Petrified Forest Watercolor Sketch

To Paint a Desert: The Long and Winding Road to Petrified Forest National Park

As Rod Stewart, one of my brother’s favorite musicians would say, “Every picture tells a story don’t it?” With a good dose of Irish ancestry, I have come to realize the importance of a good story, in literature, in art and in life. Here’s one of mine.

With over 50 National Parks and Monuments offering Artist in Residence programs in any given year, how does one go about deciding which opportunities to apply for? What’s not to love about almost any National Park? But if you are going to live there for any length of time and devote yourself to making a piece of art worthy of the experience, for me at least, there needs to be some deeper meaning to the decision aside from the natural beauty of the place.

While mainstream America has a linear view of time, other cultures, especially indigenous or aboriginal cultures tend to view it as circular. I like to think of it as a spiral, so spiraling back across time I can picture my 7-year-old self attending J.W Reason Elementary School in Hilliard, Ohio, a small farming community back in the day. Being one of the many baby boomers overburdening the school system, at the time there was no room in the school building for a library. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t one in the entire town. It took the burg’s founding fathers, or farmers, as the case may be, a few more years to construct one. Instead school children had their literary needs met via The Bookmobile.

Somewhat resembling an overgrown Air Stream trailer, this beast would pull into the circular drive of various schools and set up shop about once a month. Each child was solemnly issued a library card that we were to guard with our very lives or pay the dire, and unknown consequences. When the day arrived for my very first visit, I dutifully and anxiously lined up with the other children for my turn to enter the belly of the beast. Holding onto the railing as if ascending a great mountain, I pulled myself up what seemed like gargantuan steps and entered this holiest of literary places.

Once inside I was in a state of awe just looking at the books of every stripe and color that rose to the very heights. I was immediately faced with a dilemma. Just having learned how to read, the second graders were only permitted to select one book. Now even at that early age I was heartily sick of the Dick and Jane readers we were issued, and really didn’t give a damn about seeing Spot run (already developing a preference for cats, I was somewhat more interested in Puff’s antics however). Thus, selecting just the right book in the allotted amount of time was a difficult but satisfying task. After touching and opening as many tomes as possible, I finally selected my heart’s desire, a book of Native American animal tales about The Painted Desert in Arizona.

Aha! My raison d’être for applying to Petrified Forest National Park and The Painted Desert. In my research for this artist in residence program I was able to locate just the book I needed, Hopi Animal Stories, compiled and edited by Ekkehart Malotki a language professor at Northern Arizona University. A grown up version of my very first library book, complete with liner notes and a cadre of tales collected from traditional Hopi “story rememberers” on Second and Third Mesa in Hopiland! So not only did I have a reason to immerse myself in this special park, I had a ready made project, interpreting one of the animals tales in textiles. As I sat perched on the park’s Rim Trail, I swear in the distance I could see an image from that second grade book, a coyote and rabbit side by side,  berets worn with rakish abandon, giant brushes hoisted in the air, painting the desert with a palette of colors stolen from the Easter Bunny. Now there’s a story.


1 reply
  1. pianist337
    pianist337 says:

    It’s interesting that something that made such an impression in your youth has connected to your experiences decades later. Still smiling at the image you created with the beret-wearing coyote and rabbit. I hope your trip to Arizona was satisfying and productive! I’m looking forward to going back later this year.

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