Saturday, November 30, 2013

Ancient History in the Rocks

I've been getting a bit more interested in geology lately.  Yes, geology.  Rocks.  The whole idea of how our world evolved, how mountains rose up, went away, and rose up again, with continental plates moving around and grinding into one another, just fascinates me.

I recently read an interesting book titled "The Rocks Don't Lie".  The author, David Montgomery, originally started out to debunk the belief that the world is only a few thousand years old and that all the mountains and everything else were sculpted by Noah's flood.  Those beliefs are, of course, easily contradicted by hard science.  But as Montgomery developed the book, he became more focused on how the back-and-forth between the science of geology and the beliefs of religion actually developed and informed each other over the past few hundred years.  The science that came out of this shows that the Earth has been around for about 4.5 billion years, not just a few thousand.  The science has also shown how our landscape has developed, and continues to develop today.

This was on my mind during my recent trip out west and to the Grand Canyon.  Since the landscape out there is relatively barren of trees, it is easy to see the big picture: big tilted plains, miles-long cliffs where fault lines have broken the surface, canyons where the layers in the rock are plainly visible, extinct volcanos, and lava fields that look like they were laid down last year.  The Grand Canyon itself is an incredible sight, but really, there's interesting stuff to look at wherever you go.  What's also really cool to think about is the same type of layers that are so clearly visible in the Grand Canyon are also below your feet right now.  Our landscape has not been static over the past 4.5 billion years, it has been continually changing.

A while back, I was reading about when and how the Appalachian Mountains were formed.  I knew that these are really old mountains, much older than the Rockies, and that at one time they were supposedly even more spectacular than the Rockies are now.  But what was really surprising to read was that the Appalachians didn't just rise and then be eroded away.  No, mountains have risen here at least twice.  One range rose beginning about 480 million years ago.  It gradually eroded almost completely away and this area became an inland sea.  The current mountains started rising about 66 million years ago.  That, to me, is amazing: plains to mountains to inland sea to mountains again.

I don't have to go very far to see indications of this history.  I just walk out my front door and look at this rock.  We've done some landscaping with river rock that was quarried not far away.  This one was part of the pile.  I got to looking at it one day because it was a bit odd-looking.  I realized that it is actually a rock within a rock.  The white part is an igneous rock, meaning that it was formed from molten rock.  I don't know what it is, maybe a type of granite.  But it was formed under tremendous heat and pressure, meaning it was formed deep in the earth.  Then the land rose until the rock was exposed on a mountain.  It broke off and landed in a stream, where it was eventually rounded into a river rock.  You can see that the edges are all rounded off.  From there, it wound up in sand.  Eventually, the rock and sand were buried under many many layers of other sediments, until it was deep enough that the pressure turned it from loose grains of sand into a rock.  Then the land rose again.  At some point, the sandstone, with the earlier river rock buried inside it, broke loose from a mountain and fell into a stream again.  The stream smoothed it out and rounded the edges.  And then it was picked up by some guys and brought to our house.

Millions of years of history, right here by my front door.  Cool.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Santa Fe

One day during my recent trip out to New Mexico, my sister and I went to Santa Fe to take a look at some galleries.  There are over 100 galleries in town, so to be effective, you need to do some homework beforehand and identify the ones you really want to see.  Then rely on serendipity to provide you with surprises.  I put together a short list of about 8-10 galleries to check out.  Some, of course, turned out to be not what I was looking for.  Others were as good as I'd hoped.  And I did find one that wasn't on the list.

One of the galleries I visited was Bill Hester Fine Art.  Bill was in Chapel Hill for a few years and carried my paintings while there.  Now he's back in Santa Fe with two galleries on Canyon Road.  It was good to see him and catch up on developments with both him and his wife Susannah.  Bill has a good collection of artists, and while I was too busy talking with him to check out the art in detail, there were a number that were really interesting.

