On any day of the year, Utah’s Zion National Park affords awe-inspiring sights, from towering canyon walls to wandering wildlife.
But, one week every autumn, other seldom-seen creatures materialize throughout Zion: the artists of the park’s Plein Air Invitational.
Chosen from dozens of applicants (more than 80 this year), the 24 participants gather for a week of intense activity.
There’s the creative process, of course, as each artist explores the park and creates multiple works in response — some with oil paintings, others with watercolors or pastels.
Each participating artist also presents a demonstration during the weeklong invitational, held the first week of November.
Often, however, the encounters are less formal, with visitors exploring the park happening upon an artist at work.
“When people see another person it rarely inspires someone to interact,” according to the 2017 invitational’s featured artist, James McGrew of Lake Oswego, Oregon. “But people see an artist painting a unique piece of artwork on location and it always stops a crowd of people to observe.”
That process, “allows the artist an opportunity to inspire the audience and connect with the important history of painting Zion National Park,” McGrew observes.
Artists have been painting Zion even before Zion National Park existed.
Thomas Moran (whose dynamic depictions of Yellowstone’s wonders helped inspire Congress to establish the National Park System in 1916) first painted Zion’s southwestern Utah splendors in 1873, according to Mark Preiss, director of the Zion Forever Project, the national park’s official nonprofit partner.
And Frederick Dellenbaugh — who first visited, as a teenager, with the 1871-72 John Wesley Powell expedition of the Colorado River — returned to paint Zion in 1903, Preiss notes. (Dellenbaugh’s other paintings include 1876’s “Las Vegas Ranch,” the first known painting of the Las Vegas Valley.)
When Dellenbaugh exhibited his Zion canvases at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition (better known as the St. Louis World’s Fair), “many of the attendees didn’t believe this place existed in real life,” Preiss explains. “That was the way people saw things in that era.”
(In 1909, President William Howard Taft saw, too, establishing Mukuntuweap National Monument — using the Paiute name for the canyon. In 1918, it became Zion National Monument — and, a year after that, Zion National Park, which will celebrate its centennial in 2019.)
Zion’s current plein air invitational, which began nine years ago, serves as way to continue that tradition of artists exploring the area’s beauty, Preiss says. Artists painting in the “open air, in the moment, trying to capture a piece of that landscape” represents “part of what those very first visitors to the park experienced.”
For artist Arlene Braithwaite of Cedar City, Utah, the plein air invitational is an opportunity “for teaching me about awareness” as much as “making a painting,” she notes. “It teaches you to keep an open mind.”
That includes deciding where to paint.
“You may have a plan in mind” and while driving to a specific spot, “you’ll see something and you go, ‘Oh, time out,’ says Braithwaite, whose plein air artworks range from the park’s Kolob Canyon to Coalpits Wash.
“Each year, I’m pushing the envelope — looking for new perspectives, new angles,” notes McGrew, who spent 20 summers as a seasonal park ranger and naturalist at Yosemite National Park in California. (“Adding art classes to programs helps people to slow down, learn to see and experience nature from a different and deeper perspective,” he says.)
Besides, “standing still in a single location for a while allows many species of animals to let down their guard and be seen more easily,” he explains. During this year’s invitational, he hiked Zion’s strenuous Angels Landing Trail and West Rim Trail, where he spotted a California condor perched on a sheer 1,500-foot precipice.
“I quietly and discreetly painted the condor while hiding behind rocks and foliage until it eventually took off with a big wind gust,” McGrew recalls.
Human interaction also plays a major role at the invitational.
“There’s great camaraderie and a fun time for the artists,” notes Mary Jabens, another Cedar City artist. “I love to watch artists paint — how they handle passages, color, compositions.”
The same holds true for audiences attending the artist demonstrations.
“The questions can range from one end to the other,” Jabens says. “Most them are ‘help me,’ ‘how did you do that?’ or ‘how are you going to do that?’ “
Plein air artists sometimes ask themselves similar questions while painting, McGrew acknowledges.
The “numerous challenges to plein air painting” can be “the same things that make it so rewarding,” he says, listing “hauling all the painting gear, sometimes hiking in wilderness or driving to remote locations,” along with “chasing rapidly changing light, weather or moving objects, animals” and more.
“Every time you return to it, it’s like reading a book again — the light will be different, how you feel will be different,” Braithwaite says of plein air painting. “The point is to be in the moment.”
Even so, “you try to bring your ‘A’ game to the festival,” Jabens says. “The focus is on a higher plateau — and completion. You want it to be good.”
In part, she says, that’s because the artworks created and auctioned during the Plein Air Invitational benefit the Zion Forever Project’s “Concrete to Canyons” Youth Education Initiative, which brings schoolchildren — including those in Las Vegas and Mesquite — to camp at Zion.
“It brings the next generation to the park,” McGrew says.
As for Zion’s Plein Air Invitational, “it gives the artist an opportunity to inspire people and help them discover many things,“ he adds, including “the role that artists have played in preservation and establishment of Zion and other national parks.”