David Schwindt, Slopes on the Little Colorado, oil, 8 x 10.
By Mary Jo Pitzl
Take 15 artists. Insert in two rafts. Add easels, canvases, assorted oils, acrylics, and watercolors. Send them down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. After eight days, remove from river, stash paintings in backpacks, and hike eight miles to the top of the canyon outdoors with their feet firmly planted on the painting.
The result? Smooth sailing, one scorpion sting, and a potential $100,000 bonanza for the Grand Canyon Trust.
This unusual floating art expedition pushed off in September from Lee’s Ferry, AZ, at the eastern end of the Grand Canyon. Painter Curt Walters brought the group of mostly plein-air artists to the cliffs of the Grand Canyon and the river that runs through it for an environmental cause. Each artist is donating two works from the trip to the Grand Canyon Trust, which helps protect and restore the natural beauty of the canyon region. Trust officials will auction half of the works and keep the other half in their permanent collection. Participating artists included Bruce Aiken, Joseph Bohler, Marcia Burtt, John Cogan, Michael Coleman, Gil Dellinger, Glenna Hartmann, Mary Helsaple, Greg- ory Hull, Scott Jennings, Kevin Macpherson, Eric Michaels, Matt Smith, and David Schwindt.
Curt Walters, Ledges of the Tapeats, oil, 48 x 40.
Walters would like to see the proceeds, which he estimates could reach $100,000, directed to clean-air efforts. “I’m a real air-quality freak,’’ says the Sedona, AZ, artist who frequently paints the Grand Canyon.
September’s journey was a working vacation. The artists would paint until 10 a.m. and then ride out the heat of the day motoring down the chilly river. Painting would resume on shore around 4 p.m. Some artists retired to lonely side canyons; others hiked up rock ledges for a dramatic view. Bruce Aiken, who has lived and painted in the Grand Canyon for a quarter century, says his fellow travelers were drawn to the dramatic canyon walls and the play of light off the cliffs—an understandable attraction for newcomers to the depths of the river- gouged canyon.
Although the artists were mindful of the larger purpose of their trip, they reveled in the camaraderie of river travel. “Perfect chemistry,” said Trinidad, CO, painter Eric Michaels hours after hiking out of the canyon. “This was miraculous.’’
Marcia Burtt remembers the laughter, starting as early as 4 a.m. “The best thing about being there was the other artists,’’ says Burtt, who works in Santa Barbara, CA. “Being an artist is generally a lonely business.’’
Gregory Hull, Canyon Odyssey, oil, 50 x 40.
At trip’s end, paintings were carefully wrapped in wax paper or sealed into plastic bags for the trek up and out. Mary Helsaple lightened her load by selling two works at the canyon’s bottom.
Most of the artists said they’d eagerly take part in a reunion expedition. “The Grand Canyon is ever changing, every day,’’ says Michaels. “A lot of us were saying toward the end of the trip that we were just getting the hang of it.’’
Forbes Magazine Galleries in New York City will host an exhibit of the Grand Canyon paintings March 3-April 6, 2001, and plans are in the works for a show at the Autry Museum in Pasadena, CA. Christie’s will conduct a subsequent auction.
Featured in February 2000
Artists float downriver in an electric boat.
Artists Curt Walters and Scott Jennings painting along the Colorado River.
Scott Jennings at work.