Editor's note: The following essay was published February 25, 2016 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Zion Natural History Association. The essay was written to accompany the exhibit A Century of Sanctuary: The Art of Zion National Park, on view at the St. George Art Museum from August 25, 2008 to January 31, 2009. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibit catalog containing it, please contact the St. George Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Art of Zion, A Historical Overview

By Deborah Reeder


Looking northeast from my window in St. George, Utah, Zion is a pink place in the late afternoon sun. This iconic landscape, now known worldwide and visited by millions of people each year, was once deemed a forbidding place. Among the earliest European and Anglo explorers, there were few who came to this isolated area. Those who did typically missed the area now called Zion, among them the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776, and the 1826 Jedediah Smith party. Artists also missed Zion, including Albert Bierstadt who focused his career on painting dramatic western landscapes. He is not known to have traveled farther south than Salt Lake City. Even the well-traveled expeditionary photographer William Henry Jackson missed it when he passed through the area in 1866-67.

Access to Zion was impeded by formidable obstacles -- the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River to the south, Hurricane Fault to the west, Kolob Canyon to the north, and Zion Canyon, itself, to the east. Local Indians knew it, of course, but it lay unexplored by Anglos until Nephi Johnson, an early Mormon settler, entered the area in 1858. Isaac Behunin, the first resident of the area, is credited with naming it Zion around 1864.

As with the Grand Canyon and other parts of the Colorado Plateau, the landscape was not always regarded as beautiful, but rather as a major obstacle to be avoided. Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives surveyed the surrounding area in 1857-58. His Report Upon the Colorado River of the West, made his opinion clear.

The region last explored is, of course, altogether valueless. . . . After entering it there is nothing to do but leave. Ours has been the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality. It seems intended by nature that the Colorado River, along the greater portion of its lonely and majestic way, shall be forever unvisited and undisturbed. (1861, 100)

While nineteenth-century artists painted Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon, Zion received a less thorough pictorial treatment. Nevertheless, it was honored in the 1909 proclamation that made it Mukuntuweap National Monument. In celebration of Zion National Park's centennial, the St. George Art Museum has assembled this historic collection entitled: A Century of Sanctuary: The Art of Zion National Park, the most comprehensive compilation to date of the artistic interpretation of the subject.

Some of the earliest visual knowledge of the area is credited to Major John Wesley Powell, who set out in the latter part of the nineteenth century to explore the Colorado River and the Colorado Plateau, the least known part of the country. Because Powell was interested in proper documentation, he included photographers and artists in his later expeditions. This collection includes works by John (Jack) Hillers (1843-1925), who was twenty-eight years old at the time, and Frederick Dellenbaugh (1853-1935), just seventeen years old when they set out on Powell's second survey in 1871. Hillers and Dellenbaugh became friends, visited Zion in April of 1872, and returned at least once to this region. In his book Photography and the American Scene, Robert Taft reported that:

Several years ago Mr. Dellenbaugh kindly wrote me concerning Hillers' initiation into a photographic career, and I believe what he says is worth recording here: "Jack Hillers was engaged by Powell for the second trip, in Salt Lake City, to pull an oar and to help generally. He knew nothing then about photography, but he became much interested as we went on down Green River. . . . Hillers asked me about photography -- about the chemical side. I explained about the action of the light on a glass plate coated with collodion and sensitized with nitrate of silver, the bath to eliminate the silver in hypo, and so on." (1942, 289-90)

Eventually Hillers became the expedition's photographer and his oeuvre is an important addition to the art, history, and science of his time.

Major Powell had invited Thomas Moran (1837-1926), also represented here, to join the second expedition. However, Moran, on his first trip west, had already agreed to join Professor Hayden's expedition to Yellowstone in 1872. Subsequently, he was able to join Powell and visited Zion in July 1873. Moran later proclaimed:

Southern Utah is where Nature reveals herself in all her tumultuous and awe-inspiring grandeur. . . . There is a cañon off the Rio Virgin known in the local Indian vernacular as Mu-Koun-Tu-Weap, that for glory of scenery and stupendous scenic effects cannot be surpassed. Its cliffs rise up in rugged massiveness for 5000 feet, with some of the most peculiar formations believable toward the top. It is a marvelous piece of Nature's handiwork that is worth going a long distance to see. I think southern Utah is unsurpassed in the class of scenery that characterizes it. (Salt Lake City Tribune 9 June 1900; Lindstrom 1983, 5)

In spite of this praise, Thomas Moran did not visit Zion again, though he visited the Grand Canyon several more times, traveling by train directly to the South Rim. Zion was not so fortunately located with respect to easy access. The nearest train was the Union Pacific spur that came to Cedar City, even now nearly an hour away on Interstate15.

