Imagine entering Mesa Verde National Park and receiving the keys to the locked gates of its ancient cliff dwellings, sites only accessible by ranger guided tours. This special privilege is exactly what artist Kathy Hodge experienced during her park Artist-in-Residence (AIR) in 2008. As a World Heritage Site, this southwestern corner of Colorado features 600 or so cliff dwellings and finding yourself alone inside of one is indeed a rare treat.
Kathy explored on the other side of those locked gates with her watercolors and sketching tools to absorb what most of us see in just a few days. She spent long hours in the quiet stillness of the dwellings, often enjoying the evenings after tourists had left for the day. At other times she hiked trails or sought refuge from stormy weather in the historic hogan that was her temporary home within the park.
A Day at Mesa Verde NP, in Kathy’s words:
“I bring my watercolors a few hundred feet from the hogan to where the Spruce Canyon Trail exits the canyon. There the sandstone curves to close off the canyon, and I find a ledge just over the trail which is cool and sheltered. I work for a few hours on a charcoal drawing in a quiet that I rarely experience. I never realized how much noise birds wings make — I hear the fluttering before I see them and almost feel if I should duck, they sound so loud. And I don’t think there are more flies here than elsewhere, it’s just that I hear them coming ten feet away. No traffic, no electrical hum, no airplanes, just the wind and the occasional critter.
Wednesday is my first trip “backcountry,” I will drive 14 miles over winding mountain roads the length of Wetherill Mesa. Just up the road inside the gate are two NPS vehicles. I have four padlocks to open but only two keys. As I stand there confused one of the big white pickups backs up to the gate and a friendly park ranger shows me how to unlock the gate. I still find it rather amazing that they seem happy to have an artist cluttering up the joint when they have work to do but off I drive, over the road that winds steeply up and down, at one point overlooked Cortez, where I can get the only good cell phone signal in the park.
Eventually I reach the end of the road, deserted parking lots and the tourist shelter. There one usually has to board a tram to continue to the cliff dwellings, but since the trams aren’t yet running I continue on the one lane road in my car. A wildfire had killed most of the trees on the end of the mesa and the shapes they left are bizarre. Like driving through a house of horrors in limbo.
The walk down to Long House begins with a set of stairs, and then a paved path. The sandstone wall the path hangs from is carved in swirling shapes. Long House is quiet and beautiful. From the dwelling I look out to a beautiful view down the canyon. There is still water in the spring on the back wall, in many dwellings the springs had dried up due to drought. I sit at one end and draw for a few hours, reveling in the rare experience of spending time in a cliff dwelling with no one else within miles.
On my way home to the hogan I take a hike through the burnt trees on the Nordenskiold Site trail. I sit on a fallen log to draw but after a few minutes a gusty wind picks up and it begins to sprinkle. I turn the drawing over to wait it out and it soon stops, but the clouds turn darker and began to smudge to the horizon, so I decide to pack up. Sitting is a forest of dead trees on a deserted mesa at 7,000 feet is no place to be in a lightening storm. The wind almost blows me off the trail on the way back to the car, and it’s hailing by the time I get home, so I know I made the right decision. I finish the drawing in the hogan.”
Why was this place, once so full of life, suddenly abandoned?
These are words Kathy recorded in her journal, and they are echoed by many visitors who wonder at the mysterious nature of this park’s history. The physical and spiritual presence of the people who lived here is something that makes Mesa Verde unique, and is one reason why she applied for the residency. It was like no other experience before, but it seems no two residencies are alike.
Interpreting Parks through Painting
A glance at Kathy’s portfolio reveals a rich collection of work, including a number of paintings from some of the 12 residencies she has completed in the national parks and forests. Her paintings seem to transform organic landscapes into dynamic layers of color and texture. It’s as if the landscapes are broken down into shapes, then woven back together in stories of light and shadow. Kathy’s storytelling is vibrant, each painting captures so fluidly a moment in time, yet the moment feels anything but static. You can almost feel the time she spends at each site, the thought into studying the landscape and translating it to her audience.
We tend to gaze at landscapes for long periods of time, and we often see more than what is physically there. The power of painting is its ability to capture a bit of what we feel in color, movement and pattern. As the painting above shows, you can stand in the dwelling and feel the life that was once there, though it is long gone. Here you sense the warmth in rich hues, perhaps even a suggestion of fire or voices speaking vividly in the wind.
This is merely my own interpretation, but that is the beauty of art. It’s a wonderful thing that parks have recognized this ability of art to tell stories in ways that no other subject matter can. You can stand and listen to a ranger give a tour, you can read a sign at a site, or you can lose yourself in that same site through a painting that reveals more than the site alone.
The Artists-in-Residence Community
Artists of many varied talents may apply each year to spend weeks at a time in a park, and Kathy admits it’s an addictive experience. In her words:
“I’m attracted to (the residencies) because of the opportunity to be immersed in a place that many people only pass through. To wake up in a park, especially if I am in a remote or primitive dwelling, brings me closer to the spirit of the place. It’s also great to interact with Rangers who know the park or forest intimately and can answer any questions I might have about the landscape or inhabitants.”
In the years following her first residency at Rocky Mountain National Park in 1993, Kathy became interested in the experiences of other artists working in the parks. The AIR journals left at the cabins, dune shacks, hogans, adobe houses and ranger apartments were fascinating to read. She realized this was a rich community of creative minds who had a unique voice to speak for the parks. In an effort to bring these artist together, she created a website called Field Notes.
It’s a great place to visit and discover artists who share similar interests, learn about the parks, and network with a diverse community of park storytellers.
Kathy’s dedication to the AIR community continues this year as she prepares for what might be the most epic residency yet: Denali National Park in Alaska. We can’t wait to hear about her time there, and invite you to sign up for her mailing list to follow along the journey. You can also join her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Be sure to check out Kathy’s blog, where you can read more about her experience at Mesa Verde National Park.