Celebrating the Role of Art in Zion National Park

By Amanda Keith posted 12-16-2015 03:21 PM


Those who visit Utah’s first National Park and see the pink and red sandstone cliffs, who venture into the straight arrow canyons or hike the sweeping backcountry of Zion National Park revel in the majesty of 150,000 acres of high plateau country.

And, it’s no wonder, since people have marveled at this unique area for the last 7,000 years if not longer: Archaic groups, Ancestral Puebloans and the ancestors of the Southern Paiute recorded what they saw in the form of petroglyphs; in the 1860's, after the settlement of Mormon pioneers, John Wesley Powell surveyed the area and photographed the wonders of what he saw and, in 1904, paintings that captured Zion’s brilliance were featured at the St. Louis World’s Fair.

Expression through art is what led to the creation of Zion National Park. That’s why it’s only fitting that one of Zion’s most largest and most significant events is their Zion National Park Plein Air Art Invitational held each November.

From November 2 – 8, 2015, Zion Natural History Association (ZNHA) held its 7th Plein Air Art Invitational and invited 23 landscape artists from across the country to capture the tall cliffs and tranquil streams of Zion while greeting thousands of visitors to the park. Through sun and rain, artists created more than 200 paintings and contributed more than $135,000 in art sales to support the park’s youth initiatives.

Artists were hosted by local hoteliers and as guests in residents' homes 
and became part of the community thanks to dozens of volunteers, staff and local businesses.

According to ZNHA Executive Director Lyman Hafen, the event would be worth doing even if it weren’t such a successful fundraiser:

“This event really represents everything our organization stands for. Beginning with the wonderful way we are able to partner with Zion National Park and its great staff, our concessionaire Xanterra, the gateway community of Springdale and the excellent volunteers the community provides, and with the State of Utah which helps us promote the event nationally. The event truly enhances the visitor experience in Zion, giving them a unique opportunity to experience and see the place in a new light.”

The event brings a unique group of artists who were selected for their artistic abilities and their willingness to talk with visitors and help them connect with the landscape. Artists painted Monday through Thursday at areas accessible to the public and visitors were welcome to approach them. Over the years, the event has become so successful, that 60% of park visitors that week stated they were there specifically for the Plein Air Art Invitational.

Throughout the week, artists also gave one hour demonstrations of their work and presented their techniques and creative philosophies. As Lyman explained, visitors to the park do not have to be interested in art to appreciate the event: "If you can get someone to sit down for a demonstration, you’re going to captivate them. There’s a connection made.” Seeing the landscape and witnessing the artists’ interpretation is an experience unto itself and is something more than 1,400 visitors took advantage of that week in November.

Groups of 60 - 120 visitors watched artists at work in Zion National Park. 

There were pros and cons to holding the event in November, Lyman explains. One of the main benefits was that Zion National Park was able to extend its visitation season. “It’s an awesome time to be in the park,” he said. It’s not as busy as October and the weather is cool. However, the weather can also pose a problem for artists, especially if it’s too brisk to hold your brush or if it starts to rain as it did on the Wednesday of that week. “Artists have to figure out how to work in the elements,” he said. Some painted in the back of their hatchbacks or found structures to stand under. As a result, the paintings produced on Wednesday were some of the most dramatic with dark gray skies and clouds rolling down the canyons -- a unique representation of Zion that might not have been captured without this event.

Note the skilfully used shovel that props-up the back of this hatchback. 

Artist John Lintott interprets clouds rolling over the canyon in his painting.

When the week was over, artists framed their work and readied them for the Wet Paint Sale that weekend. Artists also participated in a three hour “Paint-Out” event on the Saturday and created paintings that buyers could purchase on the spot. The success of these events and the funds that were raised will support youth programs such as Concrete to Canyons which brings inner-city youth from Las Vegas to the park and ensures that young people get to experience the wonder and awe of Zion.

For other public lands nonprofits considering a Plein Air event, Lyman provided some words of wisdom:

"I think plein air and other types of art events are great ways to partner with your agency or community, whether you're a small organization or large. It doesn't have to be an all-out plein air event. It could simply be a day-long festival or a one-time show, an art auction, or an art workshop. If you can create an event that tells the story of your place, highlights great original art, and inspires visitors in some way, you can develop it into a fundraiser by selling art and taking a commission, or selling art that as been donated to you by the artist. The key for us was finding the right people in the community, and more specifically in the art community, who would bring the kind of expertise, passion and hard work to help make it happen."

Lyman also added that the success of their event was in thanks to the success of their retail operations. Through their park stores they are able to raise the resources necessary to lead a week-long event and to celebrate Zion National Park through celebrating art.

See a few photos below that capture the talent Zion National History Association brought to the park this year:

For more information about the Zion National Park Plein Air Art Invitational, click here.

For even more amazing photos from this year's event, check out their facebook page.