On July 31, 1909, President William Howard Taft designated the area now known as Zion to be a national monument called Mukuntuweap (meaning "straight up place" or "straight canyon" in Paiute). By 1917, there was a rough camp, followed by a lodge in 1925. The Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, including a mile-long tunnel through Navajo Sandstone, was completed in 1930, essentially ending Zion's isolation. Thereafter, access became easier and easier for artists and other visitors. Zion was no longer a frontier.


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Early views of Zion are photographs and modest paintings. The earliest known photographs (figures) were created in 1870 by Charles Savage (1832-1909) while on a trip to the region with Mormon leader Brigham Young. Savage recorded his impression:

I found it to be a remarkable valley with high, vertical cliffs, towering upward from two to three thousand feet, and so completely locked that there was no outlet other than the way of entrance. From a picturesque point of view, it was grand, sublime, and majestic, but as a place of residence, lonely and unattractive, reminding one of living in a stone box . . . a good place to visit, and a nice place to leave. (Richards 1995, 66)

Savage's equipment, typical of a small-town frontier photographer of the time, consisted of a camera, a background made from an old gray blanket, and a large tea chest that served as a miniature dark room. In 1860, he moved to Salt Lake City.

From this date until the nineteen hundreds he was probably the best known photographer between the Mississippi and the Pacific. . . . Savage was fond of outdoor life, and his views of Rocky Mountain scenery and life on the plains were present in every stereographic collection worthy of the name. (Taft 1942, 272)

Included here are three photographs taken by Savage in 1870, and two taken by Jack Hillers in 1872-73 (figures). Each shares a similar viewpoint looking into the canyon. The main route to Zion was from the west along a level segment of the Virgin River. According to Don Fowler (1989, 36), the editor of Hillers' diary, early Hillers photographs show rich and pervading light, characteristic of a pictorial style later termed Luminism, which was popular at the time for both painters and photographers.

Most of these artists came to the West from the East Coast on government-sponsored surveys. Later, the budding Mormon art community around Salt Lake City cultivated artists who lived in the West and traveled east to study in schools and art centers in major metropolitan areas, primarily Chicago and New York, and as far as Paris, France.

Three Mormon artists, John Hafen, Lorus Pratt, and J. B. Fairbanks (figures), went to Paris on an "art mission" in 1890, and enrolled at the Académie Julian, where they were joined by Edwin Evans. Here they discovered painting en plein aire, or painting outdoors, which was then emerging in France. Lee Green Richards (figures) visited museums in England while on a Mormon mission in 1895. He returned to Europe to study in Paris from 1901 to 1904 at the Académie Julian, whereupon he was able to pass the stringent test to continue his studies at the more prestigious École des Beaux Arts. When they came home to Utah, these artists brought with them a bit of modernity and knowledge of artistic styles currently in vogue in France.

Despite common roots in Europe, artistic expressions were varied. For instance, in 1872, Claude Monet (1840-1926) painted Impression: Sunrise in France. In that same year, Thomas Moran traveled to the West and subsequently painted his masterpiece Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone. Monet's Impression: Sunrise (the source for the term "Impressionism," a derogatory reference to the painting's seemingly unfocused and unfinished nature) is about a universal place, as opposed to Moran's painting of Zion (figure) which depicts a recognizable place. Moran shows Zion as an iconic landscape, one of the most fascinating scenes in the American West. Monet, on the other hand, did not paint a destination but rather a more generic impression of a sunrise for the viewer to experience.

While light is important in both, Monet painted light that dissolves the subject, nearly removing it. Moran painted light that illuminates and clarifies the subject. Interestingly, the great English colorist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was an inspiration for both artists.

Thomas Moran's impressive seven-by-fourteen-foot oil painting Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone was purchased shortly after it was finished in 1872 by the United States Congress for $10,000. His early paintings and watercolors of Yellowstone were an important catalyst for designating it America's first national park, also in 1872.

