We talk with the Grand Canyon Conservancy and artists Dawn Sutherland and Michelle Condrat about painting the national park in its centennial year at September’s Celebration of Art.
“Celebration of Art at Grand Canyon — September 7 – 15 — is in its 11th year of raising funds to benefit arts programming and an art venue at the South Rim. “Art plays a critical role in the appreciation of our national parks, and this event helps to keep the artistic tradition part of the Grand Canyon experience,” says Mindy Riesenberg, director of marketing and communications for the Grand Canyon Conservancy.
For more than its 100 years as a national park, the Grand Canyon has attracted painters with its awesome and unequaled scale of geography. “Thomas Moran, who accompanied John Wesley Powell on an expedition to the canyon’s North Rim in 1873, created Chasm of the Colorado in 1873 – 74,”Riesenberg says.
“The massive painting now hangs in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. It shows a huge storm sweeping into the chasm and enthralled 19th-century audiences. Artworks depicting the canyon by Moran, Gunnar Widforss, and other artists were very influential in generating public recognition of the unique importance of the canyon, leading to its becoming a place that Americans wanted to protect and generating the critical support for its designation as a national park in 1919.
“With Celebration of Art, Grand Canyon Conservancy hopes to preserve and protect this grandest of canyons through the connection between art and the land we love.”
If You Go
This year, in honor of the park’s centennial, Celebration of Art will feature special guest artists — including Ed Mell, Erin Hanson, Dan Namingha, and Rick Wheeler — along with several new plein air artists.
September 7 – 15, 2019
Artist Demonstrations and Plein Air Painting
September 13, 5:30 – 7 p.m.
September 14, 2019 8 a.m. – 10 a.m.
September 14, 2019, 11 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Quick Draw Auction
September 15, 11 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Exhibition Grand Opening
September 15, 2019 – January 20, 2020, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Art Exhibition and Sale
Riesenberg’s favorite thing about Celebration of Art is the quick draw and auction. “The artists paint along the South Rim for two hours, and then we have a fun, raucous, exciting auction of all the paintings (some of which are still wet!). We do the auction at the Bright Angel Trailhead, and it’s a blast,” Riesenberg says. “Tourists who are visiting the canyon or have just hiked out of the canyon are often surprised and delighted by happening upon artists capturing well-loved locations throughout the park on canvas.
“The artists who participate in Celebration of Art communicate the emotions of the canyon in a way that doesn’t need interpretation or translation to be understood. Visitors will be able to watch these artists as they paint out on the rim and can also talk to them about what they’re doing and what their processes are. At the auction, visitors can purchase original artworks that have just been created. A painting of the canyon is such a wonderful and unique souvenir to bring home.”
C&I talked more about the event and painting the Grand Canyon with participating artists Dawn Sutherland and Michelle Condrat.
Evening in Elysium, oil, 30 inches x 36 inches, by Dawn Sutherland
Cowboys & Indians: Tell us a bit about your art.
Dawn Sutherland: I’ve always been drawn to beautiful landscapes. When I began painting in 2001, I realized that landscape painting would be my focus. I want to illustrate beautifully and sensitively the landscape to which I am attracted. Although I strive for realism and accuracy, especially with Grand Canyon, I also enhance small but beautiful features that might awaken the viewer to special characteristics of the canyon.
Michelle Condrat: I paint with oil paints. I’ve had a lot pf people describe my style in different ways, from “blocky” to “pixeled” to “looking like a video game,” but I just generally have called it a modern Impressionistic style. I use a lot of horizontal and vertical blended strokes, which I feel gives my paintings depth and motion and also lends itself well to the Southwest landscape with the layers of red rock which already have those line qualities.
C&I: What attracts you as an artist to the Grand Canyon?
Sutherland: There are several reasons I’m attracted to Grand Canyon. Simply stated, the canyon is simply beautiful, with ever-changing light and intriguing reflections within the shadows. The canyon calls to certain people who must return again and again — some to hike it, some to sit and contemplate, and some to try to capture its essence with oil and canvas. I count myself very fortunate to live close to Grand Canyon and be able not only to hike and immerse myself in its depths, but also to capture its immense beauty and size on canvas.
