Petrified Forest, Relationships Grouped: “Natural Monuments”

As I have been stumbling to explain, my plein air experience is infinitely larger, more amazing and important, than my plein air paintings. It’s inevitable, the smells, the sights, the history, the culture, geology, geography, the wind and sun and sky — only tiny bits of this can be encompassed in any single painting. And so, trying to give a slightly greater insight into the experiences of the paintings, I have grouped seventeen of them from the Petrified Forest into five “sets.”¬† My hope is that each of these sets has its own “verse” which then resounds into a greater chorus of the whole.

I’m going to go through the sets, one at a time, over the next couple of weeks. This is set #1, “Natural Monuments”:

Natural Monuments: Petrified Logs, The Tepees, Blue Mesa Hoodoo, Oil on masonite, 2010

These are all paintings I’ve shown previously as individual paintings. These three have a similarity of style, which is due to the way I painted them, of course, but is also related to the nature of the formations themselves. The Logs are the smallest of the “monuments,” being about 3 — 5 feet in length. The Tepees are the largest, perhaps 200–300 feet high. The Hoodoos are perhaps 6 –8 feet. And yet each stands apart from its neighbors, forming some kind of isolated grandeur. The logs are not eroded; they are hard minerals. But the hoodoo and the Tepees are both part of the formations that wind and water sculpt and shape, the hoodoos of hardish sandstone, the Tepees of concentrated ash and clay.

So these are all of a kind and yet differentiated and isolated, grand in their separate ways. As the first set, they practically chose themselves.

In general, the pulling together of the sets was remarkably easy. In part, the colors helped choose the sets, but in part, the landscape and environment forced the style of the painting.

This is the formalists’ heresy, that the style comes from outside the painter. Yet, for the plein air painter not to be manipulated by the¬† scene she is painting seems unfathomable to me. Just as I manipulate the scene, the scene forces me to paint in particular ways. It’s a mutual act, which results in a third thing — neither my vision nor the landscape itself, but something that is a force from both.

More next time. –June

In the continuation, I have the separate views of each of these paintings.

The Blue Mesa Hoodoo, 16 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2011.

Petrified Logs, 16 x 12″, Oil on masonite, 2010

The Tepees, 24 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

PEFO Paintings, Mostly Finished.


I promised to provide updates to this blog as I worked in my Portland, Oregon, studio on the Arizona Petrified Forest National Park Paintings. I am in the process of moving this WordPress.com blog, pages and posts, to my website, but until that process is completed and ready for public consumption, I thought I would continue here.

The following paintings are mostly finished. At the moment I seem to have 17 acceptable paintings which I am moving around into various groupings to see what works best. Here are the 17, in alphabetical order.

Agate House, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010.

This is one of the two structures in the park made from the petrified wood that litters the landscape (most of the Puebloan buildings are constructed out of sandstone, not petrified wood). It was “restored” in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and is not considered an authentic artifact. The original dated to the 1250’s and was built by Puebloan peoples, part of the language group that Mesa Verdi and Chaco Canyon National Parks feature. I was fascinated by the grasses, the petrified logs along the path, and the structure, high on the hill.

The Bidahochi and Chinle Formations, 24″ x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010. This is the big geological unconformity in the park, where the volcanic Bidahochi, 10 million years old, meets the Chinle, 225 million years old.

Blue Mesa Hoodoo, 16 x 12″, Oil on masonite, 2010.

The hoodoos are weird wind-and-water eroded features. In the Petrified Forest, they are often blue-gray, but when the waning sun hits them, they turn golden. The Blue Mesa trail is one of the best in the Park. This painting is an unconformity all its own, having a style very unlike most of the work I did at PEFO. It resembles most closely paintings I made in Death Valley, up some of the side canyons, where the features are sculpted and golden.

Lacey Point, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010.

One of the pull-out points where the Painted Desert is the predominate item of interest. Here the clouds caught me in their spell; the badlands faded beneath the skies. This view was recommended to me by a park service staff member, but the time of day she recommended painting it surprised me with its colors.

Long Logs Trail, 12 x 24″, oil on masonite, 2010.

The Long Logs Trail was once a macadam road, although that doesn’t show here (I have photos and think sometimes of painting that unconformity). I suspect the road was turned into a walking trail not long ago because as a roadside attraction, the innumerable petrified logs were tempting for poachers. Vehicle passage near them made poaching easier. This is just a guess. But the trail is a delight because it is not close to the current highway. And the lushness of the area around the littering logs was fun to paint.


Petrified Logs in the Visitor Center Plaza, 24 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010.

Sometimes the visitors don’t really want a drive through the park. The main visitor’s center is just off Interstate 40 and can be entered without going into the park.The plaza that the Center and a gift shop/cafe that surround it have charming bits of petrified wood, including one 20-some foot log. The Visitor’s Center Building, across the Plaza from the log still life, is pictured below.

