Zion National Park: The Intersection of Inspiration and Art

The Virgin River flows past the Watchman as the sun sets in Zion National Park.

The Virgin River flows past the Watchman as the sun sets in Zion National Park.

Story and photos by Charles Williams

Charles is the editor for Pursuits with Enterprise. Email the author.

Utah’s first national park spawns creativity in visitors.

Passionate art requires a catalyst — words, emotions or even places that are exceedingly beautiful. Zion National Park is such a place.

Almost 4 million visitors a year are drawn to the towering 2,600-foot walls in the deep sandstone canyons, meticulously carved by the Virgin River. Mule deer, wild turkeys and bighorn sheep roam freely. Ferns, wildflowers and mosses delicately hang from weeping sandstone.

Look around, and you will be motivated to create.

Zion is the intersection of inspiration and art. For more than 100 years, artists have tried to capture its dramatic beauty; the task wasn’t always easy.

Painters such as Frederick S. Dellenbaugh joined explorers to document remote, inaccessible landscapes that were unknown to many Americans. In 1903, his series of paintings brought notoriety that fostered legislation to create Mukuntuweap National Monument in 1909, which subsequently became Zion National Park in 1919.

Zion’s Artist-in-Residence program continues the tradition; artists live in a sandstone cabin for one month and interpret their surroundings through their work.

Eleanor Siebers, volunteer coordinator for the program, believes this immersion inspires artists. “Any time you have the opportunity to spend an extended period of time in a place you really come to know it, appreciate it and want to see it preserved and protected for future generations," she said. "Those feelings from our artists are embedded in the artwork they create for perpetuity."

Inspiration is everywhere — from the harrowing perch atop Angels Landing to the vast panorama seen on the Canyon Overlook Trail. For me, the scenery in The Narrows is particularly poignant. Golden light bathes the sculpted walls, enticing you to see what’s around the next bend, then the next, until you find yourself miles up the river.

Dozens of easier hikes — the Watchman, Lower Emerald Pool, Riverside Walk, Weeping Rock — are less strenuous but equally delightful.

Lorraine Bubar is a papercut artist who spent September as the Artist-in-Residence at Zion. She recommends that creative people take time to study their surroundings, both big and small. “A park like this, you can try to capture the huge vastness of it, or you could zero in on the smallest little thing that’s right in front of you," she said. "Take time to look at some of the fragile, diverse wildflowers, the small lizards and texture of the rocks.

“The key to visiting any park is to spend at least a few days and really soak in the experience — especially as an artist — to really get a sense of the palette of colors. I could do the same hike multiple times at different times of day, and it looks totally different because of the lighting.”

The best time to visit Zion is early or late in the day during summer, or better yet, during the off-season, when you’re more likely to find peace among nature. Pick one or two hikes a day, and resist the temptation for a checklist visit that leaves little time for contemplation — the seed of creativity. Bring a sketchpad, a tripod or canvas to capture colors, textures and shapes.

In addition to the Artist-in-Residence program, Zion also hosts a Plein Air Art Invitational. This year, 24 professional landscape artists captured the park's beauty through paintings and demonstrations.

Within the last decade, there has been an increasing backlash against the digital-age notion that faster is better. This Slow Movement culture has affected many facets of life — food, aging and, of course, travel. Devotees move at whatever speed is necessary to build relationships with people and places.

Siebers agrees with the philosophy. “Zion's unique geology draws many people here, but in a way, Zion is like many of our natural places. They give you the ability to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life, slow down for a bit, and really have the time to experience and appreciate your surroundings,” she said.

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