A beautiful wooden boat sits on clear, deep, blue water against a background of rugged mountains. The vibrant, blue sky is only interrupted by fluffy rolling clouds and the boat’s colorful but simple design is reflected in the water. At the bottom of the boat is a turquoise stripe that follows the curved, rectangular shape of the boat, while above that is a stripe of clean white and at the top a small band of bright red outlines the sides and top edges of the craft. The oars are hanging off the sides, floating lightly in the water. The tops of the handles are painted red and a red V-shape can be seen on the blade, disappearing into the water. The painting is both serene and energetic. One can almost feel the warm sun and fresh mountain air brush against their skin when looking at the work.
This piece is part of Neil Kesterson’s show Dories: Holding onto History, on display at the St. George Art Museum. The exhibit is inspired by the rich history that surrounds taking dories — a small, shallow-draft boat— down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. Many of these dories and their builders have become legendary and play an integral part in the Grand Canyon’s history. After meeting some of the river guides, seeing a few of these historic dories, and learning of the restoration of some older dories, Kesterson was inspired to help preserve and honor this time-honored tradition. Old scraps from the dories Hetch Hetchy and Surprise Canyon were given to Kesterson, who then used the pieces to create frames and other artworks. Hetch Hetchy and Surprise Canyon, like all other dories, are named after natural wonders that have been disturbed or damaged by humankind.
“‘H’ is for Hetch Hetchy” is a good example of boat scraps being used to create one of Kesterson’s works. This piece, framed in gray, rectangular dory scraps, highlights two wood pieces from the Hetch Hetchy dory assembled in a collage manner. Faded, scuffed sections of white, turquoise and red paint fill the rugged frame. On one of the pieces, the bottom part of the letter “H” can be seen. “Hetch Hetchy” was named after the Hetch Hetchy Valley, which is part of Yosemite National Park. The beautiful valley is currently sitting at the bottom of a reservoir that was made by the building of the controversial O’Shaughnessy Dam. In “Reflecting on Hetch Hetchy,” Kesterson has painted her version of the Hetch Hetchy, sitting on the water, the front of the dory angled slightly to give the viewer a peek at one side of the craft. The same striped pattern of turquoise, white, and red on the dory stands in contrast to the waving bright green and blue water. The dory bobs along, its bright colors reflecting in the water creating a mesmerizing display of shapes and colors. The frame, made of scraps, is raw and jagged in some spots. A screw can be seen jutting out of the right side of the frame and the chipping paint reminds the viewer that this dory has had a long life and story.
Pieces from the Surprise Canyon dory can also be found throughout the show. “Surprise Canyon Reflections Diptych” features two acrylic works on canvas that have been mounted to a wood scrap from the doryu. The top of the wood scrap is left empty besides the metal, tube-like piece that is screwed into the top left side of the panel. The first acrylic work depicts the Surprise Canyon itself being rowed by a man down the glassy river water. This dory has a full turquoise bottom; a thin red strip separates the turquoise from a white band. At the very top of the dory, another thin red and then white strip makes its way across the dory. The second painting is a beautiful night scene of the Grand Canyon. Moonlight illuminates a curve in the canyon wall and reflects off of the deep blue water. The scene is the view of the Grand Canyon as Kesterson remembers seeing it from the beach at the mouth of Surprise Canyon.
Both the works and the history found in Dories: Holding onto History are enlightening and lively. The scraps and memories from both the Hetch Hetchy and Surprise Canyon dories are preserved here. Although the pieces are old and worn they contain a natural energy that Kesterson amplifies through his paintings. The two work together in harmony, creating a space of thoughtful beauty.
Dories: Holding onto History, St. George Art Museum, St. George, through Apr. 30