understand the light. Starting to understand that you can't paint this whole canyon, you have to simplify it. You just can't paint every nook and cranny; it just won't work that way. You've got some incredible three-dimensional thing here, and you're trying to put in a two-dimensional format, so you do your best to lie, to build in the atmosphere and make it seem like it really is three dimensional."
The longer the artists were in the Canyon, the more they developed a feeling for efficiently capturing the grandeur surrounding them with a minimum of brush strokes. "You have to learn to build in a short hand that will suffice for that," Michaels went on as he indicated a painting he was finishing on his last day at the Canyon. "Sort of like the distance there. I'm leaving that a little out of focus and suggestive and I'm going to go with the branches on the trees and make my main concentration the foreground."
Katrina Rogers of the Grand Canyon Trust joined the artists on the river trip, observing their creative process as well as their evolving relationship with the Canyon and with each other. "I think what we've done here is build a really enthusiastic constituency for the Grand Canyon. They went in liking it and appreciating it and came out committed to it, committed to its conservation, committed to its protection. That's pretty exciting to see. We feel like we've done something good for the Grand Canyon this week."