Mr. Thomas Moran . . . has just finished a work in oils, which, whatever may finally come to be thought of it in its relation to the landscape art of our own time or of other times, cannot but be admitted, by whoever will study it, a work of real artistic and scientific importance. The subject is the Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone River with the Lower Falls, and it is a lively presentment of one of the most wonderful wonders in a land made by Nature, when, to use the language of her child, the artless Pike, "she had her high-heeled shoes on." So faithful to the facts of the place is the picture, that those who have seen both assure us we might as well be on the spot as looking at this canvas. . . . One does not need to be instructed in art to enjoy it; its appeal is to the general love of nature, to the love of color, and of grandeur in forms and lines. Perhaps, also, it appeals a little to the pleasure we all may have, and not be ashamed of it, in the fact that this wonderful place is not merely a bit of the continent, but is, indeed, the private property of every man, woman, and child of us, being in the very middle of that generous tract of 3,578 square miles which . . . has been set apart forever as a public park for the people of the whole United States to walk abroad and recreate themselves. (Anderson 1872, 93)

Yellowstone set the stage for adding subsequent national parks and monuments. Yosemite followed in 1890, as well as Zion and the Grand Canyon in 1919. As writer Wallace Stegner said, national parks are "the best idea we ever had."

Aldine Magazine was an important art periodical of the time; issues published in 1874 and 1875 included several Zion prints by Moran (figures). One of these prints (figure) bears many similarities to the paintings shared in this book. Moran was an accomplished print maker and owed some of his public success to the availability of his prints. In addition, an 1874-75 issue of Scribner's contains the three-part article "The Cañons of the Colorado," by Major Powell, with illustrations by, among others, Thomas Moran (figures).

Like many artists, Moran made sketches and obtained photographs to provide material for paintings to be completed later in his studio. This is indeed the case with the 1917 painting The Rio Virgin, Southern Utah (figure). Moran's only visit to Zion occurred in 1873; this spectacular painting was finished forty-four years later. Here we are witness to a drama of rushing water, swirling mists, and soaring cliffs. Moran places the viewer at the edge of the choppy, blue-green water, framed by Fragonard green foliage, dwarfed by staggeringly steep, high rock faces, looking up to the sunlit white mountain surrounded by a Tiepolo blue sky. The Zion watercolor by Moran in the Library of Congress (figure) shows a more distant view of the cliffs and a larger view of the valley. We are dwarfed a bit less by the scene. The trees are miniatures compared to the rocks and towering spires. As in the Lambourne painting (figure), there is a small puff of smoke, the only sign of human habitation in this view.

When Thomas Moran died in 1926, he had outlived his friend and benefactor Major Powell by twenty-four years.

Moran was called the "dean of American painters." His chief claim to remembrance, though he had many others, was that he had taught Americans in the East to really "see" the landscape of the West. Thus his claim to our attention bears some comparison with that of John Wesley Powell who, more than any other scientist-explorer of the nineteenth century, taught his fellow Americans to "understand" the West, and all of the peculiar conditions that prevailed there. . . . Americans today are in debt to his perceptive foresight, more than most of them know. (Wilkins 1969, 31)


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The history of national parks, Zion art, and American museums begins in the 1870s, amidst great interest in creating American sites to foster intellectual betterment. Nineteenth-century Europeans and Americans were especially keen to categorize the cultural and natural world in order to understand it. This propensity led to the founding of museums as repositories that collected and categorized holdings. These early beginnings directly affected the manner in which museums of art, history, and natural history came to organize exhibits in a chronological and scientific manner. Museums were believed to be important avenues for enriching the lives of the working, middle, and upper middle classes.

Sir William Henry Flower wrote (1898, 94), "Few objects can be so surely productive of good, so little liable to abuse at any future time, as the preservation, augmentation, and maintenance of a museum in which the facts of the beautiful and wonderful work around us are displayed for the instruction of mankind."

People of vision believed in the optimistic notion of mankind's betterment as a result of founding museums and national parks. The latter was a particularly American idea.

Like other national parks, Zion was promoted by the railroad through photographs and paintings. In a 1947 Union Pacific Railroad brochure (figure), the company makes this claim:

And if you seek the unusual . . . masterpieces of the Great Architect that will stir your emotions, hold you spellbound with a feeling of deep humility, then set forth for that western region of unparalleled scenic splendor known, all too casually, as the National Parks of Southern Utah-Arizona. Not until then, will you have seen America!

The five-day tour was available (for $59.50) upon disembarking from the Union Pacific Railroad car at Cedar City, Utah. One then boarded a Utah Parks Company Motor Bus to tour Zion, the Kaibab National Forest, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Cedar Breaks.

