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Painting Zion

Published March 5, 2010 5:55 pm

Artists » Southern Utah national park invites professional artists for one month to spark inspiration -- and new works.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Artists easily find inspiration just from passing through Zion National Park. Some spend a day, the weekend or maybe even a week, to soak up the wonders of the massive red cliffs and translate the scenery into art.

But what if you had a full month to wander the park looking for just the right light on just the right scene? And what if you had a studio inside the park to work?

"You could pick any part of this amazing park to paint," says Dennis Farris, "but having the time to pick something that really stands out to you and a place to get away from all the distractions to create your work is indescribable."

Here for Farris is a studio and temporary residence in the heart of Zion Canyon. "This is an unbelievable opportunity for any artist," said the landscape artist from Fort Worth, Texas. "I feel so lucky to be here."

Farris spent February painting as part of the park's new artists-in-residence program, part of a loose network of 30 national parks that invite professional visual artists, photographers, performers, writers, filmmakers and composers to create new works in geographically impressive surroundings.

He's the second artist to be tapped for the residency program, launched last year to celebrate the park's 100th anniversary. Informally, of course, Zion rocks and vistas have been captured on canvas since the famed Western painter Thomas Moran's visit in 1873.

When Jock Whitworth took over as the park's superintendent six years ago, he was surprised to find that Zion didn't have a formal residency program. "So we started figuring out a way to make it happen," he said.

The first step was finding a place for the artist to spend a month. Whitworth suggested a cabin, once used as the original visitors center back in 1924, which was in The Grotto along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. In recent years, the structure had been used only for storage.

Funds from the National Park Service Centennial Initiative and other sources were used to refurbish the building. On Feb. 5, Farris was the first artist to set up his equipment in the Grotto studio. "My expectations are wide open," he says, nearly a month later. "I know this experience will change me. I'm not sure yet how it has."

One late February morning, Farris sits behind a canvas of a partially completed painting while gazing out the windows of his Grotto studio. Later in the day, when the walls of the canyon are radiating the sun's warmth, Farris packs up his easel and equipment and walks behind the cabin to work on another painting.

Behind him, he sees a wild turkey feather partially buried in the sand. In his days at Zion, the artist has watched the turkeys and mule deer meander around his cabin, while another regular visitor is a small lizard he has nicknamed Melvin.

The creatures have been his only distractions, at this place beyond wireless and television connections. "This is the way it should be, but rarely is in everyday life," says Farris, who usually heads to the Zion Lodge in the evenings to file blog posts and check in with his wife, ViVi.

The lack of distractions has proven fruitful: In his first 12 days at the Grotto, Farris produced 10 studies and several other projects.

Artist Janice Trane Jones, of Heber, had a similar experience last fall when she spent a residency in a remote cabin on the east side of the park.

"Where do you get 24/7 peace and quiet?" said Jones, a watercolor and oil painter, who finished 33 pieces during her stay. "I painted 18 hours a day. It allowed me the courage to try anything."

Back on the hillside behind the Grotto, the light has moved off the target of Farris's plein air project, and so Farris packs up to explore another part of the park.

Driving up State Highway 9 and through the Zion tunnels, Farris studies the landscape and is struck by the way some rock formations appear through the windows of the tunnel.

With his camera strapped to his waist, Farris walks near the Checkerboard Mesa, thinking about the complexity of the tones and lines in the Zion landscape. "Sometimes you just can't expect to be able to reproduce what you see," he says. "It is too intricate."

When he leaves Zion, Farris will leave one painting for the park to display. That, and the numerous paintings that Farris will undoubtedly sell from his time in Zion, represents the program's tangible return.

"People come here to be inspired and they create wonderful works of art," Whitworth said. "They then become part of the park's collection, or are seen across the world via the Internet or at shows. That inspiration transpires into further love for the parks and wild places," Whitworth said. "People can be inspired by Zion without ever actually being able to see it themselves. That's the return."

brettp@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">brettp@sltrib.com

About the National Park Service's Artist-in-Residence program

More than 30 National Park Service units, ranging from Maine's Acadia National Park to California's Yosemite National Park, offer some form of the Artist-in-Residence program. Each park handles the program in its own way, but most invite professional artists, ranging from painters and photographers to performers, writers, filmmakers and composers. At Zion, the program is designed to "foster the connection between unspoiled natural settings and artistic pursuit." Zion officials plan on hosting at least two residencies annually, but hope to expand the program.

For information on the National Park Service program, visit http://www.nps.gov/archive/volunteer/air.htm" Target="_BLANK">http://www.nps.gov/archive/volunteer/air.htm.

For information on the Zion National Park artist residency, visit http://www.nps.gov/zion/supportyourpark/artist-in-residence.htm" Target="_BLANK">http://www.nps.gov/zion/supportyourpark/artist-in-residence.htm.

Artist on the Web

Read Dennis Farris' blog about his residency, at http://farrisart.com" Target="_BLANK">farrisart.com.