That summer, we set out partially for a family vacation, but also in search for inspiration. The destination was the “west,” or what Dad called “the wild,” far from our oak and pine tree-covered corner of the Northeast. It was my mothers’ idea; she, the architect-turned-artist of the family, decided that in the desolation of the sun-baked clay, she and I would find the subject of a new series of paintings. Setting out in our rented car, we didn’t really know what to expect—would there really be “deserts” and “caverns” like in the westerns, little shacks along the road where old men drank beer and splayed out their feet on the porch, gazing out across dust and childhood dreams?
We drove along the dusty roads to the rhythm of flying asphalt where silence manifested into its own resounding presence, here and everywhere across the desert. Our destinations in mind were the usual tourist attractions: the Grand Canyons in Arizona, Zion National Park in Utah, Glen Canyon and Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, Death Valley in California. We didn’t really know what to expect. Even the photographs we’d seen before were as foreign as the names of the places were formidable—“death” valley, “grand”, or even “Zion”—and demanded a certain fear and reverence even prior to a first encounter. As we drove, often mindlessly, we saw the earthen colors of a raw, beautiful land whizz past the car windows like a palette knife on canvas—the rough, dry texture of burnt umber and sienna scratching the ground in grasses and shrubs, greens of the cacti and underbrush, reds of the rocks folded like sheets in some mysterious pastry whose recipe was now lost, and blues of the mysterious lakes and vast skies that reflected back the golden hues of the sun as if they were eyes that could see.
In and around the canyons of Glen Canyon and Lake Powell there are countless rainbows after showers across interminable skies. Climbing up on top a small plateau on the side of the road, it was possible, in a sense, to touch one, because the clouds sometimes seemed so low, and the rainbows to reach the ground. In this sort of atmosphere, the impossible seemed possible due to the strange distorted perceptions of distance in the open air. Clouds became close, while shadows became objects and not mere distortions of light.
You could see the rain falling from rain columns, a distinct shape and condensed structure, with the one lonely ominous cloud that created it, while the sun still dominated the greater scene. I had never been so close to being afraid of rocks, but the canyons in Zion Park are of a different sort. Driving or hiking along sharp and strenuous canyon paths that constantly circled next to a constant abyss, through tunnels and out again, the jagged rocks surrounded you from all sides and angles. Often, the shapes of the rocks seemed cruel, as if in their old age they showed wrinkled signs of what they once suffered in their youth, but even so, their form is alive, and stands with such forbidding majesty that we cannot help but admire their undulating forms, that seem to have motion even in their stoic solidity. After driving back late after a day’s worth of excursions, we found ourselves looking back to the Zion canyons in the distance in a veil of blue-gray twilight— they became flat origami mountains in distinct magentas and indigos with a white moon overlooking her children.
The Grand Canyons of Arizona deserve their name. Far from suffering the fate of so many national monuments that become industries of artificiality, the Grand Canyons still breathe deeply with giant primitive breaths that seem to uphold the sky itself, even while it continues to take our breaths away. Each day, the sun starts early in simmering rocks into smoldering layers of pink and blue, the colors of an early dawn. In the late afternoon, it transposes to a different key, a redness that is pure and indescribable because it doesn’t seem to come from outside, but rather grows from some internal source within, and so heats the landscape and colors the faces of all who glance upon it. There is an agelessness about the place, a certainty, an aliveness. In contrast, in the Badwater Basin in California’s Death Valley, there is a silence, but not of fear, 282 feet below sea level. On days when the dry heat is well over 110 degrees, it is a flat expanse that has no boundaries and no horizons, just white everywhere as if we are lost in a dream from which we cannot escape.
Standing on the plateaus, looking down to the canyons, we tried to explain how we felt in little notebooks and sketchbooks faded by sun. I tried to “capture the essence” using words, phrases, poetry, sketches and drawings to keep a piece of the feelings I felt for myself. My mother took many photographs, in order to capture physically the images she saw in her mind, so she could paint the scene later in the convenience of her studio.
Despite the hard sun, my mother often sat down to sketch different trees, shapes, landscapes that affected her. The goal was to capture it all in sketches or photographs, to remember and so to preserve it later in a painting. Everyone took the time to see—to see in a way that was not purely looking, but experiencing, taking it in and breathing it just like the canyons did. And at that moment, it seemed that recreating the landscape was plausible, that here we were, and that in a couple weeks back home, the canyons would still be with us.