This change in perception of the Colorado Plateau, from an obstacle to a monument worth visiting, coincided with the general permeation of advertising in America and increased leisure time, especially for the working and middle classes. Due to both leisure time and advertising, the public was eager to experience these wonders, if not in person then through special exhibitions that presented paintings of monuments as windows onto that special world of the West. Nineteenth-century venues displayed paintings as if they were large windows into another world, framed with fringed Victorian draperies, special lighting, potted plants, even birds in cages. The highly finished paintings shown in this way would have appeared to a pre-television viewing public as colored photographs true to nature. Indeed, in Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West, Kinsey writes:

The journalists' and legislators' knowledge of Yellowstone was, for the most part, limited to what had been presented in the energetic lobbying campaign [to have Yellowstone created as a national park], and it is curious that nearly all accounts after February 1872 contain detailed descriptions of the wonderful scenery, as if the authors were personal witnesses. Their reports are written in overwhelmingly visual terms, usually in tones of reverence and awe. (1992, 62)

In the nineteenth century, American artists sought scenic wonders and an artistic style to rival that of Europe, and they found both in the unspoiled landscapes of America, especially in the West. Artists competed to see who could create the most stunning paintings. Indeed, such scenes are depicted in paintings by John Fery (1859-1934), a Hungarian-American (figures). The Burlington Northern Railroad was one of John Fery's most important patrons.

A close examination of paintings by Moran (figure), Lambourne (figure), and Fery reveals that they combined the real and the ideal. In fact, artists were described as being the mediators between nature and art, which both John Ruskin and Alexander Von Humboldt advocated in their writings.

The idea that there were vast unexplored, unpainted landscapes in the American West delighted artists. The West was also viewed as an exotic locale, as reflected in Puccini's choice of subject matter for operas, including China, Japan, Paris, and the Sierra Nevada. The opera La Fanciulla del West (Girl of the Golden West), first performed in New York in 1910, is set in the Sierra Nevada foothills during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s.

Zion has continued to fascinate artists. Olivier Messiaen (1903-1992), for instance, was persuaded by Alice Tully to compose a piece of music for America's Bicentennial. In pondering what subject to choose, he became enchanted with pictures of Bryce and Zion national parks while perusing an encyclopedia. A trip to the canyons furthered his interest. The symphony named Des Canyons aux Étoiles (From the Canyons to the Stars) concludes with a paean to Zion called "Zion Park and the Celestial City." In 1974, the piece received its world premiere, followed in 2007 with its Utah premiere.

National park and museum visitation began an upward trajectory in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that was only dampened by the World Wars and the Great Depression. Road-building efforts of the 1950s, and the continuing improvement of automobiles, enabled Americans to move about their country and visit the national parks of the West.

As visitors traveled, they sought souvenirs of their experiences. The result was a variety of pamphlets, crafts, and artworks produced for a range of budgets from postcards to original paintings. Consumer demand for mementos has continued to grow and is a flourishing trade for many artists who paint national park subjects.

Visitation to national parks and museums is clearly important to Americans. In 2000, more than 90 million people visited national parks and 865 million people visited American museums.

Zion National Park's visitation continues to increase as do artworks featuring Zion subjects. Many of these paintings now reside in museum collections, including the growing collection of the St. George Art Museum. The nineteenth-century tradition of landscape painting still inspires the styles of many painters of the parks.


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Any artist's work will be influenced by his or her culture, background, studies, and medium. If we examine broadly the Zion National Park paintings found here by comparing those by artists who lived in Utah with those by painters who came here to work, we tend to find a different focus. The Utah painters generally soften the subjects and make the scenes less rocky, harsh, and forbidding. In paintings by Covington (figure), Fery (figure), Lambourne (figure), Campbell (figure) and Fairbanks (figure) -- all Utah painters-the viewer is given an accessible path into Zion. Even the painters who place the viewer in the river depict a flow less turbulent and with fewer rocks than most non-Utah painters.

The early Utah artists, like all Anglo inhabitants of this region, had come from very different places not long before the time that our investigation of Zion artworks commences. We tend to think of our home place differently from the places we visit. One might go further to say that eastern artists produced landscapes for landscapes' sake. This is not in the modern sense of art for art's sake, but because they felt no need to make habitable the place they were visiting. Rather, they sought to make it sublime, even exaggerating the extremes. Many wrote memoirs or accounts of their experiences as explorers who were the eyes and ears of the eastern public.

Lieutenant Ives observed on his explorations in 1857­58:

As the eye of the traveler sweeps over this wilderness of sunburnt summits, which stand so stark and still, glittering in the burning sunlight and yet so desolate, he shrinks from the unearthly scene with a feeling of depression which must be felt to be imagined. . . . A more frightfully arid region probably does not exist on the face of the earth.

As documented in a list of important western artists born prior to 1900, none was born in the Southwest or Rocky Mountain regions (Belknap 1969, vxi­vxii). Some were born in California and a few came from the Midwest, but most were from Europe or the East. Those who were living in Utah, whether by dictate or by choice, have repeatedly emphasized areas that could be used in a familiar way for agriculture or other material uses. European Americans have worked hard throughout history to make the West into something it is not. That they attempt to transform a rocky, dry, unforgiving land into an agricultural home is part of western history and part of the message found in many of these paintings.

