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THE NATIONAL PARKS – Treasure Troves of Artistic Inspiration


Artists have long found the country’s national parks enticing havens for artistic inspiration. Their paintings and sculptures have provided a gallery of emotional and compelling viewpoints on nature and wilderness as they portray these locales in oils, watercolor, pastels and acrylics, bronze, marble, wood and glass.

Susan Hallsten McGarry, author and former editor of Southwest Art, will present a seminar titled “Contemporary Interpretations of the National Parks” June 13, 2014 during the 41st anniversary of the Prix de West Invitational Art Exhibition and Sale at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.

Using scenes from paintings inspired by eight national parks as a backdrop for her talk, McGarry will share her experiences and lessons learned while writing her award-winning book, Art of the National Parks: Historic Connections, Contemporary Interpretations.

The eight parks featured in her presentation include Yellowstone, a volcanic wonder in Wyoming, established as the first national park in 1872. Other parks are Grand Teton, northwestern Wyoming; Yosemite, east central California; Grand Canyon, near Flagstaff, Arizona; Zion, southwestern Utah; Rocky Mountain, north Central Colorado; Acadia, off the coast of central Maine; and Everglades, in the southern tip of Florida.

McGarry interviewed 69 artists; seven of whom are Prix de West artists. Each artist in the book revealed his or her personal experiences of being inspired by these wilderness settings to create art. The themes of nature and wilderness are woven skillfully throughout the profiles.

The book received the Gold Medal as the best fine art book for 2014 by the Independent Booksellers of America. Included in the competition were books featuring the art of such prestigious museums as the Whitney, Getty, Toledo and the Vatican.

McGarry will focus on three aspects of nature and wilderness in her seminar: the parks as an inspiration for creating art, as a source for nurturing artists’ souls; and as a thought-provoking concept that reveals our place in the universe.

Among artists featured in the book who are also Prix de West participants are Clyde Aspevig, Scott Christensen, Ralph Oberg, Sandy Scott, Jim Wilcox, Skip Whitcomb and Curt Walters. Among those, Walters is best known for his numerous portrayals of the Grand Canyon and for his work with the Grand Canyon Conservancy, which strives to maintain the canyon as a pristine environment for enjoying and experiencing the awesome beauty of nature. Of those seven, Walters, Aspevig, Christensen and Wilcox are all previous Prix de West Purchase Award winners.

“It is no surprise that artists who specialize in depicting landscapes and animals have an enhanced appreciation for being in nature,” said McGarry.
She found artists see nature as a place for solace and escape, a place to nurture their soul, a touchstone, a place to be empowered.

“It’s where I go to fix myself,” said Carl Waters while Ralph Oberg noted “the frightening beauty of nature’s highpoints is truly sublime – at those moments I feel small and humbled, yet spiritually expanded.”

“The phenomenon of going into nature to gather information is not a new concept,” McGarry said. “For prehistoric artists, it was common to draw or etch experiences on stone walls in caves or canyons. Although the virtues of gathering information in nature have ebbed and flowed over subsequent centuries, the most ardent advocates emerged in the 19th century when the French Impressionists saw painting outdoors as an opportunity to explore the optical phenomenon of conveying light through juxtaposed colors.

With that impetus and the subsequent popularity of impressionism in the United States, plein air painting (painting outside) has become not only a means of information gathering for studio paintings, but an art form in and of itself that is attracting painters across the country, as well as increased appreciation in galleries and museums, she said.

For all the artists, being in nature is where the flame of inspiration is ignited.
“But that fire has to burn even more brightly in the studio, a crucible where ephemeral experiences are made concrete through clay or paint. It is important to understand that artists are workers. What most of the studios have in common, are accoutrements that stimulate the imagination,” McGarry said.

Sandy Scott built a mammoth Wyoming workplace where she creates monumental, as well as smaller-scaled sculptures, while enjoying a second studio in the wilderness of Canada’s Lake of the Woods, where she encounters many of her subjects. Both settings are vastly different from her previous studio in Loveland, Colorado, a cherry canning factory she transformed into her home and studio.

Curt Walters basks in a global array of antiques and Persian carpets collected from his travels around the world. Ralph Oberg looks out to Mount Sneffels in the San Juan Mountains.

If on location is where artists pursue ideas, the studio is where they comingle the intensity of those ideas with a lifetime of experiences.

“Preparation is the key to orchestrating paintings that maximize thought and subtle relationships,” Skip Whitcomb said. “My studio is an inviolate sanctuary of meditation and work.”
“In the studio, I interpret ideas, tapping into something deeper,” Clyde Aspevig said.

Artists continually grapple with the issue of leaving their nature paintings pristine and accurate or adding people to the scene they have created. Scott Christensen said that while it is personal memories that inspire him, “once I release a painting into the world, I want it to take the viewer to a place where he or she wants to go.”

“There is so much in nature that reminds us how small we are,” he said. “Wilderness can be a friend or just as easily a foe. These subtle juxtapositions speak to me, and I listen to them.”

Oberg’s perspective recalled his past five decades of “scrambling over more ridges and summits around the globe than I can count. The national parks and wilderness areas remind us that happiness is a by-product of being connected to the peace and quiet, wonder and beauty, cycles and seasons of the natural world.”

Companion experiences to McGarry’s national parks perspective include an opening seminar at 9 a.m. June 13 titled Western Skies: Our Unique Wild Weather, presented by Don Reeves, the Museum’s McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture. The diversity of the western skies is a frequent subject for artists’ paintings featured at the Prix de West.

Edna Mae Holden, an attorney and wife of Prix de West signature bolo artist Harold Holden, will moderate a panel discussion on pack trips as another inspiration for art June 14 at 9 a.m. Artists sharing their experiences on pack trips, some enjoyed in national parks, include Bill Anton, Tim Shinabarger and Matt Smith.

For additional information about the Prix de West exhibition and various events during the opening weekend, call 405-478-2250. The exhibition and sale runs through August 3, 2014.

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