Curt Walters | Limitless Possibilities

By Gussie Fauntleroy

Arizona artist Curt Walters finds endless ways to portray the grandeur of the Grand Canyon


In the mid-1980s, while preparing for a presentation to a local arts group, Curt Walters was going through slides of dozens of paintings he’d done of the Grand Canyon when he noticed something odd. The colors in the atmosphere over the canyon had changed in the 15 or so years since he’d made it a central focus of his art. And it wasn’t just a shift in his preferred palette; as a plein-air painter with a strong naturalistic bent, the artist had always been as true as possible to the hues he saw before him. Another thing struck him as well: Visibility across the Colorado Plateau, the vast geologic formation the canyon eroded, seemed more limited in later works, even on clear days.

As he pondered these changes, Walters became aware of an interesting yet very disturbing fact: His art had unwittingly documented an indisputable decline in the air quality over America’s most treasured landmark. It was a tragic trend, not only for the world but for a passionate painter who at age 19 had taken on the mammoth challenge of portraying the canyon’s almost inexpressible beauty, complexity, and depth.

Years before even catching his first awestruck glimpse of the Grand Canyon, Walters was gazing off in the distance at beautiful vistas and thinking about how to paint them. As a boy driving a tractor on his father’s farm in northwestern New Mexico, he took in the surrounding mountain ranges and cliffs, cloud formations, shadows, and sunlit land. To his mother’s horror—and looking back now, he smiles and calls himself a “16-year-old dummy” for doing it—he climbed to the peak of the farm’s enormous gambrel-roofed barn and sat up there to paint Shiprock, a regional landmark.


While the landscape around him provided visual inspiration, Walters was also surrounded by fine art. His father, a dentist, farmer, and inveterate “dabbler,” as his son puts it, collected art and had an artistic leaning himself. Although the younger Walters never actually saw him paint, he knew that at one time his father had tried his hand at it. And it was his father who provided Walters’ first paint set—albeit a set intended as a gift to his little sister. “I was 12 or 13, and like only an older brother can do, I said, ‘Give that here! I’ll show you how to do it!’” the 57-year-old artist recalls, laughing. More quietly he adds, “I always wanted to paint. I never wanted to do anything else.”

A few years later, in the orange, mag-wheeled Mercury Montego his father had given him as a high school graduation present, Walters made his first trip to the Grand Canyon. He tried to paint it. “That painting was terrible, just terrible,” he declares. Intimidated, yet somehow undaunted, he accepted the canyon’s challenge—to learn to paint the vistas he had fallen in love with there.
“The Grand Canyon is structurally very complicated. It’s erosion at its max, geology at its max. It’s made up of complicated forms with all the layers twisted, nothing straight, and the rules of linear perspective almost don’t work,” Walters explains. “So you really have to learn the forms in a geologic sense, then you have to put each of these forms one behind the other to create an aerial perspective, then you have to compensate, because shadows move across the canyon—it changes every 30 minutes. And then you apply factors according to the season and air quality conditions. It’s a monumental challenge.”

But, clearly, it’s a challenge Walters loves. Since that first trip he has returned literally hundreds of times and created at least 600 paintings of the Grand Canyon. Many, including some as large as 40 by 60 inches, have been painted on location. Described by some as “the greatest living Grand Canyon artist,” Walters has earned numerous awards. Among them: the Prix de West’s 2007 Purchase Award, plus three previous Prix de West Buyers’ Choice Awards and two Fredric Remington Awards; the Patrons’ Choice Award and two awards for best individual work at the Eiteljorg Museum’s Quest for the West show; and Patrons’ Choice awards at both the Autry Museum’s Masters of the American West show and the now-defunct Artists of America show. Walters’ work is in many permanent collections, including that of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City…

Featured in February 2008

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