Sunday, April 7, 2013

Verde River Artist Challenge Weekend

This weekend marks a special event here in Arizona on the Verde River.  I and 24 other artists were juried in to participate in the Verde River Artist Challenge.  The event has us running twelve miles of river in kayaks to the accompaniment of vermilion flycatchers and white-tailed hawks, camping under the stars for two nights in a cottonwood bosque and being fed sumptuous meals by two of the area's premier adventure tour companies.  Life doesn't get better than this!

World's best campsite

Hosted by Verde Valley Land Preservation, the event was created to raise awareness of both the natural beauty of the river and the dangers facing it.  It will also raise funds for research and education projects to promote sustainability in the Verde River Corridor.  And the river does need a lot of help.  It faces continuing drought, dropping groundwater levels, and encroachment by invasive species and human civilization.

Why help the river?  It is one of Arizona’s last free-flowing rivers and provides habitat for a large, unique and biologically diverse wildlife population.  (As an example, half of all the bald eagles in Arizona nest along its 100-mile length.)  It has even been given the very special designation of a National Wild & Scenic River.   As Thoreau wrote, “In Nature is the preservation of the world.”

Not everybody painted

Of course, just having a bunch of artists enjoying a fun weekend doesn't do much to publicize the river.  But we weren't invited just to have fun.  We are expected to create and donate work for a traveling exhibition that will help educate the public.  During the weekend, some of us sketched, some of us painted, some of us took photographs, and some of us just thought deeply about what kind of work we might create of the experience.  Whatever medium we work in, our donations will be first shown at the Mannheim Gallery in Cottonwood, Arizona, in August.  Other venues throughout the state will be announced soon.

Although I couldn't participate every day, I did join the group on Saturday.  I arrived just after dawn at the campsite, a quiet bend in the river at Rockin' River Ranch.  I was a little late for the guided pre-breakfast tours that were offered to the artists (birdwatching and a photography session) but I didn't miss breakfast.  Sedona Adventure Tours and Verde River Rafting cooked up pancakes, scrambled eggs, camp coffee and more.  After breakfast, a second set of tours started.  I opted out of the archaeology tour and went for the riparian habitat talk with Chip Norton, President of the Verde River Greenway.  I learned a lot about the life cycle of a riparian area and what Chip calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – fire, flood, famine and pestilence – and how they have both positive and negative effects on what is a very narrow band of vegetation.

Breakfast is nearly ready

Chip Norton leads the riparian tour

Afterword, I pulled out my painting gear, found a shady spot and painted awhile.  The weather couldn't have been perfect!  Despite temps that would ultimately hit 85 degrees, I was cool in the shade.  After a lunch break, I set up at another bend on the river, a place with some small rapids.  It's called “Carnage Corner,” and  I soon found out why.  The whole day, small groups of canoeists and rafters paddled down the river, and every time, right at this spot, the water would shoot them like darts to a group of overhanging trees with roots exposed right at the height of a rafter's head.  I'd say about half the boaters took on water, and maybe half of those actually dumped.  One unlucky couple lost their canoes to the river; our fearless rafting team found their canoes snagged a few hundred yards downriver and helped them out.

I could go on about my day's adventure, but I'll just stop here and say it was wonderful and give my thanks to the sponsoring groups, our hosts, river guides and, of course, the cooks.   Before I leave, here are the two pieces I did Saturday.  I have a third, and once they dry in a few days, I'll  post them all so you can vote on which one I should donate to the effort!

Morning painting, 9x12 oil, good sunlight

"Carnage Corner" - afternoon 9x12 oil, thin cloud cover


Nancy L. Vance said...

Michael, interesting post. I like the color palette you used for these paintings. "Carnage Corner" is my pick for now, until I see the third.

Cody said...

Nice work Michael, feels like I'm right back there looking at your paintings

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Thanks, Cody and Nancy!