Whether it be rain, hail, thunderstorms, rays of sunlight or condors and American falcons dotting the sky, Lake Oswego resident James McGrew never knows what he's going to find as he orients his canvass around the sweeping Grand Canyon landscape.
And this unpredictability is why he finds participating in events like the upcoming Grand Canyon Conservatory's Grand Canyon Celebration of Arts, where he and other artists will paint on location at the national park in September, so exhilarating.
"I never know exactly what might happen. Every year I learn more and explore more," he said.
McGrew has been a professional artist for 25 years, focusing mainly on capturing the wonder of national parks. Along with participating in this annual event for the last decade, he's also done similar on-sight showcases at Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion national parks.
On his trips, McGrew brings ingredients for smoothies, Clif bars and other snacks, clothes for sweltering heat and the frigid cold, and his paint boxes. He uses carbon fiber tripods, which are lighter but also sturdier than standard aluminum ones. Packing light enough to endure long hikes is key.
McGrew will sometimes paint at the crack of dawn and otherwise well after the sun sets. He likes to use oils in large part because they work no matter the weather.
"I play things by ear. Over the years I have seen various changing weather and atmospheric conditions. Some years it's smoky. In recent years fires have obscured views. There's years where it's clear and sunny. Other years there are intense thunderstorms. That impacted what I could do," he said.
He noted that the atmosphere — and particularly the lighting — at the Grand Canyon can change rapidly.
"I love painting quickly with rapidly changing lights and shadows. I love painting grand Western landscapes. The Grand Canyon is unique because it is so huge. Early and late in the day, the low light angles contrast with shadows. It's almost magical when the canyon is light at the last few minutes of the day."
The Lake Oswego artist enjoys when animals catch his eye or even when a thunderstorm pervades the sky. When that happens, he tries to avoid high points and ridges. He said his pochade — which carries his paints — has fallen off cliffs on a few occasions, but he always tries to retrieve it.
"You never leave anything in a national park," he said, adding that he avoids toxic chemicals so as not to potentially harm the ecosystem.
Other times, McGrew has painted Native American architecture or the Navajo tribe performing cultural traditions. The goal of any piece, he said, is to tell an important story and reflect the emotion that drew him to it.
McGrew noted that artists were some of the catalysts of the creation of national parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone, and he said one of the goals of exhibits like this is to show people why these wonders should continue to be protected. The Grand Canyon is the only area where the dwindling desert bighorn sheep continues to roam without needing to be reintroduced.
"It's a real privilege to help spread awareness about how special these places are not just for the beauty but the incredible ecosystems they sustain as well," McGrew said.
The artists will do their work on site along the south rim from Verkamp's Visitor Center to Thunderbird Lodge and. McGrew said he will also bring with him a painting he already created based on a previous visit to the canyon. The artwork will be accessible remotely and there will be a silent auction Sept. 2-17. For more information visit grandcanyon.org/coa.
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