I also visited Giacobbe-Fritz Fine Art and wound up having a great discussion with their director, Palin Wiltshire.  Palin was enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about art in general and her artists in particular.  One of them was Ben Steele (check out his works on his website or on the Giacobbe-Fritz page).  Frankly, I was blown away by Ben's work.  This young man can really create a painting in concept, in composition, and in paint.  And he is witty.  Not many paintings will make me laugh out loud, but Ben's did, over and over.  But these are not just cartoons expertly done in paint.  No, these are comments that may be light-hearted or may be pretty cutting, depending on how you take them.  Many of them reference iconic artworks from the past, and pay homage to them, at the same time putting a big smile on your face.  Quite an achievement.  So Ben is my newest artist find: sharp, funny, and really good.  And Giacobbe-Fritz is one of my favorite Santa Fe galleries.

Over at Nuart Gallery, there was another interesting artist.  Santiago Perez is sort of like a modern-day Hieronymus Bosch, only not so disturbing or threatening.  His larger paintings were crammed with odd little figures going about strange little businesses.  Where Bosch can scare the hell out of you, Perez draws you into the story, making you want to tag along with the critters to see what will happen next.  Lots of fun.

The Intrigue Gallery wasn't on my list, but I spotted it and went in.  They featured the paintings of Pamela Franken Fiedler.  These are large, sensuous images of male and female figures, primarily in black and white with specific areas of color.  This was the only gallery I saw in Santa Fe that had any figurative work that could be called "sensual" - all the rest could be rated G.  Fiedler uses models from a variety of ages - some are young, but others have been around the block a few times, and it is really cool to see them treated so sensitively and beautifully.

There was one other artist that made an impression on me.  Karen Waters isn't represented by any Santa Fe galleries, but she lives and works there.  She's a photographer of the outdoors, and combines those images with layers of textures (sometimes many layers) that give them an otherworldly feel.  I saw her work displayed in Los Alamos.  Some of her images were printed on aluminum and others on canvas or paper.  One of them, "Days Like This", is a haunting image of a lone tree.  Trust me, your computer screen will not do it justice.  I bought one of her printed images for my sister.

So I got my "art fix" in Santa Fe.  Kudos to the staff at Giacobbe-Fritz, Nuart Gallery, Intrigue Gallery, and Turner-Carroll Gallery, all of whom were happy to talk to me even when they heard that I was an artist.  Often, I've found that gallerists will turn away as quickly as possible when that comes out.  It's like they're thinking, "He's an artist, he's not going to buy anything, and he's going to ask me to look at his work.  He's a waste of time."  For the record, I never asked to show them my work, although one gallery director did ask to see mine.

My sister was a saint: she waited patiently with her three dogs outside while I went into gallery after gallery.  While I was talking with Bill Hester, her collie found a dead bird and wouldn't put it down, which caused a bit of a situation until we dislodged the carcass from her jaws.  I repaid my sister with lunch at the Second Street Brewery, a really good brew pub away from the city center.

I hope it won't be so many years before I get to go to Santa Fe again.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Grand Canyon

I just spent a week visiting my sister and her family in New Mexico.  It was a great trip - wonderful to see everybody again and fun to see both old and new places.  There's a lot to write about, but for now, I'll focus on just one: the Grand Canyon.

I'd never been to the Grand Canyon.  Seems like every time I went cross-country, it was well north or south of there.  I knew it was a neat place, but it never seemed to percolate to the top of my "must see" list.  As we were planning this trip, though, my wife suggested that my sister and I go to the Canyon (my wife did not go on this trip).  We all thought it would be good, so we locked it in.

The drive out took about eight hours, most of which was on I-40, the modern-day Route 66.  The landscape was really striking.  Long, flat, tilted planes ended in sharp cliffs, small piles of volcanic rock lay here and there, and near the border with Arizona, the road cut through a valley that had long lava fields.  It turned out that this lava area is the El Malpais National Monument.  The lava fields that looked only a couple of years old, are really 2,000 years or more old.  Shortly before hitting Flagstaff, we cut north and later west, entering the Grand Canyon from the back end.  This turned out to be good, because we got to see the some of the canyon before the sun set.  It took quite a while to finish the drive to our lodgings in the park.

