One chilly afternoon in the Spring of 2016 Tom Minckley asked if he could stop by on his way home from campus. I said sure and soon he was at the door. I offered him a beer and we sat down in front of a fire. Tom quickly got to the point of the visit and asked me serve as the lead artist for SCREE. I asked if he had his permits lined up (he didn’t). He said he did, and I agreed to sign on. At that point, I had read Wallace Stenger’s’ Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, and was interested in Powell, but had no river experience. Tom wasn’t concerned about that. He knew I can handle rough water and can swim. I asked Tom why he wanted me on board. He thought I would be a good fit as we share a similar critical approach to landscape and an interest in Art History. Also, he appreciated my paintings as I often take a geographical approach to my subjects. He saw that often I am depicting overlooked landscapes. Landscapes that seem to in a tidal zone (or eddy) between our encroaching culture and nature- between place and space.
This opportunity with SCREE is both exciting and daunting. To help me prepare for the trip I feel I need to give myself a kind of job description. For the last 3 years the promise of this river trip has fueled my research into the art and history surrounding the Colorado River Basin, Powell, and Manifest Destiny. I have spent countless hours tracking down the delicate and confident field drawings of Thomas Moran to try to gain some understanding of his approach. Moran and Powell had a lasting impact on how we think of the West. Moran’s oil paintings and engravings of the Canyon country were critical in flipping Powell’s “great unknown” from an uncharted space into a familiar place.
Working on the shoulders of Powell and Moran gives me an understanding of how we got to 2019 and help me think about the future of the West. My challenge is to find content in a landscape that is, for the most part, unspoiled, raw and in a natural state. Of course, the numerous dams control the seasonal flows so there is little wash out happening in the canyons. The “leave no trace” policy leaves us a landscape that feels to me like it is in a bubble or frozen in time. Most of the land along the river is the kind of protected land that I have spent my 30 years avoiding in my depictions of the West. My belief being, Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Fredrick Church, and many others did an excellent job of depicting the pre-Manifest Destiny landscape (and natural resources) of North America. That job has been done and it was done really well. With that in mind, I have committed my efforts toward the less protected lands. The interaction between our encroaching culture and the realities of nature is fascinating to me. I often set up and sketch on the outskirts of town, behind a truck stop, and on the side of the highway while travelers blow by on their way to embrace our pristine National Parks. The canyons will offer me the chance to face the land in a way that is not all that different than what Powell and Moran experienced. The reservoirs will offer a chance to see what we have made of the sacrificed land under the water.
Thinking about the future is a difficult thing to do. Painting it is even harder. At this point, I can humbly hope that my work can serve future artists. I hope that the inspiration that I have gleaned from Moran’s sketches can be carried through to the next generation of artists. SCREE will have drones, Go Pros on helmets, digital cameras, video, and sound recording devices. Which leaves me wondering, will there even be a future artist that will choose to use graphite and watercolors? But, I expect there will be. After all, I’m using materials that are not that different from the famed Barrier Canyon Style artists whose paintings are 10,000 years old and can be seen today on the canyon walls. I suppose future river trips will carry sketchbooks, journals, pencils, watercolors, harmonicas and acoustic guitars. These materials will continue to be attractive to artists that are committed to making direct marks of expression. I hope to play some defense for drawing and painting in a world that is becoming increasingly saturated with landscape images that are digitally manipulated into idyllic screen saver perfection.