This year my summer was filled with a range of plein air experiences: teaching a plein air workshop in Spring City Utah; informal location work, painting as a guest artist with the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for two weeks; and a three-day backpacking/painting trip into Grand Teton National Park.
Spring City is a great visual feast for a painter of the landscape: rolling meadows, fertile farmland, quaint old buildings and a lot of good painting company. I even got to lodge solo for the week at the old Granary,|2| owned by Susan Gallacher of Kings Cottage Gallery. This old building, that dates back to the early pioneers, has a room upstairs that was the office of Orson Hyde, one of the early LDS Church Apostles. It is now the bedroom, nicely fitted with period furniture and a lot of atmosphere. Owing to the stone construction, the building is quite cool during the heat of the day, and it was relaxing and enjoyable to retreat there each evening after a long day of instructing out in the field. The setting in Spring City is like stepping back into the past when the pace of life was slower, which made the cares of the world drift away for me that week.
One afternoon during the workshop, a student named Byron and I were in the field when we met an old timer who came out to see what Byron was painting. In his eighties, the man was so thrilled that painters were working near his house that he stayed and watched Byron’s painting progress for an hour or more. We found out that he had been living in the same house since the late ’50s, all that time caring for his wife who became an invalid after a car accident. He was able to work all those years because of the good will of an employer who knew of his situation and made special arrangements to keep his hours flexible enough that he could run home any time his wife needed him. That by itself was heartwarming enough, but the story goes on: when this man is not caring for his wife, he is either helping a local scout unit or a young man with Downs Syndrome, who stops by to visit him every day on his bicycle. It did our hearts good to meet this humble man, a reminder that the good life is just as much about commitment and service to others as it is about all of the luxuries most of us take for granted. Byron was so touched by our new friend that he decided to stop by his house later on that day and present him with the painting, which I’m sure will be treasured by him and his wife. Some things in life just can’t be priced!
The Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters two-week event was a nonstop train on the “plein air express.” Each day it was up at six, a quick shower, breakfast and painting in the park until dark. RMPAP member Wes Montgomery and I got to share a house for the event, courtesy of John Woody and artist Roberta Glidden, who provided not only lodgings for the two weary painters, but warm hospitality and good conversation as well. Although a lot of work, this experience gave me time to explore various painting locations and moods of the Tetons in a random fashion dictated only by where the wind took me on any given day. One time I might be out painting on the flats doing a mountain scene and the next a river, stream or forest interior. There is a certain freedom working this way that suits me and provides a peace of mind that is hard to match. Two experiences really stand out in my mind from this show. The first was a moment in time when I was working out in an open field close to the main road that goes through GTNP. All of a sudden I heard the sound of antlers tapping in the woods behind me when a herd of elk about 20 strong appeared and, startled by my presence, stopped at the edge of the wood and looked me over. I froze in my tracks as well, and we all stood there for a moment before they came bounding across the road and disappeared into the forest again. The grace and beauty of that encounter will be a lifelong memory I am sure. On another occasion, I decided to drive out on the elk refuge one evening to capture the mood of the Sleeping Indian at dusk. The evening was cool and the clouds were building up nicely in what was sure to be a spectacular sunset. Just as I was preparing the small panel for the painting I could hear off in the distance the sound of what seemed like hundreds of coyote. It was an eerie, yet beautiful sound that seemed both mystical and sacred — like I was the only witness to an ancient ritual that has been repeated for centuries in these same mountains. I was in awe to be there and was deep in my thoughts when a Native American man approached me to see what I was doing. We stood there for a few minutes exchanging ideas and he told me he was off to Sundance for several days of meditation to get in touch with his spiritual side. I was fortunate to be surrounded by so many reminders of the natural order of both present and past.
In addition to the painting experiences, I enjoyed showing up at several of my “wind run” spots to discover others from the group who had the same wind driving them to the same location at the same time! I’m sure I enjoyed the camaraderie of the group as much as I did the actual experience of painting. All in all, I came away from this event with some new ideas and influences from working with other seasoned artists in such an inspiring environment. The show culminated with a RMPAP BBQ and the announcement that this year the show had raised thousands of dollars for Grand Teton National Park in an era of tight budgets on the national and local levels.|3|
Finally, there was the three day hike into The Teton backcountry that topped off my summer adventures. This was suggested to me by one of my painting students, Jay Mace, who is an avid outdoorsman and lover of nature.|4| Jay said he would show me some amazing country to paint and he was true to his word! It was as good, or better than anything I saw and experienced on my trips to Alaska. I was a little apprehensive about the timing of the trip at first; being that it would come right on the heels of a two week haul at the RMPAP show. Besides that, I had never hiked that far with 45 lbs. of painting gear, sleeping bag, tent, food and enough water to keep me going for three days and wondered if my backpack as well as my back was up to the challenge.|5| The water was the least of my problems since a good sturdy filter purchased at Recreation Outlet was just the thing I needed. The food and backpack was another story. I thought I had it all down to a science as to what would fit in the pack and what would not, until we were handed plastic barrels by the rangers to store our food in. At that point I knew my backpack was too small which forced me to tie a lot of gear on the outside — a move that caused me to look like a prancing, prospecting, panhandler on the trail. I also found out that the pack which I usually use for shorter hikes was not up to the challenge of comfort that better gear would have provided. By the time I hiked the eight mile trip to the campsite where I met Jay, my shoulders were ready to give out and may have, had it not been for the bottle of ibuprofen I brought along for the ride. Bottom line, before my next overnighter in nature I will be making a trip to one of our local outdoor recreation stores for some expert advice on the right pack. Aside from that, the painting experience was great. One thing that helped save on space was the fact that I decided to use acrylics and several 6 x 8 foam core panels I made for this occasion. My thinking was that if I didn’t have to bring paint thinner and tissues I could save a lot of room and cut down on the weight as well. The thinner was replaced by water I got out of the stream and the tissues by a few rags. This all proved to be a worthwhile strategy, with satisfying results.
Fortunately, I didn’t need a wet canvas carrier since I laid the studies out in the sun for about 15 minutes after the painting session and they were dry enough to put into the pack like that. One of them did sustain a little damage, but the real value of these studies is going to be back in the studio where they will be put to good use as reference for larger works. This was the point I had to make to a hiker I met on the trail while painting, who wanted to purchase the acrylic shown below. Some studies cost too much in blood sweat and tears to let go for some momentary monetary advantage, no matter how tempting at the time!
As it worked out, I received an invitation by the Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters to be a regular member; which will mean more experiences next summer. I have included an oil |6| and one acrylic study|1| that will give you a better idea of what has been presented here. Until next time …
An award-winning artist and teacher who has been painting the landscape both in and out of the studio since 1983, John Hughes maintains a studio in Taylorsville and teaches students in private workshops and in a course at Salt Lake Community College.