Alfred Lambourne (1850-1926), who joined Brigham Young on a trip to Zion Canyon in 1870, made perhaps the earliest sketches of the area. He also traveled with Charles Savage, who created the earliest known photographs of Zion. Lambourne's paintings from the mid-1880s of the Rio Virgin (figure) combine the contrasting features of tall, upright rocks and a low, peaceful river, softening this rugged place. These paintings exhibit the quiet, contemplative qualities of Luminism, showing a golden, beatific light bathing the land. The term Luminism was first coined by art historian John Baur in 1954. This dispassionate style of glass-like surfaces without brushstrokes was at its peak in the mid-nineteenth century, with these American artists among its finest proponents: Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880), Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-65), John Kensett (1816-72), and Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904).

In a Scribner's magazine article published in January 1904, Dellenbaugh wrote about an old man he encountered during his 1903 visit to Zion. "I wondered if it now seemed to him as much like home as the fair New England meadows of his boyhood. The world here seems still in the making, and humanity scarcely sheltered from the blows of nature's sledge."

Dellenbaugh's 1903 painting of Zion (figure), completed thirty-one years after his first trip to the area, is typical of a Utah artist's painting, though Dellenbaugh was not from Utah. It shows a lovely grassy meadow filling up the foreground and leading into Zion. Dellenbaugh's 1875 painting and drawing were rendered on an exploratory trip. The painting, titled Daylight on the Kaibab (figure), depicts a quiet time of first light at a rare water source. Dellenbaugh wrote on the back of the painting, "Painted Oct. 30-31 while in camp just prior to reaching Northern end of the DeMotte Park, Arizona." The drawing, titled The Cedar Tree-Kaibab Canyon, Arizona (figure), is a sketch of one of the many canyons that etch the plateau.

The undated painting (figure), by George Ottinger (1833-1917), discloses quite a different Zion. The pastel paint lightly applied creates a scene with rather a fairytale quality. More like folk art than fine art, it exudes charm and perhaps even delight at the scenery of his chosen state.

Edwin Evans (1860-1946), studied briefly with Ottinger and ultimately became an admired and demanding teacher at the University of Utah. His earth-toned painting of the Watchman's Tower, painted late in his life, is a slightly detached and somewhat abstracted view of this Zion landmark (figure).

LeConte Stewart (1891-1990) is one of the best known of Evans' students. Stewart studied in Utah, but moved to New York to attend classes at the Art Students League. He worked in various artistic enterprises and taught in several schools in the Salt Lake City area for the rest of his life. Unlike any other image found here, Mesa near Zion's Canyon (figure) has a very high horizon, just over half the vertical height. The viewer is placed close to the big rocks of Zion. Stewart's other two paintings (figures) exhibit a versatile combination of horizontal and vertical brushstrokes that compose the various strata and rocks.

A comparison of the paintings completed by Fery around the turn of the twentieth century (figures), with those by Moser (figures), completed in 1920, proves interesting. Moser's style looks forward to art influences of the twentieth century while the Fery paintings look back to the nineteenth century. They have a soft haziness and appear to have been painted through a lens covered with gauze. Fery's is painted with more color, more clouds, wilder foliage, and with the great rock closer. The turquoise river leads the viewer deeper into the painting. Fery's paintings are in the soft sfumato style of the Barbizon School, and can be found in the silvery paintings of the French artist Camille Corot (1796-1875) and the golden paintings of American artist George Inness (1825-1894). Artists working in the Barbizon style were interested in painting real subject matter outdoors, using a limited and subdued color palette, local rather than exotic subjects, and intimate rather than expansive views. The name comes from a group of artists who, in the 1830s, gathered at the village of Barbizon to paint in the forests of Fontainebleau, France.

Moser's painting shows the influences of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, which can be seen in his thick, impasto brushstrokes using a rainbow-hued palette, no longer tied to what the artist saw but rather to what he felt. Depth is created by alternating dark and light areas reflecting the raking light. Of the Post-Impressionist painters, Van Gogh (1853-1890) and Cezanne (1839-1903) were well known for painting such landscapes. Cezanne painted Mont Ste-Victoire over and over for several decades in his patched and proto-cubist manner, obsessively working to capture this scene.

The non-Utah painters and photographers, beginning with Hillers and Moran and continuing with Widforss, Colton, Dixon, and Adams, tend to show places that are close to uninhabitable. Rocks bar the way into the scene. Viewpoints are against sheer cliff faces. Zion is shown as a forbidding, formidable, yet sublime place.

Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton's painting (figure), shows some of the same influences found in Moser's work. However, she builds up the foreground geological strata with thin, horizontal brushstrokes of soft, yet pure bands of color. These desert colors are amplified in the painting to reflect a Zion that is a multi-layered place. The typical red-rock layers that immediately confront the viewer are built up in rounded forms and are offset by the mostly vertical rainbow of desert-colored brushstrokes beyond, and a blue, blue sky. There is an expansive and joyous freedom in the brushstrokes and choice of colors.

Colton (1889-1971) was a member of The Philadelphia Ten, a group of women artists who exhibited from 1917 to 1945. Her studies in Philadelphia acquainted her with the exploratory modern art movements of the East Coast, and she brought some of those ideas with her when she came to the West. Artists of Zion generally employ either earth tones or pastel tones in their palettes. Colton brilliantly combines both.

The 1921 and 1923 paintings of Swedish-American artist Gunnar Widforss (1879-1934) record the look and feel of the dry, rocky Colorado Plateau. The two 1923 works (figures) capture especially well the desiccated desert landscape. Widforss worked primarily in watercolors, using an almost pointillist technique with which he achieved a landscape of peculiar clarity. However, when he painted foliage, even small plants often looked wonderfully alive (figure). One of the three Widforss watercolors found here is painted from a high vantage point looking into the canyon. The 1921 landscape also shows a masterful combination of earth tones and pastel colors.

Stephen T. Mather, first director of the National Park Service, became Widforss' friend and patron and encouraged him to paint the national parks of the West.

Widforss then began a rich production which led to a one-man exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It opened in December 1924 and consisted of seventy-two watercolors of Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon National Parks. . . . "These are the finest things of their kind that have come out of the West," said Director W. H. Holmes. "He is possibly the greatest watercolorist in America today." (Belknap 1969, 25)

Widforss watercolors are now highly prized. Fortunately, he painted Zion in addition to his many depictions of the Grand Canyon, where he lived for the last part of his life.

Ranch Kimball (1894-1980) was employed by the Public Works of Art Project during the 1930s. Prior to that, he trained at Brigham Young University, the Art Institute of Chicago, and at the Art Students League in New York. The influence of Regionalism can be found in the colorful and flowing landscape of Entrance to Zion (figure), painted in 1934. It depicts a Civilian Conservation Corps camp just outside the entrance to Zion National Park.

Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) was sixteen when he boldly sent a drawing to Frederic Remington for feedback. Remington responded that Dixon drew better at that age than Remington had done. Dixon received his first commission for a mural in 1905, an art form that he continued to pursue until the end of his life. He was influenced by the work of the Ashcan School artists in New York City whose landmark exhibition of 1908 focused on energetic depictions of unvarnished aspects of life and actual scenes of real people. When he exhibited at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, he was able to see works by both European (Monet, Sisley, Renoir) and American (Hassam, Twachtman, Whistler) Impressionists. Just as the Ashcan artists had influenced his form, the Impressionists influenced his palette.

For many years Dixon lived on Indian reservations and in Taos, New Mexico-the source of his peaked clouds connected to horizontal pillow-like forms. He spent two months exploring the Zion area in 1933, and painted forty canvases. The paintings found here were completed between 1933 and 1940 (figures). Dixon is able to combine Regionalist features with the angular aspects of the western landscape. He is successful at painting flowing forms, yet making them seem frozen and geometrical. Dixon's Diana's Throne, with its barren, hard earth and lone, abandoned-looking house, does not look inviting in spite of having a large, flat foreground. The other two Dixon paintings featured here place the viewer facing towering rock cliffs that threaten to explode the boundaries of the frame, similar to the more recent Ansel Adams' photographs (figures).

In 1920, Dixon married photographer, Dorothea Lange. Together, they became a popular artistic team in San Francisco. She became a famous chronicler of the Great Depression. For his part, Dixon painted a series of Social Realist paintings, quite different from his southwestern work. They divorced in 1935. Two years later he married San Francisco artist Edith Hamlin, and in 1940 they moved to Mt. Carmel Junction, Utah, near the eastern edge of Zion National Park, where they summered while wintering in Tucson, Arizona, where Dixon died. His paintings had captured the rugged, architectural beauty of the Southwest where he felt most at home.

The influence of Impressionism can be found in a number of artist's works, including J. B. Fairbanks and Lee Green Richards, Andrew Dowd (1869-1942) (figure), Torlief Knaphus (1881-1965) (figure), and Lewis Ramsey (1875-1941) (figures).