The Neutra Plaza, Main Visitor Center, 12 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

The Visitor’s Center’s main doors are at the end of a long wall, facing the parking lot. Beyond the doors is the open entrance to the Plaza, and the petrified wood displays face the incoming traffic. At the far end, the plaza has a pond and artworks and is open to an artificial but pleasant desert hillock that hides the employees quarters. The cafe and gift shop run along the other edge, stopping short of the welcoming entrance. This view looks at the windows of the Center which face the Plaza, opening up the small interior to give it a sense of the Arizona sky and foliage. I painted it just as dusk was coming on.

Painted Desert Inn, 12 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

The PDI, as everyone referred to it, is an historic structure, built over an older structure by the CCC guys and decorated by a well-known designer of Spanish Revival style Park buildings. These spanish revival buildings and decor can be seen in many places around the southwest. The PDI was almost torn down in the 1970’s but was saved.

Painted Desert Inn, North Side, 12 x 16″, Oil on masonite, 2010

The PDI sits on a bluff overlooking the badlands of the Chinle Formation. I got fascinated with the challenge  of painting adobe (or in this case, faux adobe.) The building has, I think, at least 10 levels of roof, each of which is a subtly different color of rose-pink.

Storm from the Painted Desert Inn Patio, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010

Inside the PDI is a covered porch that protects a bit against the wind and rain that can gust through the park. Through its adobe openings, the Chinle and Bidahochi formations are presented, against a wide wide sky. Painting within the protected porch while gazing outward was magical.

Pintado Point 1, 12 x 16″, Oil on masonite, 2010,

The badlands of the Chinle formation.

Pintado Point 2, 12 x 24″, oil on masonite, 2010.

Another view of the badlands, with the washes, which were important as roads, depicted. In both these paintings, Pilot Rock stands, as it stood for explorers, as a way to take one’s bearings.

Puerco River Meadow, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010

We were at the Petrified Forest in an exceptionally lush year for foliage. This scene was painted right next to the Puerco Ruins, which sit on a hill above the Puerco River. We saw water running in the river several times during our stay.

Puerco Ruins, 12 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010.

The ruins here date to about 1250 AD, and like those elsewhere in the southwest such as Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon are from a Puebloan people who left the area for reasons that are unclear. Current Pueblo people say these are ancient habitations of their ancestors. The Navajo who are now more prevalent in the area arrived some hundreds of years later and spoke a different language than the Puebloans.

Route 66, 12 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

The Petrified Forest Park is full of unconformities, but the one that stands out, both in the painting and at the park is this reconstructed old car, placed prominently on a pull-out where Interstate 40 roars by.

The Painted Desert Inn from Tawa Point, 12 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010.

PDI takes on its proper place in the area when viewed Tawa Point. It blends into the landscape and reveals the true small nature of its historic status.

The Teepee, 24 x 12″, oil on masonite, 2010

The Teepee painting has a couple of funny stories attached, but for my purposes here, it’s another of the badland features of the park, less complex than the Painted Desert, but fascinating in its stature.

These paintings will be grouped for exhibit. That’s the process I am currently working on in the studio — that and painting the 1/8 inch edges of each, as well as planning for their mounting, floated, so they can be readily hung. — June

Petrified Forest Residency: A concluding remark or two, in Context

I have been shilly-shallying about writing this conclusion for close to a month now. And it’s not because I don’t know what I want to say. I think it’s because I can summarize or I can expostulate, and while the first is almost too brief, the latter is too turgid.

So here are some silly opening thoughts:

1. I could never live for long in the desert. Hat- qua- Desert Hair is a serious problem.

June, in desert hat, in Portland Oregon. Note she is not displaying what happens to her hair after she wears the hat.

2. The artist-in-the-park is considered picturesque and scenic, even while grimacing over her inability to get the reds just right. Tourists will take photos, openly and surreptitiously. Some pretend they are photographing elsewhere, but the artist knows. Many will ask permission, and then the standard answer is¬† “my best side is from behind.” Which is merely the truth.

3. The Petrified Forest views, indeed most “landscape” views, are not what they appear, even when one reads the Park Service signs. The unconformities, depriving one of easy impressions, are everywhere.

(Note the now-closed outhouse at the left end of the old Puebloan walls: the Park Service changed its mind about this building’s use. This is a painting that will be revised slightly but the outhouse will remain. This view is Draft 1 of the Puerco Pueblo Ruins, Oil on masonite, 12 x 16, 2010

3. Places are seldom without human presence, although that presence may have gone away long ago:

Route 66 and Interstate 40, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2010. The Park Service pull-over where this car is located is just over the hill from the Puerco Puebloan ruins. They date to about 1100 AD.

4. Parks are full of people who want something, but it’s a bit unclear what they want — mostly to get back into their cars and see if what they want is over the hill.

The last remark is unfair to most of the folks I met in the park. Mostly they seem to want to know and to see, and they do their best, given the limits that time, energy, life, and travel by motor vehicle provide.

But it’s that thought, that people want more but don’t know what “more” might consist of, that leads me to what I came to realize about my own approach to land-and-urban-scapes.¬† To summarize: what excites me most about the painting I do is knowing — physically and mentally — the context of what I’m painting. And then trying to find ways to incorporate that “context” into the painting — or, barring that, into the presentation of the painting.

