Sunday, May 25, 2008


I'm in an internet cafe in Durango, where I'm waiting for John to arrive from Albuquerque. He'll drop off his rental car and we'll drive back to Mesa Verde. As it turns out, Durango is hopping, as the Ironman bicycle races are happening right outside the window. A strange combination of professional bicycle racers dressed in skin tight racing uniforms emblazoned with graphics and logos, and a parade of sequined, feathered and outrageously costumed riders, obviously not dressed for speed. Which is the more bizarre, I don't know.

After a few days of hail, snow and freezing wind, it's turned beautiful. Sunny and temperatures in the 70's. It's also Memorial Day weekend, so the park is very crowded. That's why I am so glad that I did get back to Wetherill Mesa yesterday, the last day the gates were closed. By the time I finished business in Cortez, and tore myself away from a very cool Indian marketplace at Far View (I bought a beautiful Puebloan bowl with a bat design directly from the woman who painted it) it was about 4:30 and the weather had begun to stabilize.

I was able to enjoy the drive up (and down) Wetherill much more this time, without the worrying tire pressure light. I thought, being the day before the road opened, that there would be a lot of park employees working on the mesa, but I passed no one on the long drive to the end, and when I reached the parking lot it was equally deserted. I decided to visit Step House. The trail, which starts right from the parking lot, was along a sandstone wall whose texture and color were beautiful to look at, and as it switched back afforded a view out to the horizon and the sandstone arch that sheltered Step House. I had decided that Long House was my favorite of the cliff dwellings, but I found myself being completely charmed with Step House. Large boulders of sandstone were intermingled with the walls of the dwelling, each of the textures equally beautiful. I was also surprised to see a large block of petroglyphs covering the side of one of the boulders. I sat with my back to the canyon and began a watercolor of the walls and windows. Every so often I would turn around and catch half a dozen turkey vultures circling by the opening. I was reluctant to leave, but wanted to revisit Long House, so finished the loop trail and got back in my car to drive past the DO NOT ENTER sign and down the tram road. Parking again at the trail head, I decided not to try to do any work, since the light was fading and I felt it was enough just to experience being in the dwelling by myself with no distractions. I walked the winding paved path through Juniper and Pinion Pine, making a bit of noise since it looked like good bear country. It smelled wonderful, as it does in most of the park, especially after a rain. At the top of the stairs I found some cactus blooming. Long House was quiet and peaceful, and felt very sheltered. I imagined the first inhabitants feeling that same sense of shelter. I found that the green pool from the spring at the back of the wall had gotten a little bigger due to the snow and rain, and I noticed the round holes the inhabitants had carved in the pool to collect the water. I dipped my hand in, wiping aside the green film of algae. The water underneath was clear, but when I put it to my face, it smelled sour. I decided not to drink it, but blessed myself with it. You never know....

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mesa Verde life

It's true, there is no internet or cell phone coverage in Mesa Verde, but a leaking tire on my car has made a trip into Cortez necessary. It wouldn't do to be stuck out on Wetherill Mesa with a flat. The compensation, though, is a stop at the Spruce Tree Cafe, a cool little internet cafe on Main St. And, as it's been snowing and hailing for the last couple of days (It was 85 degrees when I came) I'm going to see how the weather goes today before I head to Wetherill Mesa. So here's a chance to catch up....

I left Parker, CO and my cousins house on May 19 an hour later than planned, but I knew I would. But by 8 am I was headed south on 285 on my way to Mesa Verde. The views were incredible on the drive though the Rockies foothills, then across flat farmland and irrigation circles like those I had seen from the plane. Another winding climb through the San Juan Mountains and I then headed west. Finally the massive rock formation of Park Point came into view and I knew I was close to the entrance of Mesa Verde.

The park was quiet when I arrived at 7:30, as I would find it is every evening after the tour buses and RVs leave. Turkey vultures roosted in the trees and circled the canyon behind headquarters, and in watching them, I caught my first startling view of a cliff dwelling, Spruce House, in the setting sun of the canyon wall opposite. Every one of the red sandstone park buildings was closed and I wandered, looking for anyone in a stiff brimmed hat to ask where I could find historic hogan #37.
Finally I remembered one of the rangers in charge of the program, Coella, had said she lived in stone house #4 if I needed anything. Across the street from headquarters were about a dozen square stone houses, so I walked among them till I found #4, knocked and got directions to a service road I had passed. I drove the short rutted dirt road reading the numbers on the small round dwellings. Number 37 is nearest the road, but set below and hidden in the trees.

I entered a dark, low ceilinged porch with a stone slab floor and a primitive fireplace at the far end. The door of old dark planks was padlocked, but on further examination, it wasn’t clicked shut so I slipped it out and entered a clean, sky lit white interior.

