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  • Writer's pictureClaire Baldwin

Capturing Grand Canyon

Updated: 3 days ago

In January 2018, I volunteered for the project of a lifetime: developing a series of eight illustrated posters to celebrate Grand Canyon National Park's centennial.

Grand Canyon had fascinated me ever since my freshman year at Tyler School of Art in Philly. Moving to a city of endless gray buildings sparked a craving for the wild, endless, vivid expanse of the desert. I thought about it nonstop. By my first round of final exams I was listening to desert playlists and weeping over google satellite images.

I wouldn't get there until 2016. I skipped my college graduation to go on a two week road trip through the southwest before starting my job at Grand Canyon. That summer I taught photography and helped guide backpacking trips for deliriously excited little tweens, some of whom were terrified of big foot. But they conquered their fears. By the week's end they were group hugging in golden sunset downpours along the rim.

On my days off, I got into the Canyon. Left, prickly pears on an overlook above the Colorado River, right, me crossing the Kaibab Suspension Bridge to Phantom Ranch.

The summer of 2017 I returned to lead a Youth Conservation Corps (YCC) vegetation crew. It was another summer of beauty and backpacking and incredible kids.

After the YCC season ended, I put on the green and gray and led interpretive programs for visitors. Swearing in the junior rangers was, hands down, the best part. One afternoon I spent almost an hour with a little girl who showed me her enormous badge collection and told me all about her dreams to be a scientist. It was all I could do not to cry.

Towards the end of my season, I heard park staff were looking for help with centennial projects. I asked if they needed any illustrations.

Cut to January 2018: I returned for my third season at the park, this time to paint.

For five days a week, often 9 or 10 hours a day, I was painting. I hadn't painted this hard since my art school days, and I was rusty. But there is something infinitely exciting about taking an idea from a loose sketch to a two foot by four foot painting that will be seen by thousands of people. I worked until my hand cramped.

One of my greatest challenges was figuring out— (are you ready for this?)— how to paint Grand Canyon. There were a lot of failed attempts. Or maybe I should call them learning experiences. Below is my first crack at the 'wonder' poster, which I decided didn't do the Canyon justice.

I spent a lot of evenings at the Canyon's rim, furiously rendering little studies until the last light faded. There were a lot of balled up sketches. There were also condor sightings and spectacular light shows and rising moons.

I was operating in the farthest outer reaches of my ability level, always frustrated with my limitations, but always growing.

I was frustrated by the depictions of Grand Canyon I saw in gift shops. So often these mass-produced postcards and t-shirts showed a cheesy, corporate-friendly image that was clearly done from a photo found online. Grand Canyon was shown flat and dull and bland. I knew what I wanted to create instead: timeless, otherworldly, always changing, hand-rendered compositions. Something that was as memorable as the first time seeing the Canyon.

Bit by bit, I felt my vision for the project sharpen.

Each poster built on the one before it. As the deadline for completion approached, I knew I wanted to revisit the 'wonder' poster, and better capture the color and depth of a canyon sunset.

My second-to-last weekend, I scored the unicorn of all canyon experiences: a last minute ticket to Havasu Falls. Images of this turquoise water dreamscape have gone viral, and spots typically sell out within a couple hours on the very first day they're made available. Somehow, in a last minute phone call, I managed to grab one. For three days I was alternatively crying and laughing. It was the most beautiful place I'd ever seen.

When I came back to the South Rim, I was ready to paint. I didn't leave my office (okay fine, my office was a corner of the copy room) for two days. Somehow, finally, my brain and hand spoke to each other and I was able to put my vision on paper. It was one of those magical flow states artists dream about.

I hope that my five years of obsession, two seasons guiding trips for youth, and countless gorgeous experiences exploring the trails found their way into these paintings. Creating these images was the project of a lifetime, a love letter to my favorite place in the world. I hope it inspires people to continue supporting the park for centuries to come.

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