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