This isn’t a new approach for me — it’s just a new recognition of my own desires (like the tourist who wants more, I want more than just an oil rendition of an astonishing geological/geographical/city scene spectacle). To prove that I have been working on what I will call “context” for some years, here are a few old paintings from the files:

Mine Shaft, Basin, Montana, 7 x 9″, oil on masonite, 2007

Circling, SE Alder and 6th, 30 x 40″, Oil on canvas, 2008

Bloomtime, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2008

Gold Point Playa, 12 x 16″, oil on masonite, 2009

But most of Context, even the immediate sort, is impossible in the strictly visual arts. Even more so in a single painting. I can’t figure out how to get the smell of dusty sagebrush and blooming rabbitbush into my paintings no matter how often the wind blows bits into the oils. The sounds might be recovered by a tape recorder — and I’m seriously thinking about investigating digital tape recorders for my future efforts. Taping the sounds of a seemingly pure landscape might be one context worth considering — truck traffic,¬† valley-girl gossip of the nearby viewers, the ravens scolding and begging, the crunch of gravelled paths.

So that’s one context consideration — perhaps a tape of the entire painting time — boring but only needing to be encountered in segments by the viewer might add the context and enrich the experience of the viewer.

But the larger context — historical, geological — unconformities, pit houses, the Colorado Plateau Uplift — these are somewhat larger and harder to convey. And yet, and yet, I want to convey them.

So that’s what I learned at the Petrified Forest — that while I am painting, I am considering not just the scene in front of me but all the context around it that I can take in: that the area is at the edge of the Colorado Plateau, features three basic areas (low grass prairie, Painted Desert badlands, and petrified wood), has had the feet of humans crossing it and possibly living in it since 2000 years before Christ (BCE), has public displays of ruins of structures that date from 1100 AD, has a wash that was used as a trail by surveyors in 1853 and acted as a trail for many thereafter, features Route 66 memorabilia, has Interstate 40 running through it, has two petrified wood structures (one built by Puebloan Peoples in 1100, one built by a local hotelier in the 1920’s), both modified in the 1930’s by CCC guys who were from Philadelphia which is in my home state), and so on and on.

The Painted Desert from Pintado Point, 12 x 24″, oil on masonite, 2010

The difference between walking through a gorgeous landscape, sitting and looking at a marvelous view, and applying paint to canvas to simulate the gorgeous, marvelous landscape in order to make a plein air “landscape” is monumental. Sitting and walking have certain similarities. Sitting and painting have other similarities. But actually, each is a different experience. And then one adds in all the hours and years and millenia that that landscape has experienced, and one might very well simply throw in the towel.

But egoist that I am, I believe that my art is worth doing only if I try to incorporate even the teeniest bit of my experience and knowledge into it, giving it a different context from what the tourist next to me experienced. I do this for myself, and then I hope that it becomes part of others’ “landscape” and allows them to linger a bit longer than they might otherwise.

Pintado Point, above, is not only the landscape I saw often, driving north along the Petrified Forest’s highway, where you come around a corner and over a bit of a hill and Bam! there it is. It is also the tail end of a large set of badlands called The Painted Desert in this area of Arizona, most of which is outside the park. It also contains fossils that are 225 million years old — “Triassic Park” as Jer and others like to call it because an early dinosaur fossil¬† has been found in these formations. The badlands are also the last remains of geological features,¬† about 215 million years of them, which have disappeared. This is the Park’s great unconformity, where the dark basaltic area in the forefront is about 10 million years old and the drop-off goes immediately to the 225 million-year-old territory.

I could go on and on about the Painted Desert, and this painting (as yet I haven’t mentioned the raven, nor the Park Service employees, nor the way the wind blew nor the cold that was starting to creep into these early morning escapades). Most of what I could go on about, as well as what I just mentioned, can’t be seen in the painting.

But I’m hoping that when taken together with other paintings from the Petrified Forest, if presented carefully and with nuances made available, that this single painting will take on something other than mere bright oil on canvas.

This is perhaps heretical and certainly hubristic — that a small bit of painted masonite could ever be other than just that. It’s only something I want, not something I think other painters should want to do or try to do or even be interested in doing. Yet I continue to want to share what I know of the place and the space and the time, insofar as it is possible, however limited that possibility might be.

That’s what I learned at the Petrified Forest (as well as the history of Route 66, the 1930’s CCC rules, and the ravens’ disgust when the artist has no treats for them.) And that’s why I am playing around with ways to present the paintings that I did there, so as to expand and enrich the way each means and is seen.

[A possible plan for presentation of PEFO paintings, Oct 3, 2010. Laid on the back patio of our apartment because there was no way to check it out in an upright position.] As I continue to work on the paintings I did at the Petrified Forest in my Portland studio, I will update this blog, both with finished and decently photographed work and with the presentation(s) that I am ruminating on. So this conclusion is only the idea of a conclusion: the real conclusion, in Context, is yet to come.