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The Grand Canyon celebrates art

Bruce Aiken sketching Isis Temple along the rim of the Grand Canyon
Janie Blanchard
Bruce Aiken sketching Isis Temple along the rim of the Grand Canyon

By Daniel Kraker

Flagstaff, AZ – Bruce Aiken is perched on a rock, sketchbook in hand his long, grey hair pulled back under a yellow bandana. Just a few feet in front of him, the Grand Canyon plummets four thousand feet to the Colorado River. He's taking part in a quick draw event, where artists have only two hours to complete a piece. Visitors look over his shoulder as he sketches a giant rock formation called Isis Temple.

"I feel like I'm just visiting an old friend again, and getting to know her lines and curves again, one more time."

A lot of the artists here have painted the Canyon for a long time, but Aiken knows it better than anyone. For 33 years, he lived deep inside it with his family. He ran a pump house for the National Park Service.

"During that time, I never stopped my studies of the Canyon, I had it firsthand, I had it right outside the front door, right out my bedroom window, the sounds and the rhythms of the canyon owned me!"

Aiken's admittedly obsessed with the Grand Canyon. In 1970 he quit art school in the urban canyons of New York to move to Arizona. Back then he was steeped in abstract expressionism Jackson Pollack, Frank Stella. And that's how he painted.

"But this subject here allowed me to expand my mind in terms of actually knowing that there's more than one way to approach something artistically. Now I know there are a lot of other artists who come here, and all they want to do is get an artistic interpretation off this, in one stylistic approach, and done, then they're done, they can move on, to their next subject. It wasn't that way for me!"

Instead, he felt he had to study the canyon before he even tried to paint it he says he had to understand its "bones." He didn't pick up a brush again for almost three years. And nearly 40 years later, he hasn't stopped.

"All I'm trying to do is say this is what I saw, this is what I think I'm seeing, I think this is interesting and beautiful, there it is, if you like it great, if you don't, doesn't matter, cause I'm still going to dig out more, come back and see me in six more years and I'll have even more interesting stuff."

"I'm here continuing a long tradition of observing nature."

That's landscape painter Peter, or PA Nisbet.

"Just the fact that I paint it, requires that I observe it very closely. And the more you look, the more you appreciate, and the more you appreciate the more you protect it."

Nisbet and Aiken are part of a long lineage of artists who've painted these landscapes even before they became parks. The epic paintings that artists like Thomas Moran brought back to the east coast were the first images most Americans ever saw of the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone. They helped inspire Congress to create the national park system. They also helped instill a sense of national pride. Nisbet says his work, and that of the other artists here, has a similar patriotic spirit.

"Not in a Pollyanna sort of way, we're not flag wavers, but when I look at the Grand Canyon, or Yellowstone, and I physically go out into those places, I'm engaging in a primary act as a citizen to pay homage to my landscape."

It sounds kind of hokey, but looking out over the Grand Canyon, where it's impossible to wrap your head around just how immense it is I feel like I know what he means

Along the rim of the canyon, a giant condor glides over an odd mix of art collectors, hikers and tourists. They're examining paintings from the artists' quick draw event, and deciding what they want to bid on.

Peter Nisbet admits it's tough to take part in such a public event. But there's no shortage of bidders for his work

Afterwards Nisbet meets the determined woman who won his painting Lee Schmidt, also from Santa Fe.

"No one was going to outbid me no one! Thank you so much! Thank you so much for coming, and doing it."

Phoenix Art Museum Director Jim Ballinger loves to watch that interaction between artists and the public.

"You see them, kind of, ok he's painting that, they line up behind them, to see if they can see what so all of a sudden it's making the visitor to the canyon, stop and see the canyon and stop and kind of smell the roses, which is what artists and art should be about, which is slow down, take a look, really think about it, and let it enrich you."

Ballinger's just finished judging the plein air competition. And he told me something surprising about why he thinks this event is important.

"A lot of contemporary art is about art, abstract, about conception, looking inside, here you have artists who are still looking for beauty in the world "

Artists like Merrill Mahaffey, now in his 70s and probably the best-known painter here.

"I know it's not considered serious... "Not considered serious?" No, no beautiful painting? Get out of here. "So are you being serious when you say that some people might scoff at a beautiful painting, because, what, it doesn't have a serious enough message?"

"Yeah the whole art world," Mahaffey says. "That beauty was expressed by the renaissance and classical culture, and now we have to move on, push the envelope. I tried that for a while. But I'd be dishonest to say I'm too tough or too sophisticated not to just fall down when I see something beautiful."

And maybe that's why great landscape painting is still so popular after all these centuries. It's about something a lot grander than us.