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Art in Zion National Park


By Lyman Hafen
Executive Director, Zion Natural History Association

    Artist J. B. Fairbanks An 1857 map covering the western half of the United States appears quite complete except for a blank spot immediately north of the Grand Canyon, including what is now Zion National Park. Of course, the native Southern Paiute people had known and lived in the place for centuries, but the early Anglo explorers and mapmakers had not yet ventured into the canyon. They must have gazed in awe at the temples and towers of Zion from a distance, but their routes and objectives did not lead them there.
     Over the next decade several small Mormon settlements cropped up along the upper Virgin River reaching to the mouth of Zion Canyon, including Rockville, and Springdale.
     One of those settlers was Isaac Behunin. He ventured farther upstream, built a cabin, and started a farm at what is today the site of the Zion Lodge. During long evenings in the canyon twilight, he would open his Bible and equate its words with the awesome towers of stone that soared above him. He was the first to call the canyon Zion. For him and the other Mormons who settled there, it was a place of survival and sanctuary.Artist Roland Lee
     A few years later others came. They began to discover the canyon for other reasons. With eyes tuned to the beauty and the scientific value of Zion, men like John Wesley Powell, Clarence Dutton, William H. Holmes, Frederick Dellenbaugh, Jack Hillers, Thomas Moran, Charles Savage, and Alfred Lambourne came with the objective of studying it, painting it, photographing it, or writing about it. In the process they fell in love with the place and spared no words, paint, or photographic plates in evoking its beauty, and sharing it with the rest of the world.
     In all the world there is no place quite like Zion National Park. The canyon itself is one of our planet's greatest works of art. Its ancient rock statuary begets a sense of the eternal as one contemplates the countless ages through which it formed. Since Thomas Moran first sketched in the canyon in 1873, Zion has been a serious subject for painters. Artists of every medium and style have been coming to the canyon ever since. Today, that legacy is celebrated each year during the first week of November as two-dozen excellent artists converge in the canyon for the Zion National Park Plein Air Art Invitational.
    Artist Jim Jones Zion's legacy of art can be traced back to those first sketches by Moran and other artists who accompanied the early explorers. It continued through the decades with the work of Alfred Lambourne, Frederick Dellenbaugh, John Fery, Gunnar Widforss, Isaac Loren Covington, Howard Russell Butler, LeConte Stewart, Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton, Ranch Kimball, J.B. Fairbanks, George Dibble, Lewis Ramsey, Maynard Dixon, and many others.
     During the latter part of the Twentieth Century artists like Jim Jones, Anton Rasmussen, Donal Jolley, Gaell Lindstrom, Robert Shepherd and Wallace Lee, made great art in Zion. Other artists such as Lynn Berryhill, a long-time Zion resident, continued that tradition, and today, locally based artists like Kate Starling, Roland Lee, Arlene Braithwaite and Royden Card carry the legacy forward.
     When artist Anne Weiler-Brown moved to Rockville from Laguna Beach more than a decade ago, she brought with her not only an eye for capturing Zion Canyon in the abstract, but also the expertise and passion to start a significant plein air art event in Zion National Park. In partnership with the park's administrators, and its non-profit partner the Zion National Park Foundation, she was a catalyst in creating an event which will celebrate its fifth annual edition in November.
     In addition to highlighting the role art played in the original founding and early promotion of the park, the plein air event has also become a significant fund raiser to help support the park's many art related initiatives, including renovation of the canyon's historic Grotto House, which houses artists chosen each year as Zion's Artist in Residence.
  Artist Cody DeLong   The fact that a plein air art event would become perhaps the biggest annual event in Zion National Park is no surprise to those who know its history. Art has been a part of its story for centuries, beginning with the prehistoric rock art still visible today in many locations. When the Anglo explorers arrived, they were accompanied by photographers, but the black and white technology of the time could not convey the amazing colors of the canyon to a skeptical public in the east. That's where the work of the fine artists came in. And even their work often fell on incredulous eyes.
     In the summer of 1903, Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, who had accompanied John Wesley Powell on his second trip through the Grand Canyon in 1871-72, found his way back to Springdale where he made several forays into Zion Canyon, wrote an article about the canyon for Scribner's magazine, and produced several oil paintings that would be exhibited at the World's Fair in St. Louis the following year.
     As it turned out, Dellenbaugh's paintings created quite a stir at the 1904 World's Fair. It also happened that a young man named David Hirschi stopped in St. Louis on his way home from a Mormon proselytizing mission in Europe. He had been raised in Rockville, at the foot of the Zion towers, and he knew every hump and hollow of the astonishing, broken terrain surrounding his boyhood home. It was a pleasant surprise to him, as he visited the Utah pavilion, to learn that these wonderful paintings of Zion were a highlight of the fair. But he was taken aback when he saw that many skeptics insisted there could be no such place on Earth, that the paintings must be fake.Historic Painting of Zion by Frederick Dellenbaugh
