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Wed, June 26

Experience the grandeur of national parks in new Phippen Museum exhibit

PRESCOTT - If you want to ponder which national park to visit next, or if you just want to visit a bunch in one place, the Phippen Museum is the place for you.

Now through Feb. 23, the Phippen Museum in Prescott is presenting its "National Parks of the West" exhibition featuring dozens of works gathered mostly from private and National Park Service collections. Only four come from the Phippen's own collection.

They all capture the grandeur and beauty of America's national parks in the West, with a natural focus on Arizona's own Grand Canyon.

Oils, pastels, watercolors, etchings, bronzes and acrylics of all sizes offer amazing displays of light over some of the country's most beautiful places.

The Phippen exhibit also features a series of lighthearted sketches by the late Ace Powell for Glacier National Park that try to educate visitors about how to behave in national parks. Cute bears show people what happens when they leave food outside their tents.

Where the works include people such as rafters, hikers and prospectors, the people are noticeably minute in the midst of nature.

"You see how, in the grand scheme of things, how little we are," observed Lynette Tritel, curator of the show.

The works span back to the late 1800s when the public's first colored glimpses of these natural wonders came from artists who traveled West through rugged country to record their beauty for all to see.

The museum has included informational panels about the national parks, including their distance from Prescott.

John Wesley Powell introduced the Grand Canyon to artist Thomas Moran in 1873, and Moran in turn showed its grandeur to the public, one panel notes. Moran and his work were instrumental in compelling President Theodore Roosevelt to declare it a national monument in 1908, eight years before the National Park Service was created.

"Leave it as it is," Roosevelt famously declared. "The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it."

The exhibit features the late George Phippen's own plaster casting and bronze of Roosevelt for a monument at Jacob Lake commemorating Roosevelt's 100th birthday. It's steadfast in a boulder found near Thumb Butte. Joe Vest of Prescott supervised the casting while another local named Joe Noggle designed the plaque.

The Santa Fe Railroad Company also hired artists such as Moran, William R. Leigh, Louis Akin and Gunnar Mauritz Widforss to travel to the Grand Canyon and paint scenes for calendars, menus and other items to attract travelers to the company's Southwest railroad route, panel information explains.

Works by these legendary artists are among those on display at the Phippen, alongside the works of the myriad talented artists who reside right here in the Prescott region including David Halbach, Ray Swanson, Bill Cramer, Don Rantz, Bill Anton, Russell Johnson, Kathy Quick Anderson, Bonnie Casey and Robert Peters.

"It's amazing how much talent's in this town," Tritel observed.

All tend to love the outdoors.

"I like to get out and hike," Rantz said. "I've been an active outdoors person all my life."

He roughly estimates he's visited 40 or 50 national parks.

"I've never met one I didn't like," he said.

He works in pastels.

"Pastel can capture an extremely wide range of light," he explains. "It gets me to the place I'm looking to get to."

His pastels literally light up the scenery he portrays at Yosemite and the Canyonlands in the Phippen exhibit.

"There's someone who is a master of pastels," Tritel confirmed.

Some of the works in the Phippen exhibit were created with the show in mind, including those by Rantz and Trevor Swanson of Phoenix, Tritel said. She asked Swanson to create works that include people or animals. They showcase Saguaro National Park and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park.

Four of the Grand Canyon works come from the Grand Canyon National Park's own collection. It has no museum where it can display its works, Tritel said. So these are as rare in public light as those from private collections.

They include a huge Moran at the entrance to the exhibit, along with works by Charles Dorman Robinson, Gunnar Widforss and Louis Akin.

Some of the informational panels feature artists describing how hard it is to capture the essence of the canyon on canvas. Anyone who came home disappointed with their photos can relate.

"What a wretched makeshift these paltry pigments," artist William Robinson Leigh complained in 1929. "How hopeless to attempt; what inconceivable impudence to dream of imitating anything so ineffable! It challenges man's utmost skill; it mocks and defies his puny efforts to grasp and perpetuate, through art, its inimitable grandeur."

Woodblock artist Gustave Baumann (1881-1971) called the Grand Canyon an "artist's nightmare" after attempting several sketches from the rim.

"You see a wonderful composition and when you look back, it's gone," he said. "See how fast the clouds are moving. This is the reason nobody can paint the canyon."

Some of the artists in the exhibit were lucky enough to get extra time to try to capture the canyon, through the Park Service's "Artist in Residence" program that allows them to stay 2-4 weeks.

Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter: @joannadodder.

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