During social isolation due to Covid-19, I’ve been able to make virtual trips to the Grand Canyon via painting scenes and moments of my previous visits to the canyon.
I have great memories of the Grand Canyon – hiking to Indian Garden, playing a flute I made inside Mary Colter’s Desert Watchtower, eating breakfast at El Tovar, and riding a mule to Phantom Ranch on a couple of memorable occasions.
My last two trips to the South Rim of the Canyon introduced me to the joy of plein air painting.
In September 2017, my visit to the Grand Canyon coincided with the canyon’s Plein Air Paintout. I accidentally read a brochure that was placed in our cabin about the event – two dozen invited artists would be painting along the Rim from 8 to 10 a.m. the next day.
I didn’t think I’d be interested in watching a bunch of painters, but the next morning we walked past several artists along the Canyon Rim on our way to breakfast at El Tovar.
“Look at what they are doing in just two hours,” we said as we stopped to watch the artists working efficiently. They worked in a variety of mediums – oils, acrylics, pastels, sculpture.
The Plein Air Paintout, we learned, was part of the Grand Canyon Conservancy’s Celebration of Art. About 20 invited artists come to the South Rim for two weeks of painting each September, with one Saturday being the Paint Out.
As we moved slowly from observing one artist to the next, rushing to breakfast didn’t seem as important.
Finally, we did eat breakfast with a wonderful view of the Canyon from the El Tovar dining room but made sure we arrived at the auction in time to review the completed paintings before the auction began at 11 a.m.
The auctioneer explained the bidding process and the bidding for the artwork began. Most of the art went for $1,000 to $3,000. The money (50/50 split) went to artist and the Grand Canyon Conservancy.
Inspired by our Grand Canyon experience that morning, we went to the Kolb Studio to become members of the Grand Canyon Conservancy. The gift for new members was a stuffed big horn sheep that never would have fit in our suitcases that were filled with hiking gear. We convinced the store clerk to let us select two sketch books with a 3D image of the Grand Canyon on the cover and a small set of pencil crayons in lieu of the bighorn sheep.
During the remainder of our hiking time we took our new art materials to the rim and enjoyed comparing notes on what we sketched and how each image was different.
The gallery had a display of magazines that were free for the taking, and I collected a range of reading material for the evenings after hiking. In a short period of time, I became fascinated by plein air painting.
When I returned from my canyon trip, I searched online to learn more about plein air painting. That is when I stumbled on something called Urban Sketching. Outside painting with watercolors and a moleskine.
I purchased a Moleskine watercolor book and a Whiskey Painters kit and took them with me to Barcelona for a two-week visit with friends. I convinced my friends to sketch and paint with me. We “saw”things much differently than when taking photos.
We scheduled our next trip to the Grand Canyon to coincide with the 2019 Plein Air Paintout. The morning of the event, I was on the Rim early to watch the artists set up.
Again the Paint Out was fascinating. I talked briefly to the artists as they painted, noting the value studies they had pinned to their easels and the paint colors they had mixed. We went to the auction – voted on the People’s Choice painting and listened to lively bidding.
The next day, when we hiked the 9-mile roundtrip to Indian Garden, I carried my sketching materials and sketched views looking up to the Rim.
In the late afternoon, we began the hike back to the Rim. When we reached the 1.5 Mile Resthouse, we added a little more water to our hydration packs and got ready for the last segment of the hike.
As we watched large birds sailing above us, another hiker walked up beside me and asked me if I thought they were condors or vultures. We hiked together talking about the Canyon’s birds and the beauty of the Canyon. That led to us talking about the fun of watching the Paint Out.
It turned out our hiking companion was the director of the gallery. She was hiking Bright Angel Trail to celebrate completing hanging of the artwork in the Kolb Studio. She invited us to come to the studio to see the artists’work. We would the next day when not sweaty, dusty, tired and hungry after the 9 mile round hike down and back to Indian Garden.
The next morning, we visited the Kolb studio and I had just collected a armful of free art magazines when I saw Kathy.
We reintroduced ourselves, as we all looked less dusty than the previous evening. She was delighted that we’d come to see the gallery and talked with us about several of the paintings.
As a watercolor artist, I was interested in seeing watcolor paintings of the Canyon and saw several 4×6 watercolors by Matt Sterbenz.
When I told Kathy I was surprised not to see more watercolors, she said, “Well, come with me.”
She led us to a door at the back of the gallery, tapped in a code on the keypad, and opened the door. We went down stairs and arrived in the lower level of the Kolb Studio, which had been the living quarters of the Kolb family when the building was a photo studio.
This section of the studio was filled with paintings and period furniture and had wonderful views of the Canyon. Kathy showed us the rooms where the invited artists’paintings were being stored and photographed. What an experience.
Kathy showed us other watercolor art and explained how few artists in the Paint Out work in watercolor because the paint dries too quickly in the heat. She recommended that I try acrylics or oils if I entertained painting plein air at the canyon.
The pandemic prevents me from traveling to the Grand Canyon this year, but I invite you to join me in following, virtually, the artists who are at the “Celebration of Art” for 2020.
You can view the “12th Annual Celebration of Art digital Catalogue” or visit the web pages of the invited artists or check the schedule of events. You may even want to bid virtually on some of the paintings.
Grand Canyon Conservancys “Celebration of Art” was a life changing event.