The 1st of The Mighty Five art shows captures Zion in ways smartphone cameras can’t
Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, well before smartphones and selfies, artists played a crucial role in introducing Americans to the otherworldly red rock landscape of Zion Canyon.
In a time when visiting in person was a challenge, those early impressions of Zion’s grandeur helped both to popularize it and gain its protection as a national park, said Sears Art Museum director and curator James Peck.
“Once painters got out to Zion and people started to see the colors and the contrast and the amazing slot canyons and all that, it's hard to overestimate how important that is for what we have today.”
Zion National Park doesn’t need much help with publicity anymore, but a new exhibit at the museum on the campus of Utah Tech University is celebrating the connections between art and this remarkable landscape. Even in the age of iPhones and Instagram, Peck said, nothing can replace an artist’s ability to capture the depth of emotion Zion’s scenery inspires.
When someone puts paint to canvas, he said, they aren’t bound to the same conventions that a phone is. Artists have the license to inject emotion and meaning, he said, by choosing to focus on one element, shifting the color palette or presenting a view from an angle that humans can’t physically access.
“Artists in many ways are able to do things with our memories that we can't do,” Peck said. “So they become the guardians in the vanguard of protecting our memories and changing and challenging our perceptions of it.”
The free exhibit is the first in a series called The Mighty Five that will eventually showcase work from each of Utah’s destination national parks.
In all, the Zion exhibit features around 100 pieces of art. Each one is a bit different — there’s even a series of three divergent paintings of the same scene by the same artist — showing how every visit to the ever-changing landscape can show us something new based on the season, how the rock has eroded or how the light creeps into the canyon.
Between walls lined with pastel, oil and watercolor paintings, a set of glass cases holds intricately designed Indigenous pottery found in the Virgin River that carved Zion Canyon. It’s an acknowledgment of the rich history of art among Utah’s native peoples, who were often excluded from pioneer-era depictions of this region.
The exhibit also highlights how Zion’s natural beauty has fueled southwest Utah’s art scene, with dozens of pieces from modern local artists like Mary Jabens of Cedar City.
She visits Zion and other public lands in southwest Utah at least once a week through the fall and winter to paint, often as part of a group of local artists who call themselves The Kolob Society after Zion’s Kolob Canyons area.
Trying to do this intricately hued landscape justice is a challenge, she said. But for her, it never gets old.
“When the light hits the different colors of those red rocks with the hidden pinks and purples and oranges and iridescent blues,” she said, “you can't help but sit back and just stare at it going, ‘Oh, my. It's beautiful.’”
Two of Jabens’ paintings found a place in this exhibit, a large vertical piece with a pair of condors soaring over Angels Landing and a wide horizontal piece that focuses on light hitting a bend in the Virgin River.
The second piece came from a stroll she took in one of her favorite parts of the park, the Riverside Walk trail that leads to The Narrows. She turned to look downstream, the sun hit the canyon’s green springtime leaves just right, and she was struck by the beauty like she was seeing it for the first time.
That’s a feeling she hopes people who visit the exhibit walk away with.
“It just inspires me. It fills my heart,” Jabens said. “It's like a promise that things are still good.”
The exhibit opened Dec. 1, 2023, and runs through Jan. 12, 2024, at the Sears Art Museum at Utah Tech University in St. George.