My wife loves to run the St. George marathon. The route is relatively easy and the weather usually mild. This year, though, the weather proved to be very inclement. Thankfully, that did not hurt my wife’s time, and later in the day it provided me a good excuse to visit the St. George Art Museum, where their exhibit, A Century of Sanctuary: The Art of Zion National Park, fills both floors.
Zion Canyon has attracted artists for 130 years, well before it became designated a National Park in 1909. The St. George Museum’s top floor is devoted to seventy-four works spanning this 130-year artistic history. Thomas Moran, the first to paint the canyon, and Maynard Dixon, who spent his last years at the eastern end of the park, are the best-known artists, but there are a number of other gems by the forty-three Utah and itinerant artists in this portion of the exhibit. The two works by LeConte Stewart show him at his best, before years of teaching at the University dulled his verve. The most striking of the exhibit’s pieces are the series of paintings executed by Howard Russell Butler as a commission for the Union Pacific Railway. Butler’s ethereal paint application is a marked contrast to the solidity of the canyon walls they depict in varying light, including two marvelous moonlit scenes.
The bottom floor’s exhibit of contemporary works demonstrates that the region’s artists are still fascinated by the unique glories of the canyon. Too many of these works are less than inspired, showing little of interest in their tight depictions of the park in bright sunlight, or owing too much to the historic works on the floor above. Thankfully, these are balanced by a number of unique works. Kate Starling’s view of a dry gully demonstrates that a successful piece depends more on the artist’s skill and vision than the unique formations of the canyon. Bonnie Posselli’s “Towers of the Virgin,” bathed in dusk’s shifting lights, stands out for its unique palette. Julienne Hsu’s bird’s eye view from Eagle’s Landing is a uniquely abstracted work where the road mimics the path of the Virgn River. Kathy Clement Cieslewicz’s piece should be noted as the only work diverging from the standard canvas on paint (or emulsion on paper) format. Her installation, “Seeing Zion,” projects a video of a dancer, choreographed to Olivier Messaien’s Des Canyons aux Etoiles in various parts of the park, onto a wall of crystalline rocks.
A Century of Sanctuary will be on exhibit at the St. George Art Museum through January 29, 2009.
Tony Watson is originally from Washington State but has lived most of his adult life in Utah. No one occupation has occupied his working hours but his leisure hours are spent either climbing southern Utah’s redrock country or engaging his mind with aesthetic issues.