Like many other Utah painters, Lewis Ramsey studied at the Académie Julian in Paris from 1901 to 1903, at the same time as Richards. Prior to his work in Paris, he studied with noted Utah artists, Fairbanks and John Hafen. Although Ramsey worked in Boston and Chicago for a while, his primary residence was in Salt Lake City where he lived for twenty-six years. He was the first artist to paint Cedar Breaks National Monument, a painting that hung in the office of National Park Service director Stephen Mather, who also owned one of his Zion paintings. Ramsey made annual trips to Zion for fifteen years in addition to his many trips painting and selling his works in Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. Ramsey paints a lovely, soft look at Zion through dappled sunlight with meandering paths, encouraging us to venture in and explore.

Four photographs by Ansel Adams (1902-1984), three from 1942 and one from 1947 (figures), show Zion's sharp angles, steep rocks, and forbidding vistas. Adams' work was influential in helping critics to recognize photography as an art form rather than a craft. He also was an important proponent of the Zone System of photography, which required careful measurement of light for exposing the shadows, and calculated development of the negative to hold detail in the scene's highlights. Adams formed Group f/64 (named for a camera setting that produces a high-definition image with maximum depth of field) which included noted photographers Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard Van Dyke.

In 1936, Alfred Stieglitz, gallery owner, photographer, and partner of Georgia O'Keefe, gave Ansel Adams an exhibition at his New York gallery, An American Place. A few years later, Adams was commissioned to photograph national parks by Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, who intended to print mural-size images to hang in the nation's capital. Guggenheim Fellowships awarded in 1946 and 1948 enabled Adams to continue his travels and photography of the national parks.

Abstract explorations are at their most extreme in two works found here, one of which is a watercolor by George Dibble who was quite taken with Cubism (figure); the other is by Lynn Berryhill (figure).

George Dibble (19041992) studied at the Art Students League in New York and went on to receive his BA and MFA degrees from Columbia University. It was at Columbia that he came to study Cezanne and Cubism-both of which had lasting influences on his art. His works often show both a recognizable subject painted in moderately cubistic style and abstract, organic areas forming the sky and the water. In Temple of Sinewawa (figure), Dibble is at his most angular and cubistic with brick, brown, and black rocks and diagonal shocks of blue and green that seem shaken, as if caught in the midst of an earthquake. The neutral area framing this active scene contains and mollifies the energy. As with much modern art, acceptance for this style of painting was mixed. But Dibble's watercolor paintings are highly regarded in Utah today.

In 1993, Lynn Berryhill (1948-) painted Canyon of the Possible (figure). Berryhill's painting is a gestural vortex of looping skeins of color that pulls us into the canyon where our imaginations are free to soar. Hers is a vertical painting; she perceived Zion as a vertical place. It is interesting to examine the horizontal versus the vertical views of Zion.

In an age-old dance, artists wrestle with expressing their inner vision and yet creating art for an appreciative -- more importantly, a buying -- public. If we could be here at the time of Zion's bicentennial, one wonders what forms art will take. Will we recognize the national parks we love? What will museums be like and what will they contain? Artist Kathy Cieslewicz, dancer Lindsy Stewart Cieslewicz, and videographer Dan Whalen collaborated to express their unique ideas in Sensing Zion, a video installation created for the exhibition "A Century of Sanctuary."

Award-winning Chinese artist Chen Chi (1912­2005), painted an extraordinarily soft, vaporous, and enigmatic work (figure) in 1967. In it a stand of white-barked trees, bursting from a haze of golden plants, is placed in the foreground. The branches thrust up together and impede our way into Zion. The red hills under a pale blue sky look as if they would melt away in a rain.

Chi grew up at a time when China was opening to Western influences and studied painting at a school that emphasized Western techniques. His style incorporates the aesthetics of both East and West in his work, a blend best expressed in the water-like shimmer of his painting of Zion. Chi immigrated to the United States in 1947.

Arizona artist Barbara Gurwitz's (1942-) large canvas, Hogback at the Curve of the Road, Zion from the West (figure), exhibits her joyous and colorful view of nature. Van Gogh's paintings were a major influence on her work. A Regionalist element is evident in her richly colored, flowing fields, hills, trees, and clouds intersected only by the fence and spikes of Zion's peaks.

The paintings by Colton, Berryhill, and Gurwitz, the only women artists represented in this historical overview, are among the most adventurous artworks in the collection in terms of exploration of color and medium.

Several of the later works included here were done by Utah artists Robert Shepherd, Floyd Breinholt, and Gaell Lindstrom. They each created a habitable Zion, a tamed, transformed place. They even chose vantage points that are remarkably similar. Along with a fifth painter, Ferrell Collett, they all made St. George their home.