Monday I met with the rangers to file the required paperwork for my backcountry privileges and found that not only did I have a key to my hogan, but the other keys on my chain unlocked the gates to any road or cliff dwelling in the park! All I had to do was file a backcountry permit and notify dispatch where I was going. Of course I couldn’t enter the spaces in the cliff dwellings that were roped off, since they are too fragile for foot traffic, but I can have a cliff dwelling all to myself after the tourists go home. In fact, this week I can have an entire Mesa (Wetherill) to myself since the road is closed until the 25th. But I have the key to the gate! This is a rare privilege that I hadn't expected but am very grateful to the park for.

After paperwork was taken care of, I did the touristy things, took a Balcony House tour, wandered around headquarters looking for a good place to have my charcoal drawing class I am giving as part of the program, toured Spruce House, drove the Mesa loop and got out at every overlook. It was 85 degrees and I could feel the water evaporate from my body as soon as I drank it.

I returned to the hogan and decided it was time to begin work, so I brought my watercolors a few hundred feet from the hogan to where the Spruce Canyon Trail exits the canyon. There the sandstone curves to close off the canyon and I sit on the flat rocks at the canyon’s end. It’s then that I notice how quiet it is. I never realized how much noise birds wings make -- I hear the fluttering before I see them and almost feel if I should duck, they sound so loud. And I don’t thing there are more flies than usual, it’s just that I hear them coming ten feet away. No traffic, no electrical hum, no airplanes. Just the wind and the occasional critter.

On Tuesday I returned to the Spruce Canyon trail and found a ledge just over the trail that was cool and sheltered and worked for a few hours on a charcoal drawing.

Then it was off to headquarters again to file backcountry permits, submit a press release for my class, and be introduced to the staff. Although all the other parks I have been in have been very accommodating, this has got to be the friendliest park I’ve been to. Everyone seems genially happy to meet the “artist-in-residence”.

After dinner I decided to try the Interactive acrylics in a really cool abandoned picnic area in between my hogan and the “official” picnic area. The picnic tables are sagging, but still have their faded plastic red checked tablecloths. An old chuck wagon is parked on the canyon rim. It’s almost spooky here, the ghosts of picnics past seem to hover in the fading light, and the signature Mesa Verde question comes to mind...why was this place, once so full of life, suddenly abandoned?

Wednesday was my first trip “backcountry”. This was the first time my rental car decided to show a CHECK TIRE PRESS warning on the dash, and I debated the chances of getting stuck 14 miles over winding mountain roads on Wetherill Mesa. But I decided to risk it since my tires looked fine and I did have a park radio if I really got stuck. I drove to the Wetherill Mesa gate, two NPS vehicles were parked just up the road inside. Four padlocks locked the gate. I had only two keys. I got out and probably looked confused so one of the big white pickups backed up the road to the gate and another friendly park ranger got out and showed me how to unlock the gate. I still find it rather amazing that they seem happy to have an artist cluttering up the joint when they have work to do. So off I went, over the winding road that went steeply up and down, then overlooked Cortez, where I could get an amazing good cell phone signal, my first in the park.

Eventually I reached the end of the road, deserted parking lots and the tourist shelter. There one usually has to board a tram to the cliff dwellings, but since the trams weren’t running, I headed down the one lane road in my car. A wild fire had killed most of the trees on the end of the mesa, and the shapes they left were bizarre. Like driving through a house of horrors in limbo. At Long House I found a place to pull over, next to another shelter. Apparently the feral horses liked its shelter as much as the tourists did, as it was littered with piles of manure.

The walk down to Long House begins with a set of stairs, and then a paved path. The sandstone wall the path hangs from is carved in swirling shapes. Long House was quiet and beautiful. Two wheelbarrows and some buckets were the only sign that anyone had visited. From the dwelling I looked out to a beautiful view down the canyon. There was still water in the spring on the back wall, in many dwellings the springs had dried up due to drought. I sat at one end and drew for a few hours, reveling in the rare experience of spending time in a cliff dwelling, no one, as I thought, within miles. Then I heard 25 people laugh. I jumped up and looked over the edge and saw a ranger-led group just turning the corner on the path to the dwelling. I quickly dipped back in and continued to draw as they made their way closer, until the ranger’s head appeared at the top of the ladder that led to where I sat. It was the same ranger who had given the tour I had taken on Monday, and he told me that the group were seasonal rangers in training, which explained why they were there. I stayed for part of the tour, then headed back up to drive the rest of the loop and check out Kodak house and the overlooks. There is a one mile hike through the burnt trees on the Nordenskiold Site trail and I realized it was the perfect place to be able to sit and draw the trees. I sat on a fallen log and drew till a fierce cold wind picked up and it began to rain. I headed home, determined to return.


