By Bonnie Gangelhoff
Early in her career Colorado-based artist Elizabeth Black was painting on a rafting trip in the Grand Canyon when the boat suddenly flipped over. Her watercolor works got soaked. Nonetheless Black managed to rescue the artistic treasures and eventually dry the pieces. “Some of them were actually better afterwards,” she jokes. But that was some time ago, 1975 to be exact.
Today, of course, Black’s landscape paintings aren’t likely to be improved by a swim in the river. Accolades and gallery shows are more likely to be on her current agenda. In September Black won a top award at the annual Grand Canyon Celebration of Art held at the South Rim Village of Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park. It was the second year in a row she took home a major award, singled out from among an array of prominent landscape painters, including renowned Grand Canyon artist Curt Walters.
Black’s evocative, realistic depictions of western terrain, ranging from deep canyons to craggy mountain tops, are held in private and public collections across the country. And as this story was going to press, Black was creating works for a two-person show with her husband, landscape photographer Christopher Brown—a presentation that is on view through December 15 at Mary Williams Fine Art in Boulder, CO. The show is both inspired by and takes its name from Brown’s recently published book, Path of Beauty: Photographic Adventures in the Grand Canyon.
Black and Brown met in 1985 on a rafting trip down the Colorado River when they were both river guides, an adventuresome pastime they still pursue in their spare time. The couple recently returned from their 30th trip to the Grand Canyon, celebrating the time they met 25 years ago. And, yes, people often chuckle when they hear the duo’s “colorful” surnames. On joint odysseys, Black packs paint brushes while Brown carries digital cameras. Although Black’s oil (and on occasion, watercolor) paintings capture a wide variety of natural wonders, she has a special interest in and talent for portraying canyons and rivers.
Reflecting back on her fine-art career, Black says she didn’t dream about becoming an artist when she was a youngster. What has led her down that road is a passion for nature and the environment. After earning a nursing degree, she practiced her medical profession during the winter, she says, and then worked as a river guide in the summer on the Stanislaus River, 30 miles from Yosemite National Park. Her interest in landscape painting blossomed alongside the thrill of “running rivers.”
Black moved to Colorado, settling in Boulder with Brown in 1985. Eventually she began taking workshops with Mark Daily and other instructors at the Art Students League of Denver. Her nursing career dissolved into the background as her fine-art career took center stage.
With so many years of experience as a river guide, Black brings an intimate knowledge and perspective to her landscape works. As a river guide, she has often sensed that she is taking people to places for what she calls a “worship” type of encounter. “I sometimes feel like I am an acolyte, bringing them out for a religious experience,” she says. “We don’t often talk about the experience of being out in the wild as sublime, but there is a spiritual element that is present for many people.”
Likewise, Black’s artistic mission is to bring viewers of her paintings on a similar journey through magnificent landscapes, whether it’s Utah’s Canyonlands National Park or California’s Sierra Nevadas. For her, landscape painting, like river running, is a form of worship. “I’m just trying to be honest and get people to notice and pay attention to what’s there,” she explains. “I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors, and I want my paintings to communicate that. When I look at the landscape, all I want to say is, ‘Isn’t this grand. Isn’t this amazing just the way it is?’”
Black says she relishes depicting beauty and magnificent scenes. In fact, she has spent days gazing at the wilderness, and marveling at things like the secrets of flowing water. But recently Black has begun work on a series of what she calls “land use paintings,” which focus on the rapidly changing western landscape. While painting them she has come to an understanding of the emotions that this change creates—shock, denial, uncertainty, nostalgia, and fear. “My hope is that these paintings will cause the viewer to understand their own emotions better and to work for the preservation of the landscape that they treasure,” she says.
Mary Williams Fine Art, Boulder, CO, www.elizabethblackart.com.
Path of Beauty, two-person show, Mary Williams Fine Art, through December 15.
Featured in December 2010