Early morning from the South Rim

The next day, we walked over to the rim and it was an "Oh ... my ... god" moment.  Yes, you've seen lots of pictures of the Grand Canyon, but they are nothing compared to the impact of the real thing.  It's just so immense, so deep, and so spectacular.  We spent several hours walking the Rim Trail, stopping every few yards to look and take pictures.  It was early when we started and a light haze lay over the canyon.  The haze gradually burned off during the morning until it was sharp and clear by mid-day.  We walked all the way to the Visitor Center (about a 3 mile walk) and had a bite at the small cafe.  Then we took a bus to the head of Kaibob Trail.  We hiked about 3/4 of a mile down the trail, which was probably about an 800-ft vertical drop.  Seeing the Canyon from below the rim is a very different experience from seeing it on the rim.  It's a sheer drop hundreds of feet down on one side, and a sheer cliff going up on the other.  How they carved the trail into that mountain is beyond me.

On the Kaibab Trail

We could have gone much further down the trail, but because (a) the rim is at 7,000 ft altitude and I'm not used to that elevation, and (b) climbing up 800 ft is much more strenuous than going down, and (c) we'd already walked over 3 miles already, we turned around.  In all, we were on the trail about an hour: 20 minutes down, 40 up.  There were a few very fit and hardy hikers who were burning along on the uphill climb like it was nothing.  This not-very-fit-nor-hardy hiker was puffing like a steam engine.

Horse Train on Kaibab Trail

On the way back up, a tourist group on horseback passed us.  We both thought that was probably the best way to see the Canyon: down and back on another critter's legs.  However, that would be about 8 hours on a horse, and if you're not used to horses, you would be mighty sore long before you ever even hit the bottom ... much less do the climb back up.

Late afternoon on the South Rim

We walked back along the Rim Trail to the lodge that afternoon.  I stopped and did a few sketches here and there.  It was past sunset and just getting dark by the time we got back to the room.  We rested a bit, cleaned up, had dinner, and called it a day.

The next day, we headed back to New Mexico.  It was pretty much a replay of the drive out: 8 hours on the road, looking at very unusual (for this North Carolinian) landscapes.

Some observations:

Plein-air exhibit in Kolb Studio

- One of the first places we visited in the park was the Kolb Studio.  This was originally built on the south rim by a couple of brothers who were photographers.  Now it is a park gallery for Canyon-associated photography, paintings, and other art.  It had an exhibit of works by a group of 26 plein-air painters.  The Grand Canyon Association sponsored an event in September in which these artists, who were juried in from a large pool of applicants, spent a week painting at various places around the park.  I was blown away: these painters were good.  Normally, in a show like this, I expect to see maybe two or three who were pretty good, and a lot of others who are so-so.  Not this group.  Every one was top-notch.  The exhibit is online - go take a look.
- Late October or early November is a good time to visit.  The weather was good and the park was not crowded.  Unlike summer, when it's hot and you can barely move for all the bodies, there's plenty of room to get around.  We heard lots of different languages: French, German, Japanese, Southern Redneck, Chinese, British English, Spanish, and many that I couldn't place.
- There are plenty of warnings about hiking below the rim.  Many warn you not to try to get to the river and back in one day.  Of course, some do: one woman blew by us on the hike back to the top of Kaibab Trail, and she was barely breaking a sweat.  My brother-in-law, though, did something even more remarkable a few years ago.  He ran from the campground to the rim, then down to the river, up to the top of the North Rim, back down to the river, and back up to the South Rim, and back to the campground.  Rim to rim to rim.  He does ultra-marathons, too.
- The staff everywhere were exceptionally good: very friendly, very informative, and it was clear that they really got a kick out of working in the Grand Canyon.  Didn't matter whether they were park employees or working for the contractors.
- We saw a bit of wildlife.  On the first night, we saw several female elk and one young solitary male.  Later, there was a group of five or six females munching on grass on the shoulder of the road.  The next day, we saw a group of deer.  We looked for the rare California condor, but didn't see any.

The Grand Canyon.  If you haven't been there, put it on your bucket list.  It's something every American should experience.