Robert Shepherd (1909-1991) is noted for his work on Cecil B. DeMille's movie The Ten Commandments, in addition to his Mormon Church murals in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles. He retired in Santa Clara, Utah, where he continued to paint western scenes, mostly in watercolor. Winter In Zion (figure) is exemplary of his work.

Floyd Breinholt (1915-1997) was a respected art teacher at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He retired to St. George, where he painted until the end of his life. His Fall in Zion (figure), is one of twelve artworks of historical significance to be painted for The Legacy, a Utah centennial project that documented the history of southern Utah in both literary and visual forms.

Gaell Lindstrom (1919-) studied with George Dibble and went on to earn a MFA degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. Lindstrom's accomplished watercolors show an amazing mastery of the technique. A November Day at Grafton (figure) is a reminder that Zion was a home to settlers, albeit a harsh one, long before it became a national park. This painting is also a part of The Legacy project. Lindstrom spent time in China and produced some Asian-inspired watercolors. He taught at the College of Southern Utah in Cedar City, and at Utah State University in Logan.

Farrell Collett's undated watercolor Red Rocks of Zion presents an unusual vantage from above looking down (figure). Though Collett (1907-2000) is generally known for his oil paintings of wildlife, he continued to explore art techniques in different mediums throughout his life, painting everything from near abstracts to representational pieces. He studied at Brigham Young University, the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, and the Art Institute of Chicago, and went on to become an esteemed teacher at Weber State University.

Sunlit Cliffs in Zion Canyon, a 2000 watercolor by Wallace Lee (1933-2005), demonstrates the similarity of Lee's technique for painting rocks to that of Gunnar Widforss'. A talented painter, he found his signature style late in life after a full career as a dentist in Panguitch, Utah. Splashes of color become veined shrubs and trees, as light and dark areas pattern the scene. He is an artist, like Colton, who is able to combine both earth and pastel tones.

Roland Lee (1949-), an accomplished transparent watercolorist, is an icon in the St. George art community. He has painted Zion many times over the last thirty years, and West Temple is one of his finest. The dark, rolling hills of the foreground create a base out of which the West Temple soars into the sunshine. Cloud formations arch over this distinctive landmark like a rainbow.

Appropriately, the final image in this historical overview is Stars Over Zion (figure), a beautiful and richly detailed black-and-white photograph by California-born artist, William Shepley (1953-). Shepley took this several-hour exposure from the head of Zion canyon near the Temple of Sinewawa. The stars revolve around Polaris, the North Star, flanked in this image by steep, craggy canyon walls. Since 1976, Shepley has been photographing the Colorado Plateau in addition to his explorations of the ranching and equestrian traditions of the West. The latter came to fruition in his ten-year study resulting in the book Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls. While earning a geology degree from Humboldt State University in California, Shepley simultaneously studied photography. He is known for capturing the western landscape in inky blacks and cottony whites.


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Many of us share a profound connection with the landscape -- especially in places like Zion where the name itself is weighted with meaning. In America, land has often been thought of in one of two ways -- whether to exploit it and to what extent, or whether to leave it pristine. The continuing influx of population to the West already strains the carrying capacity of these arid lands. Long ago the artist Thomas Cole (1801-1848) wrote these words, which are still relevant today: "The ravages of the axe are daily increasing -- the most noble scenes are made desolate . . . the wayside is becoming shadeless." (Lewis 2006, 93)

Zion is a brilliant star in the constellation of Utah's extraordinary national parks. Its majesty has long inspired a wide range of artists to create a stunning visual history. Together with all of the national parks that we citizens jointly own, Zion continues to provide artists and visitors alike with solace and a much needed link with the natural world. America's national parks are magical places. Artists have played a pivotal role in their preservation. It behooves each of us to do our part as well.


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Zion National Park is located in red rock country at the western boundary of the Colorado Plateau, an area rich with national parks and monuments. A forty-five-minute drive from St. George, Utah, one and one-half hours from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, three hours from Bryce Canyon National Park, and two hours north of Las Vegas, Nevada, on the north-south corridor of Interstate 15, which follows a much older route that once linked Salt Lake City with Los Angeles.



About the author

Deborah Reeder is Manager and Curator of the St. George Art Museum.

Resource Library editor's note

The above essay was published February 25, 2016 in Resource Library with permission of the author and Zion Natural History Association. The essay was written to accompany the exhibit A Century of Sanctuary: The Art of Zion National Park, on view at the St. George Art Museum from August 25, 2008 to January 31, 2009. Permission was granted to TFAO on January 19, 2016. Images of artworks referred to in the text as "figures" are not included, however the virtual guide referenced below provides images.

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