Condrat: The Grand Canyon is a place that you can’t help but feel inspired as you look out at miles and miles and layers of rock formations! There’s the excitement of setting up right on the edge of a cliff, feeling the wind blowing, and if you listen very carefully, the sound of the river miles below. I love the colors that are throughout the canyon, from the highlights of gold and cream colors, to the violets and cobalt blues of the shadows. There are two magical times of day at the Grand Canyon: the morning while the sun is just barely hitting the tips of the peaks, and in the evening when the colors become rich and saturated and the shadows stretch out along the canyon.
Breaking Through the Clouds by Michelle Condrat
C&I: What’s your personal experience with the canyon?
Sutherland: My first experience with Grand Canyon was in the winter of 1996. My husband and I hiked to the end of Plateau Point and back, a 13-mile roundtrip. I was intrigued, but I never imagined that within a few years, we’d be living in Arizona and only hours away from the canyon. My friend and I scheduled a rim-to-rim hike in 2006 — 24 miles, four nights, and five days across the rugged beauty of the Canyon. That’s when I knew I needed to paint this place! Over the years, two more rim-to-rim hikes and three trips down the Colorado River through the canyon have only challenged me more to capture the unspeakable size and magnificence of this place.
It is interesting — the canyon seems to summon certain people to return again and again. I began to feel a strong draw from the canyon at least 10 years ago, and the pull became stronger each time I went there to paint or hike. My first river trip was in 2015 and that opened a new dimension to me. I needed to learn to paint water, and so I did. The more time one spends in the canyon, the more the canyon reveals its personality, somewhat like a friendship that develops over time. The canyon demands respect when you enter its depths and gives back a peace and understanding of one’s place in this grand chasm. I try to honor that relationship with my paintings.
Condrat: This is the description of my studio painting The Grand Symphony, which I will be showing during the Celebration of Art event. I think it describes my personal connection. “One evening, I stood on the edge of a cliff, looking out at an endless sea of rock, knowing that it was a sight I had to capture. As the sun began to set, I saw it before me, a grand symphony! With notes of color, a harmony of light and shadow, and a melody of beauty and inspiration, I saw it all come together like an orchestra about to perform a masterpiece. As I watched the shadows take over the land, I knew this incredible sight would soon come to end. But, I knew even when it was over, I would remember that magical moment and that it would stay with me forever, like a song that has touched your heart.”
Click image above to view the slideshow
C&I: What has been your experience with Celebration of Art?
Sutherland: Celebration of Art at Grand Canyon is a remarkable convening of artists who love Grand Canyon. This is my sixth year painting in it. It is fascinating to see the individual interpretations of the canyon. There’s a wonderful energy that develops as artists paint together, sharing stories and discussing the canyon’s details and challenges. It’s an incredible honor to be invited to paint in this event, and it’s gratifying to know that visitors to the canyon may wish to take one of my paintings home as a reminder of their visit in this 100th-anniversary year.
Condrat: I have participated in the Celebration of Art for three years, and this year will be my fourth. I didn’t know what to expect my first year there. I was afraid that people wouldn’t like or understand my style, especially compared to the other artists’ more traditional styles. I was so worried during the live auction that someone wouldn’t bid on my painting. I even asked [event coordinator] Kathy Duley, “What if no one bids?”
But, to my surprise, everyone embraced it and loved it! I ended up breaking a record for the highest bid. I also sold out the opening night. I was so shocked and so overwhelmed with happiness, and it’s something that I will always remember for the rest of my life. People told me that they liked the different style and that it was refreshing to see. I think my style also attracts a younger generation’s eye because of the bright colors and how different the style is, or perhaps because it looks more “digital,” which is more relatable to that generation. I’m just glad that people like it and notice it and can pick it out.