Sunday, May 18, 2008


It was a very clear day for flying and taking pictures on my way to Denver yesterday. I really enjoyed seeing how the patterns we humans have made on the face of the earth interacting with those we have not yet erradicated. Even in the hundreds of miles of plowed fields the natural patterns of the earth's surface seem more obvious than the grid pattern that farmers have etched over it.

The irrigation circles are always fun to see too.

After spending a great afternoon and evening with my uncle and cousin's family I'll begin the 7 hour drive to Mesa Verde. From the window I can see the snow capped Rockies on the horizon and I'm really looking forward to seeing the landscape from the road.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

November show

The dates of my one person exhibit at the Gail Cahalan Gallery in Providence have been set. The show will run from Nov 12 through Dec 6 and will include work from this series.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Mesa Verde easel

Here is my finished easel for Mesa Verde. I think it will work, but the proof will be on the mesa top. (click on photo to enlarge)

You can see how it's attached in the back. I just took my tripod the the hardware store and matched up a "t-nut", drilled a hole in a piece of lattice, inserted the nut and glued and nailed the lattice to a piece of luan, which is lighweight and strong. I had a metal banding strap that had a lot of holes already in it, so I screwed that over my t-nut, as it seemed like is would have worked itself out with a lot of use. It's not going anywhere now. I like the fact that I can tilt the canvas to almost any angle using the tripod head.

I then varnished the whole board, to make it waterproof and less likely to warp. I'm going to use big clips to attach my canvas. I think it will work best with canvas paper or board, but any configuration of canvas holder could be used by attaching the t-nut to it.

I added a shelf holder inspired by one for sale for $54. Mine is a lot rougher, but cheaper!

Friday, May 9, 2008

Nice paint at the Providence Art Club

I caught a couple of good shows yesterday at the Providence Art Club. I went to see an old RISD teacher of mine Dean Richardson's work. I enjoyed the lushness of the paint, although I found the spirit of them as opaque as he seemed to me, a 21 year old transfer student, as a teacher.
In the other gallery (in the old art supply store "Oakes on the Hill" where I spent many days trying to earn my way back to art school) I was taken with the work of Melissa Brown.

I was not surprised to see by her statement that her images are based on nature, as I think the best abstractions are. Both through May 16th.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Art supplies to go...

Here is another travel set I've made up for watercolors. I used a small cigar tin, but it also works well with a metal CD case, like the kind AOL used to send out way back when. I cut off the ends of the paint brushes, and stuck a little velcro on the handles and on the box so they don't move around and get bent bristles. A sliver of a flat sponge is also held on with velcro. This set will easily fit in a pocket, just add water and a small watercolor pad!

I've also made up 10 charcoal sets for the class I am going to teach in Mesa Verde. Each has soft, med and hard charcoal pencils, some soft vine charcoal, 3 kinds of erasers, a blade for sharpening, clips and some wipes for getting the charcoal off your hands after class. After all, charcoal drawing is a dirty business.

My tripod easel is coming along. I found t-nuts that fit the mounting bolt at the hardware store, and have attached one to a lightweight board, which I will mount to the tripod head. I think it just may work, and will post photos of it when finished. It should be pretty light and portable, more so than any of the travel easels I've owned or looked at.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Packing for Mesa Verde

This is the kit I've come up with for my Mesa Verde paintings. I'm going to try using a new product, acrylic "Interactive" paints by Chroma. I think they'll be more practical to travel with than oils, even though I never liked acrylics. These have a nice satin finish though, not plasticy at all, and can be wet down and reworked for about a day. I used an old cigar box and filled film canisters with my colors (If you go to a photo lab, they'll probably be happy to give you all you want and if you can find the canisters with the clear tops it makes it easy to find your colors) If the paint dries around the lids, it peels right off. I put a pack of palette paper in the lid.

Now I'm trying to rig up the perfect lightweight easel. I'm probably going to go with a modified tripod.

Friday, May 2, 2008


I'll be flying into Denver on my way to Mesa Verde in May, and since the park is over 7 hours from the airport I'm going to stay overnight with some long lost cousins just south of Denver. That gave me good motivation to finally scan photos from a shoebox full of negatives of the Hodge family from the 30s and 40s so I can make CDs to distribute when I arrive.

I'm really intrigued with discovering "lost" images from the past, and there was something magical about opening up the negative image and hitting the "invert" button to see the positive image appear. I don't know who some of these people were, but the patriachs should be able to clear some of that up.

You can see that my interest in images of crashed airplanes was inherited!
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