Sunday, June 25, 2017

Epic Adventure Painting at the Grand Canyon

Happy Birthday Michael Mayes!
In 2015 and 2016, I spent part of my summer working at Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Besides the breathtaking views and numerous opportunities to hike, I got to know some great people in this laid-back atmosphere. It was one part summer camp and one part living at a college dorm. Park friends became family in this environment.

One of my beautiful friends from Russia named Ilona commissioned me to do a special portrait of our co-worker Michael. His birthday is on June 25, and she asked me a few days in advance if I thought I might create this surprise birthday gift. Normally, I wouldn't do a portrait at such a short notice, but I agreed and set to work.

Beginnings of an "Epic" Painting

On the tiny table in my employee dorm room, I set up some my art supplies and began a small sketch of Michael looking at the Grand Canyon at sunset. I also began the background of the painting on my XL Canson Mixed Media pad, using a combination of acrylic paint and collage materials. Even though I travel around the country, I try to carry some art supplies with me. It might seem like "too much" to carry bits of collage fodder, but these seemingly insignificant things play an important part of my art journaling process. It feels worth it to carry some of these scraps along with my paints, pencils, art pads, etc.

Old Sheet Music circa 1920's

In the bottom right, I adhered a piece of old sheet music from a song called "Cabin in the Valley of the Pines." I believe it came from an antique hymn book from the 1920's. It was very fitting, since Michael, along with the rest of the housekeeping crew, worked so hard to clean the cabin rentals for Grand Canyon guests each day. Most of these cabins were built in the late 20's .North Rim is unique, as it is considered a "sky island" with a beautiful towering forest of Ponderosa pines, aspens and pinions. All of these magnificent trees are protected within the Kaibab National Forest and GC National Park. They are old growth trees that have never been logged. Although it can get hot in Arizona, we rarely saw the 100+ degree temps that others suffered through in the arid valleys. We also experienced monsoon season, which helped bring much-needed moisture and cooled things off. It also helps that the North Rim is at 8,297 ft elevation!

Towering Ponderosas, Grand Canyon North Rim
Photo by Sandra L. Martin - @creativecurrents
Sky Island of North Rim Grand Canyon, August 2015
Photo by Sandra L. Martin - @creativecurrents

Quivering Aspen in front of Western Cabin at Grand Canyon Lodge, Fall 2015
Photo by Sandra L. Martin - @creativecurrents
Around the horizon line, I added this little worksheet left by a younger guest in one of the cabins we clean. Children can become "junior rangers" by doing different learning activities with the Park Rangers. I also found a poem in some literature that speaks of the mighty Grand Canyon which I cut into a cloud shape and painted pink.
The kid's handwriting adds a lot of character to this mixed media piece. 

At the top left, I added these fun doodles I found in Real Simple magazine. They reminded me of our adventures in housekeeping. The smiley face reminds me of Michael's great attitude. Although managers would lead morning stretches, Michael would often volunteer to lead the housekeeping team. No matter how stressful the day or how tired he was, he always had a smile on his face. Once we were done stretching, he'd clap his hands and say "Let's F**K today UP!" and everyone would laugh. 
More sheet music from an old Exodus worship album that speak of the stars and rising sun - perfect for the sky
I held up my tiny sketch of Michael to see how large to paint the figure in this scene. I had to adjust the composition a little bit from my reference photo, which is at the bottom of this blog post. 
The magic of perspective makes this tiny sketch look much larger. This helped me visualize the final painting. 

Adding color. Same tiny sketch in corner. 

When I paint pictures like this for people, I see it as more than a paid commission. Since I paint intuitively, I focus my energy, prayers and positive thoughts into the painting. As I painted the purple shadows on Michael's back, I actually cried a little bit, full of emotion. I thought of how hard Michael worked, and how he showed not just physical strength but strength of character. I remember how he shared how he also took care of elderly people at times, which showed his love and compassion. Peeking from his shoulders is the word "Unwaivering". As I looked at the purple shadows, they echoed the shape of the Grand Canyon itself. I prayed that Michael would continue to have the strength of the Grand Canyon throughout his life, even as he helped others with the burdens they carry.
Unwaivering devotion

A quick look at more of the collage imagery I chose:
A black and white journal card peeks out of the Canyon with a reminder to "Spread Your Wings" and "Be Adventurers." A line from another vintage hymn speaks of "Traveling On". 

The yellow star ticket came from an employee party or possibly the Chuckwagon Cookout.


In the pic above, you can see the word WILD carved into a wooden table. This reminded me of the picnic table behind housekeeping headquarters (good old 500) where housekeepers over the years have left their mark, carving names, writing quotes and drawing pictures. This includes students from Thailand, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and many more countries. 

Housekeeping Graffiti behind 500 Building - many memories there

Park Family relaxing after work with hookah and live music

Hiking on Transcept Trail, North Rim - Spring 2016
My "last" sunset before leaving the North Rim one year ago

Me and my best friend/husband Shannan, enjoying our "last" North Rim sunset with friends, June 2016

When I painted this picture of Michael, my husband and I were preparing to leave the Grand Canyon to hike in Maine. All those emotions found their way into the work, and when I handed the finished painting to Ilona, I could barely speak. The painting was birthed quickly, with collage and paint layered on like the rich layers of the Grand Canyon. I thought not only of the past two summers and all the people who I continue to carry in my heart, but also the echoes of Native peoples like the Havasupai who consider the Grand Canyon their sacred home and birthright. Months later, as funding has been cut for National Parks, I worry about the future of the Grand Canyon, 

Michael enjoying the "epic" North Rim sunset with friends - original reference photo

View from Bright Angel Trail, Summer 2015
Photograph by Sandra L. Martin - @creativecurrents

I feel like I've been carrying this great secret for a year now, as I've never shared this painting publicly. It is nice to finally share this picture with you, and also give a little insight into the process. To my Park Family - managers, co-workers, friends - you are part of the layers of my heart and I can never truly be separated from you, no matter the distance or the differences between us. To Ilona, thank you for the opportunity to create this special commission and for your friendship. You are beautiful in every way. And to Michael Mayes, I hope that today your birthday is just as EPIC. Thank you for being an example of unwaivering devotion and making our days a little brighter! 

Happy Birthday!!!

Stay creative!
Sandra xoxo