     Young David Hirschi stood resolute and informed everyone within the sound of his voice that there most certainly was such a place-that he knew its every hill and cliff.
     In just five more years David Hirschi's backyard would become Mukuntuweap National Monument, and ten years after that, Zion National Park. The time was fast approaching when people the world over would discover its superlative beauty.
     Dellenbaugh's 1904 Scribner's article, "A New Valley of Wonders," filled seventeen pages in what was at the time one of the most widely read periodicals in America. For the first time, multitudes of Americans were introduced to what Dellenbaugh called "a wondrous expanse of magnificent precipices." He reached deep into his bounteous vocabulary to express his awe. "To the eye prejudiced by the soft blues and grays of a familiar Eastern United States or European district," he wrote, "this immense prodigality of color is startling, perhaps painful; it seems to the inflexible mind unwarranted, immodest, as if Nature had stripped and posed nude, unblushing before humanity."
     Indeed, it was the colors of Zion Canyon that caused Dellenbaugh's heart, and rhetoric, to soar. Except through his florid prose, color was the only thing he could not reproduce in his Scribner's article. His black and white photographs documented the towering majesty of Zion, but they could not convey the canyon's "immense prodigality of color." For that, Dellenbaugh turned to his canvas and oil paints.
    Artist Peter Nisbet In 2007, through a fortunate series of events, the Zion National Park Foundation was able to purchase one of Dellenbaugh's rare 1904 World's Fair paintings. It had been discovered in an attic in Tennessee and was listed for sale at an antique auction near Knoxville. With barely a week's notice, the Foundation was able to secure funding from the George S. and Delores Dore Eccles Foundation and arrange for a bidder at the auction. Within two weeks, the painting had come home to Zion where it is now part of the park's permanent collection.
     By 1923, the Utah Parks Company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad, was created to facilitate tourism to the parks of southern Utah and northern Arizona. The company recruited artists and photographers to promote the canyons to the population centers of the east. One of those artists was Howard Russell Butler who spent the summer of 1926 at Zion, Bryce and the Grand Canyon completing a number of large paintings that were shown in traveling exhibits across the country. By 1929, the paintings had reached Buffalo, New York, for display at the Museum of Science. There they were placed in storage, and there they lingered in darkness for seven decades until 1999, when they were donated to Zion National Park. A grant from the Utah Office of Museum Services made it possible for the paintings to be cleaned, stabilized, reframed, and returned home.
     When the great Maynard Dixon discovered Zion Canyon in the early 1930s, he set his mind to tell the truth of it on paper and canvas. His legendary work is still celebrated and shared at the Thunderbird Foundation for the Arts in Mt. Carmel, Utah, where he summered the latter years of his life on the park's eastern border. Recently deceased artist Jimmie Jones lived in a studio/home he built on a Rockville cliff overlooking the mouth of Zion Canyon where he created some of Zion's most powerful paintings, many of which are held in the collection of Southern Utah University in Cedar City where a new art museum will carry his name.
The West Face of Zion by Artist Jim Jones
     The truth of Zion Canyon has been revealed by countless artists over the years, including the wide mix of 24 artists invited to paint in this year's plein air event November 4 - 11. The invited artists celebrate the canyon's art legacy by interacting with park visitors as they paint, giving a one-hour painting workshop on the museum patio, and creating a collection of wonderful original paintings. At the end of the week, their work goes on sale for the benefit of Zion National Park. And the story of art in Zion continues.
     Over the past century, untold millions have had their eyes opened to the awesome spectacle of Zion Canyon. Seeing it through the eyes of gifted artists opens our minds to new understanding and appreciation, and allows us to experience anew the wonder and awe of the first time we raised our eyes to its skyline. That sense of discovery is aptly described in the words of Methodist minister Frederick Vining Fisher, who, when he first encountered and named Zion's Great White Throne in September of 1916, said, "It is by all odds America's masterpiece. . . . I have looked for this mountain all my life but I never expected to find it in this world."

Artist Kate Starling

Photos and paintings from top to bottom:

Artist J.B. Fairbanks, around 1920
"Angels View" by Artist Roland Lee
Artist Jim Jones
"Zion Light Show" by Artist Cody DeLong
Painting by Frederick Dellenbaugh
"Cascading Light" by Artist Peter Nisbet
"The West Face of Zion" by Artist Jim Jones
Artist Kate Starling has a stunning view as she paints Zion Canyon


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