Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: 'The Painting'

Aug 1, 2016

There are countless places to go for a great view of the Grand Canyon. Akin's Perch is one of them. That's where the artist Louis Akin - in the early 1900's - painted one of his large-scale works of a storm swallowing up the Canyon. In this month's Canyon Commentary, Scott Thybony visits Akin's Perch to see the monsoon through a painter's eye.

Louis Akin's 'Evening Grand Canyon" at the Verkamp Visitor Center, South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.
Credit Mutts and Minerals/Catherine Carter

All of us leave behind a trace of ourselves, even if it's only a boot track or two in the dust of a trail. The artist Louis Akin left behind something more. Inside the Verkamp Visitor Center at the Grand Canyon hangs a painting of his, showing a storm brushing across the canyon walls with blue haze filling the depths. I know the place where he painted the classic view, and have decided to camp there during the monsoon for the full effect. And I want to take a closer look at something else he left behind. 

Descending below the rim, I head toward Akin's Perch. The route takes me on a long traverse above Hermit Canyon where recent rains have obliterated all evidence of previous hikers. Views slowly open as the trail curves west toward Yuma Point and a solid wall of clouds beyond. As the leading edge of a storm moves in, another cloud mass fills the gorge to the east. Picking up my pace I reach an overhang on the point, the perfect balcony seating for the weather unfolding below. As the intensity of the storm builds, the landscape turns kinetic.

Clouds smolder along the North Rim, rising in slow motion to snag and shred on each ragged butte. Below me they find breaks in the Redwall cliff and drift upward in slow tumbles and swirls. Between bands of rain, clouds materialize out of nowhere, forming an instant before dissolving again as darkness approaches. This is the setting Louis Akin captured in his painting entitled "Evening - Grand Canyon."

The artist set up an easel here in 1907, the place he thought had the most comprehensive view of the gorge. With a dog by his side and smoking a longshoreman's pipe, he painted a study. Then he returned to his studio in Flagstaff where he began work on a grand scale, filling a canvas 6 feet by 9.

The act of painting consumed him as he worked without let up, forgetting to eat. And when he woke in the middle of the night he would start painting again and keep at it to the point of exhaustion. Through the spring and into the summer he painted. The artist hoped it would be his breakout piece, firmly establishing his reputation. But it was too large to show in galleries, and western landscapes had fallen out of fashion. Unable to sell it, he considered cutting the work in two and reusing the canvas. Instead he set the painting aside, all but forgotten until bought at auction after his death.

For a moment longer I watch as the storm eases and the night comes on. I turn away and stand facing the back wall of the overhang. Smears of paint have been troweled on the cliff where the artist cleaned his palette more than a century ago. Impressions of his palette knife remain in the hardened pigments, and the color tones match the evening canyon with its muted blues and rain-darkened reds. Here, Louis Akin painted his famous blue haze, and left behind a few traces of blue haze on the canyon wall. Hiking out the next morning, I leave behind a few tracks in the mud. That's enough.