I feel very honored to be able to participate in the Grand Canyon’s 100-year anniversary. It’s something that will only ever happen once in my lifetime and to be a part of it is very special, because the Grand Canyon itself is a special place. To be included in this exclusive event with so many other talented artists is such an honor. I just want to do the park proud and represent it the best I can.
North Rim Evening, oil, 18 inches x 24 inches, by Dawn Sutherland
C&I: What are the challenges in painting the canyon?
Sutherland: My primary challenge in painting the canyon is twofold: artistic and physical. Artistically, selecting a scene and staying within those boundaries. I still have to resist working in details from the periphery of a chosen scene. The more one knows and understands the geology of Grand Canyon and its unique terrain, the more the canyon reveals itself. I’m constantly questioning, What makes that plateau glow in the setting sun? Where’s that reflection of light coming from in the shadowed red wall? How can I make that far canyon wall look even more distant? What color are those shadows?
The canyon takes on more intense color in wintertime when the sun is at its lowest angle in the sky. In summer months, the canyon’s colors may appear much more faded; however, summer monsoon clouds make some fantastic color displays both in the sky and on canyon walls. In the summer months, shadows dissolve very rapidly in the morning, so one must “lock in” shadows quickly before they disappear.
Then there are the physical challenges. The irony is, in winter months, a painter can take one’s time plein air painting; however, temperatures are usually in the 30s, which adds another type of challenge. My winter painting garb consists of wool sweaters, socks, and hats, a thick down jacket, and boots with microspikes attached to their soles. I cannot paint with gloves or mittens, so each pocket has a hand-warmer packet inside. In the summer, it’s the heat and gnats one must deal with, so I wear the lightest clothing possible plus a long-sleeved white shirt to protect from the sun and bugs. And did I mention rattlesnakes? Painters would also be well-advised to be on the lookout for sleeping rattlesnakes. I’ve had two close encounters over the years!
Rapid Run, oil, 22 inches x 28 inches, by Dawn Sutherland
Condrat: The challenge of painting the Grand Canyon is first deciding what to paint. There is by no means a lack of things to paint, but everywhere you look there is something that catches your eye, so to narrow it down to one spot is hard. Also, the way the light changes and how fast it changes is probably the most challenging part. When I am painting at the Celebration of Art, it is later in the year when the days are getting shorter and the light changes even faster. You can be painting a shadow of a rock and suddenly you look up and it’s all in the light! You have to paint fast and efficiently, or plan a time to come back the next day at the same time of day to get the same lighting. Probably one of the hardest days to paint the Grand Canyon is on a partially cloudy day when the clouds roll by and create shadows across the canyon but then disappear within seconds.
C&I: How about the rewards you experience painting the canyon?
Sutherland: Painting Grand Canyon is such a privilege. After a 90-minute drive, I can be at the South Rim deciding on a scene, listening to pinyon jays cackle and seeing them soar through the air, smelling the intoxicating fragrance of cliff roses waft by, and watching shadows ebb and flow across the landscape. The rewards are an intimate communion with this overwhelmingly beautiful chasm, and that inner voice that says, “Yes, you captured it this time” when I back up and examine what I’ve put on the canvas.
Condrat: Though the Grand Canyon is one of the most challenging places to paint because of the detail and all the changes that happen, when you have captured that scene just right with the colors and light and shadows, then it’s all worth it! That’s why you do it: to be able to express your experience of standing on the edge of the cliff looking out at a world wonder and being able to share that experience through your art for other people to see. That’s the reward. And after finishing an event like the Celebration of Art, you can't help but feel a sense of accomplishment and honor for being invited to such an amazing event and for being able to be surrounded by such beauty as the Grand Canyon.
Find more on the event and these artists at grandcanyon.org, dawnsutherland.com, and michellecondrat.com.
Photography: (featured) A Grand Morning, oil, 24 inches x 40 inches, by Michelle Condrat; (artists photo, gallery) by /Courtesy Off Madison Avenue; (slideshow, all paintings by Michelle Condrat) The Carnival Shadows, Canyon Rays, A Grand Morning, The Canyon’s Lullaby