By Susan Hallsten McGarry
A new book chronicles the 30 years Bruce Aiken spent painting—and living in—the Grand Canyon
|CORONADO SADDLE (1986), OIL, 30 X 24; BRUCE AIKEN
As he surveys the horizon line in his painting titled view from bright angel point, Bruce Aiken points to the distant hazy mountain in the upper left corner and identifies it as 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak, in the San Francisco Peaks. “On the other side of that mountain is Flagstaff,” he says.
As the eagle flies, Bright Angel Point on the canyon’s North Rim is sixty-six miles northwest of Flagstaff, where Aiken has set up his studio on San Francisco Street in the heart of downtown. Located in the historic Babbitt Building, the studio overlooks Heritage Square and has sixteen-foot walls that vault to a skylight over Aiken’s hefty Santa Fe easel. On it, bathed in natural light, is a 42-by-50-inch painting commission titled under your spell. Aiken explains that he hiked six miles down Bright Angel Trail to a spot west of Plateau Point to find this view of the Colorado River looking at Horn Creek Rapid.
Aiken has been in Flagstaff since May 2006 when he retired from his National Park Service job at the bottom of the canyon. Unlike his five-mile trek down the North Kaibab Trail through a textbook of geological memory, today Aiken bounds up twenty-five steps to the second floor of a Moenkopi sandstone building where a string of doors punctuates a generic hallway. His studio door is marked by a postcard of his painting view from plateau point wedged under the molding of a frosted window.
Despite this minimalist approach to signage, admirers have not been deterred from finding Aiken. Millions have seen him interviewed on television. Thousands have read about his exceptional lifestyle of raising a family and maintaining the water pump at Roaring Springs, while painting in his free time. Hundreds of aspiring artists seek him out as a guru of the canyon’s mysteries. All know him, however, by his art. Whether he records vast expanses of peaks, plateaus, and chasms from the canyon rims or focuses on a rapid in the Colorado River below, Aiken’s unique paintings of color, light, and geological glory have become legendary.
Mementos of his thirty-three years living in what he calls a “Shangri-La” along Bright Angel Creek are scattered throughout the studio: A sturdy oak chair from the dining set where Bruce, wife Mary, and their three children ate meals. A handcrafted nightstand that sat beside their bed. A huge, ten-year-old aloe vera plant whose flesh healed minor wounds. Samples of Bright Angel Shale flaked from the canyon’s storybook walls. A guitar, mandolin, and conga drum that continue to enliven a lifestyle that eschews “necessities” such as television.
Atop the shelving next to his easel is a plank carved “B. A. Aiken Private Residence.” The weathered sign marked the front yard where the Aiken girls, Mercy and Shirley, and son Silas had their now-famous lemonade stand, giving away (donations accepted) refreshments to hikers on the North Kaibab Trail headed to or from Cottonwood Camp, Ribbon Falls, or Phantom Ranch. Back then, the predominant sound was the thunder of Roaring Springs about a half-mile away. Today, visitors who enjoy a glass of wine at Aiken’s studio during Flagstaff’s First Friday Gallery Walk contend with the ubiquitous whining and whistling of trains alongside Route 66 a few blocks south.
The studio has a cluttered business nook. One wall is stacked with paintings that date back to Aiken’s high school years. Another is lined with books, many of which were used to home-school the Aiken children while living at the bottom of the canyon.
Aiken owns three copies of the 1969 book Gunnar Widforss—Painter of the Grand Canyon, which chronicles the saga of the Swedish-born artist who lived on the South Rim and painted the canyon in watercolors until his death in 1934 at age fifty-five. “He’s one of my heroes,” Bruce says reverently, adding that Widforss led an adventurous lifestyle dedicated to finding powerful compositions in the canyon, drawing their features in detail, and painting them in textural statements of bold color. The frontispiece of the Widforss book is coronado vista, grand canyon. In the early 1980s, Bruce and his mother, who was also an artist, spent several hours looking for the exact point from which Widforss did the painting. When they found it, Bruce created his own work, coronado saddle, in honor of the man who gave him license to indulge in the freshness and immediacy of the canyon’s infinite macro- and microcosms.
On the opening page of the Widforss book is a yellow note inscribed, “Thank you Bruce for guiding me to precious spots. Gunnar Widforss.” Aiken relates that he received a call in 2000 from the painter’s grand-nephew, who lives in Sweden. “He had never met his great-uncle and wanted to learn more about him. Somehow he got my name,” Bruce explains. When the younger Widforss came to visit, Bruce showed him where Widforss-the-elder lived, the canyon vistas he painted, the tree along the El Tovar drive where his car crashed, and the canyon cemetery in which he is buried. They also went to Widforss Trail, a five-mile hike along the North Rim that leads to Widforss Point overlooking Haunted Canyon.
Also inscribed on the front page is the following dedication: “For Bruce… Happy painting on his 30th Birthday, from Mom & Dad, Sept. 10, 1980.”
Featured in July 2007