Sunday, April 14, 2019

Painters on Wheels: Northern Arizona

Monument Valley - This could be Mars

Every year, I try to take a road trip with my painting buddy, M.L. Coleman.  M.L. has a 22-foot Lazy Daze RV, just the thing for two painters who want to ramble the countryside and boondock to get the best views.  This year, since good spring weather seemed to have returned, we decided to head to northern Arizona, leaving from Sedona right after my plein air painting workshop there.

Navajo National Monument

Navajo National Monument
Stocked with ample groceries, fresh water and propane, we first went to Navajo National Monument, not far from Kayenta.  I'd never been there, and frankly, it was a little disappointing from a painter's point of view.  Our campsite—camping, by the way, is free at the campground in the Monument—gave us a view of the top of Betatakin Canyon, and we painted that first evening in the shade of the RV.  There are, of course trails taking you down into the canyon, but you need a guide for those.  There is one other trail, paved, that takes you to an overlook, but it's a bit farther than we wanted to haul our gear.  As this wasn't intended to be a hiking-to-paint trip, we walked the trail and only took photos.

We left the next morning, heading toward Black Mesa.  We'd seen some paintings of Black Mesa that featured interesting rocks, but Black Mesa, which is reached by a steep road, turned out to be mostly a coal mining venture.  And it was flat, flat, flat.  We got to a point where we spotted a sign that marked everything beyond it as belonging to Peabody Western Mining; it also directed us to stop at the security station.  When we asked the two security guards, who were washing down their trucks, if there was anything scenic to paint, they replied, "Nope, nothing scenic here.  But have you been to Monument Valley?"

Monument Valley

Our campsite at Monument Valley

What's a rez without a rez dog?

The easy way of plein air painting - doing your
value sketch in a chair

M.L. Coleman at work

I'd never been, but Trina had taken some wonderful photographs of the area after a camera club trip not so long ago.  Although we'd been thinking of simply heading to Canyon de Chelly National Monument—we'd painted there last year, and I discovered it is a very rich area for the painter—we decided Monument Valley wasn't far, so we thought to take a look.  It's just like you see in the ads, stubby buttes sticking up out of the otherwise flat earth, looking very alien.  (In fact, the red, sandy dirt reminded me a great deal of the photos taken by the Opportunity rover on Mars.)

We first stopped at the Visitor Center.  In a national park, I feel perfectly comfortable painting just about anywhere.  (The general rule is to stay on the trail but not block it.)  But Monument Valley is owned and operated by the Navajo Nation as a tribal park, and most tribal lands require a permit for photography, even if you're just a hobbyist.  We weren't sure if we'd be allowed to paint.  Our entrance fee ($20) to the Visitor Center did allow us to take photos there, but our RV was not permitted on the 17-mile scenic drive.  (Private cars are, however.)  So we took photos from the parking lot and, yes, we could have asked about painting, but we preferred a spot with fewer tourists.  On our drive out, we discovered a private campground (Air Bee and Bee) just outside the park and over the state line in Utah with great views and lots of quiet.  The owners didn't care if we painted or took photos during our stay, so we did plenty of both.

Outhouse with a view

Ravens keeping watch

Our campsite by Sleeping Bear

More rez dogs, always eager for a walk

We finally exhausted the views from that campground.  But before driving south to Canyon de Chelly, M.L. first wanted to head a little north to see what views we might find.  Unexpectedly, we came across another private campground even closer to the buttes.   This one was right below what Kirby Blackwater, the Navajo owner, called "Sleeping Bear."  He pointed it out to us, but you really had to stretch to see the bear.  When asked, he also described the boundaries of his land, which seemed to be about five square miles.  We ended up spending two nights at this quiet, scenic campground in the middle of nowhere.

Until our last day there, the weather had been warm—near 80 and above—and calm.  But then the wind kicked up.  That night, it gusted over 50 miles an hour, and the RV rocked like a hobby horse.  The wind, only somewhat lessened, would stay with us until the end of the trip, and it would be accompanied by rain and snow squalls and much colder temperatures.  The snow was a little surprising for April.  Still, the weather didn't stop us from painting.  Usually, we could find a spot somewhat out of the wind behind a tree or on the lee side of the RV.

This photo doesn't show the full strength of sandblasting winds

Snow squall

Me in a sunny moment

"Wind Advisory" 6x9 oil - available
Look closely, and you can see Martian sand embedded in the paint

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

We took the windiest, rainiest day to drive to Canyon de Chelly.  Although we'd camped at its main campground before, this time we headed up the hill toward Spider Rock, where we remembered seeing a campground there.  Although Spider Rock Campground didn't have the views—we set up in what I would call a "sage forest"—it was just a short drive from Spider Rock.  This is probably the most famous feature of the park.  Last year, it snowed when we were there, and we never got the chance to do more than take photos of it.  This time, again it snowed, and with some serious wind, so we thought we'd miss it yet one more time.  Well, the snow finally let up but the wind didn't, so we ended up seeking sheltered spots, none of which happened to give a view of Spider Rock.  Maybe next year we'll get it down in paint.

Spider Rock

Spider Rock in a snow squall (the raven is enjoying it)
Another snowy morning

With early spring, the canyon floor begins to whisper "green."  In our time at Canyon de Chelly, a good flow of water coursed through Chinle Wash, and you could tell that the pastures and fields and cottonwoods along its bank enjoyed the moisture.  I overheard a couple of tourists talking, and they said that the guided jeep tours had to stop temporarily because the water was too deep.  Some year, it would be good to take a jeep or horseback tour to find some painting spots down in the canyon.  But the rim has spectacular views and plenty of painting opportunities, and we headed back home satisfied, if a bit wind-blown.

Along with a few snapshots, I've included here a few of the sketches from the trip.

Now I am back home in New Mexico, teaching my last one-on-one painting intensive here for the season.  After that, I have a few weeks to work on house projects—no, I don't get to paint every day and every minute!—and then we will be on our annual springtime migration back east.

"Big Butte" 6x9 oil - available

"Face Rock" 9x6 oil - available

"In the Canyon" 9x12 oil - available

"Spring in the Canyon" 9x12 oil - available

"Weather Change" 6x9 oil - available

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