Before dawn on a crisp November morning artist Roland Lee climbs in his camper truck and drives to a special place he’s already scoped out in Zion National Park. On this day he’s not alone as two other artists soon arrive and hurriedly set up their outdoor painting easels. From a lofty perch at the edge of a switchback on Bridge Mountain they are set up to capture the first rays of yellow sunlight about to explode on the broad face of Zion’s West Temple. Anticipation is high, knowing they must work quickly to capture the changing light. If all goes well, their paintings will be framed, hung, and sold by Friday night.
These artists are part of a group of art enthusiasts who call themselves “plein air” painters. “En plein air” is a term attributed to the 19th century French Impressionists whose desire to capture the light drew the artists outdoors where they painted the landscape “in the open air.”
Twenty-four nationally-known plein air painters have been selected from a field of applicants to participate in the annual Zion National Park Plein Air Art Invitational, now in its 10th year. The Invitational is a cooperative effort between Zion National Park and their official non-profit partner, the Zion National Park Forever Project.
The plein air event takes place November 5-11 when the weather is cool, the crowds are down, and the bright reds and yellows of Autumn decorate Zion canyon. It can best be described as a week-long love-fest for both painters and collectors who revel in the smorgasbord of free daily programs including one-hour painting demonstrations from every artist, nightly seminars, and a popular silent auction.
Roland Lee has been painting Zion for 40 years and is one of the event’s charter artists, having been involved since the beginning. “It’s one of the nation’s best outdoor events,” he said, “and there is an energizing comradery between painters and collectors not found anywhere else.”
That energy is especially evident during the daily live artist demonstrations where eager onlookers sit comfortably in an outdoor location watching and asking questions as each artist develops a plein air painting on the spot.
“Where else can a person watch 24 separate painting demonstrations by nationally respected artists, all in one place—for free?” commented Barbara Aikens, a collector who has attended the show many times.
Often, attendees stay in the Park several days, or even all week so they can better absorb the whole experience. From dawn to dusk each day artists can be seen painting throughout Zion, and they don’t mind park visitors stopping for a quick visit while they work. All paintings created on location during the invitational are offered for sale by week’s end.
On Saturday and Sunday, more than150 framed paintings created during the week or for sale to the public in the auditorium of the Zion Human History Museum. There’s also the Saturday paintout, a timed event where all the invited artists paint together in one outdoor location and have just a few hours to complete a finished painting. Collectors hustle around to view all the paintings in progress and be the first to buy a piece on the spot.
One rewarding aspect, noted an attendee, is seeing the variety of painting styles coupled with different artist’s personalities. Bruce Gomez, pastelist, is a favorite with the audience for his quick wit and impromptu antics. Michelle Condrat is a popular young artist with creative contemporary linear paintings. Arlene Braithwaite, a pastelist, graciously chats with watchers as if they have been friends for years. And then there’s oil painter Stephen Stauffer, who can break into a cowboy song or start yodeling at any time. Jim Wodark is an oil painter who doesn’t yodel, but his paintings have won several top plein air awards in 2018 including Plein Air Magazine’s $15,000 top prize. Royden Card’s thoughtful, poetic nature belies his bold colorful acrylics, while this year’s featured artist, Bill Cramer, seems to just blink his blue eyes and an enthusiastic audience shows up to see his amazing paintings.
Just as varied as the personalities are the painting styles ranging from traditional realism to vibrant impressionism presented in oils, acrylics, pastels, and watercolor. Oils are the preferred medium of James McGrew, George Handrahan, Greg Stocks and Cody DeLong whose competent landscapes are all past award winners. Shanna Kunz, one of Utah’s best-known oil painters, also works in oils, along with popular local artist Mary Jabens, a show favorite. Michelle Usibelli creates her spectacular impressionistic paintings in both oils and acrylics, while John Cogan’s dramatic landscape masterpieces are done exclusively in acrylics. Exciting newcomers this year are oil painters Kimball Geisler, Bonnie McGee, Lewis Williams, Suzie Baker, and Richard Boyer. Veteran participant Roland Lee paints primarily in transparent watercolor as do skilled watercolorists Suze Woolf, Meredith Nemirov, and Rick Kinateder, who each present a different approach to the challenging medium.
Event proceeds go to the Zion National Park Forever Project to support important initiatives in the park including the successful Zion Youth Education Initiative which creates opportunities to bring school children into the park and have a potentially life-changing educational experience.
“This is one of our premier fundraising programs,” said Mark Preiss, director of the Zion Forever Project. “Both participating artists and collectors who purchase their works contribute substantially to our efforts in improving the facilities and enhancing visitors’ experience in Zion Park.”
Lyman Hafen, Executive Director of the Zion Forever Project, said, “Art has a very firm place in the history of Zion Canyon and in the story that led to it becoming a National Park. Today, artists, donors, sponsors and visitors continue that rich tradition, preserving the wonder that is Zion National Park for future generations, and enhancing the experience of everyone who comes here.”
Although the public art events are free, park entry fees still apply. More information on the Zion National Park Plein Air Art event is available here or by calling 435-772-3264