John Ruskin, the celebrated art critic, writer, and social thinker of the English Victorian era was obsessed with possibility of possessing beauty. He believed that only way to possess beauty was by understanding it, by truly seeing the landscape, or interpreting it to create meaning as it relates to oneself. Ruskin argued that—although some ways of possessing beauty such as taking photographs with a camera fail in their attempt to do so, as it takes effort away from truly understanding it through visual and psychological means—the possession of beauty is evidently possible, if attempted in the right way. He taught students to take their time to really see the landscape in front of them, instead of merely looking. In one example, he would like down in a meadow and draw each blade of grass until every piece of the meadow became a possession to him through intense scrutiny and observation that can only come through time and effort, and a psychological willingness to truly see and understand the landscape.
A couple weeks after returning home, my mother sat down one day in her studio to try and capture on her canvas what she had felt standing on the plateau that day, the awe and exhilaration at having been captured by the splendor of the canyons. She couldn’t. Even with the help of the drawings she had thought could successfully capture her emotions and sense of the landscape’s beauty, the feeling was not the same. The special essence that had made the scene so impressive while we were there had been lost. Seeing, understanding, and interpreting to make it ours, and only ours. And naively we thought, that should have been enough.
Even though we had taken the time to see it with our own eyes, to filter it and understand the details through our eyes, mind, and body, somewhere, somehow, a defining part of the “essence” of the landscape was lost to us, the crucial sense that invoked completely our five senses and our minds, and that had made the landscape so splendid to begin with. So when we went home with our sketches and photographs, much of that essence of beauty and awe could not be felt again—only the acknowledgement that yes, at that moment, we felt such feelings of the sublime, but try as we did to remember, it could not come to us in the same way that it had, in nature. The essence of those feelings had stayed back along with the actual landscape itself.
I have come to understand from my own experiences that the landscape and the experience that comes along with it actually cannot ever be contained or preserved or “possessed”. The essence that we had received from the landscape falls back and returns to the soil and the air that created it. It is a fact, regardless of which method one uses—beauty, once lost and taken away from the original elements in which it existed, cannot be the same, much like a flower on a stem, cut and put in a vase indoors away from the natural soil and lighting it once lived in.
It is not to say that drawing does not have its benefits—by not only seeing, but also “interpreting” the landscape through our own eyes and minds (as eyes are not enough), we are also seeing and understanding the landscape on a different level, and it allows us to appreciate it even more. It allows us a window into our own souls, less of a window to the original essence given to us by the landscape. A drawing is not a reproduction of the landscape; a good piece of art simply derives inspiration from the landscape, and after an understanding by the artist from the inside-out whereas the original landscape captured us from the outside-in, creates something new entirely. So to use drawing as a medium for which to possess a piece of the landscape is inherently impossible. Such a landscape cannot ever be “possessed” and that is partially what creates, in this case, its essence of magnificence, beauty, and splendor.
Perhaps the goal is to not possess the landscape, but let it instead possess us, if but for the moment. “The desert,” said the French poet Edmond Jabès in The Book of Questions, “is a space where one step gives way to the next, which undoes it, and the horizon means hope for a tomorrow which speaks…You do not go to the desert to find identity, but to lose it, to lose your personality, to become anonymous….And then something extraordinary happens: you hear silence speak.”
There was something about the clouds that day in the canyons. They were casting shadows overhead, gentle giant forms breathing deep breaths and passing their weight liberally as if they were characters rolling through the waves of an atmospheric sea. We had written it down, sketched it, yet in the photographs and drawings there is not that perfect awe-inspiring combination of motion, of speed and weight that gave the moment its strongest essence. The best artistic interpretations, whether a painting or otherwise, could attempt to replicate the multiple dimensions and five senses, or reinvent the motion in a different way or interpret the sublimity of nature, but it cannot replace the full set of awe that is present while we are standing there, caught in the waves of the shadows, breathing deeply, just like the clouds.
Perhaps that is also why people travel, again and again, and it never gets old. They go in packs, they go alone, to see what they thought to have already seen before, to already have possessed if not by camera but by art, because all that is brought back by the eye or l’esprit has been watered down on the journey back, and we must once again bring ourselves to stand on the precipice, and look down, and hear, and smell, and feel the air, the sun, the view that surrounds us and goes through us, and possesses us, little insignificant figures in an infinite space of silence as colorful as the canyon itself.