Utah Bucket List: Violinist in tune with Zion National Park
Zion National Park • As a violinist, Rachel Panitch never expected her name to be linked to those of Ansel Adams, William Henry Jackson, George Catlin, Henry Thoreau and Thomas Moran.
But, thanks to a National Park Service program that lets artists live temporarily in parks across the country, the Boston resident can be grouped with the painters, photographers and writers who helped preserve and promote the nation’s most scenic locations.
Panitch, who also composes music, spent the month of April in the Grotto cabin in Zion Canyon as part of the park’s Artist-in-Residence program. It is a month she will not forget, not as a musician and not as a human.
Upon arrival, Panitch, the first musician to participate in Zion’s artist program since it began in 2009, left her prized violin in the cabin while she became acquainted with the park.
“I definitely took a little time and went on a lot of hikes,” said Panitch, who was trained in classical music but also enjoys fiddle tunes and has been known to throw down some North Indian raga. “I almost felt as if when I was in the cabin, I was missing out on the chance to be outside and if I was outside, I was missing out on the chance to write. It was hard to find a balance.”
It did not take long for Panitch to discover the inspiration other artists had experienced in Zion and the other 49 national parks involved in the Artist-in-Residence program.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the different types of inspiration,” Panitch said during the third week of her April stay. “I came in thinking it might just be some of the sounds I’d planned on collecting. But a lot of things that influence visual artists — angles, colors, textures and the amazing contrasts of Zion — showed up in a lot of pieces I’ve been working on.”
As Panitch explored the park, crossing the famous Narrows and Angels Landing hikes off her Utah Bucket List, she also noted comments from visitors, the actions of wildlife and the “natural music” of Zion.
SEE MORE: Find Rachel Panitch’s map of inspiring spots here.
Sanctuary in a busy place • National park officials used the theme “A Century of Sanctuary” in 2009, when Zion celebrated 100 years as a protected place. President William Howard Taft created the Mukuntuweap National Monument under the Antiquities Act in 1909, and, nine years later, it became a national park and was given the name Zion. More than 86 million people visited the park between 1919 and 2009. Annual visitation at Zion is now approaching 3 million.
Despite a high number of visitors, Panitch said she experienced a feeling of sanctuary in the park as did homesteader Isaac Behunin, who back in 1864 lived where the Zion Lodge now sits.
“I’ve had that time and space to step away and reflect on what I’m experiencing and how to translate it into music,” Panitch said, noting there is no Internet or Wi-Fi service at the Grotto. “I can step back from everyday life. I’m the type of person who usually has sound going on all the time. To be forced to hear silence, and then to realize it is not silence, has been powerful. There are a lot of hidden sounds.”
Playing Zion • Park officials urge participating artists to make themselves available to the public during their stay. Visitors are encouraged to stop by the Grotto cabin when a sign is out indicating the artist is taking visitors.
Panitch said visitors were surprised and excited when she invited them to listen to her play. And, when they weren’t visiting her, Panitch hit the trails or visited the lodge to share her inspired playing with the public.
One morning she hiked the canyon overlook trail and ended up playing in a natural amphitheater while a couple from New England waltzed in the alcove. Panitch also spent an afternoon playing under the massive cottonwood tree on the lawn at Zion Lodge. She also gave concerts in Springdale, the gateway town to the park.
“It is a wonderful experience for both the artists and the parks,” said Christopher Gezon, visual-information specialist at Zion. “Artists get an opportunity to create in these places and to continue the relationship they have had with the parks before they were even founded. Visitors get a chance to hear beautiful music in a beautiful place or see the park through an artist’s eyes. It is extraordinary.”
A place to live • Now-retired Zion National Park Superintendent Jock Whitworth took over Utah’s most popular park in 2003 and was surprised to find it was not part of the Artist-in-Residence program.
His first step was to find a place for an artist to live. An empty cabin in disrepair in Zion Canyon seemed a possibility. Originally used as the Zion visitor center in 1924, the building had become nothing but a storage shed.
Funds for refurbishing the cabin came from the National Park Service Centennial Initiative and other sources. On Feb. 5, 2010, Fort Worth, Texas, landscape artist Dennis Farris moved into the Grotto cabin.
Farris was not the first artist to find his muse in the redrock country of southern Utah.
Painting Zion • According to the Zion National Park website, one of the first paintings of the area came from Frederick S. Dellenbaugh during the second John Wesley Powell expedition of the Colorado River in 1871-1872. The work is in the Zion National Park museum collection.
Dellenbaugh, the park reports, returned to Zion in 1903 and made a series of paintings. The artist also wrote an article about what would become a national park for Scribner’s Magazine. His works of Zion were on display at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and “raised awareness about this majestic canyon and influenced some to petition for its protection as a national park,” according to park literature.
By the mid-1920s, the Union Pacific Railroad was commissioning artists such as Howard Russell Butler to promote landscapes like those in Zion. His wall-size paintings of the park also are part the Zion museum collection.
Following the practice of having art created inside the park return to the park, participants in the Artist-in-Residence program are expected to provide Zion with something they created during their stay. Some of that work is on display at the Zion Human History Museum.
In Panitch’s case, the park will have rights to unlimited use of one her yet-to-be-determined pieces. She also will be able to use and sell copies of the same work. Discussion is still underway on how the public will be able to enjoy her music inside the park.
“Artists played a key role in the formation and preservation of the national parks,” Gezon said. “They had an eye to promote to the public the idea of preserving these areas so people would be able to use them. Art helped focus that movement and artists still have a key role in sharing the importance of the these national treasures.”
Panitch takes the responsibility seriously and hopes all the music she produced during her stay — and future work inspired by Zion — will move the people who hear it.
To share her experiences during the Zion stay, Panitch created a “musical map,” complete with pictures, audio and what it was about that place that inspired her to produce the music.
“This is a chance to share music inspired by this place and get more people interested in coming to visit and learn more about Zion,” Panitch said. “Hopefully, once here, they will find their own sanctuary, their own inspiration.”