From poetry to centuries-old watercolors, the Museum of Northern Arizona’s latest exhibition on the Grand Canyon recalls a timeless wonder both ancient and modern, romanticized and respected, while serving as a reminder that this dramatic beauty deserves protection.
“Grand Muse,” on display until Feb. 20, includes a series of gallery talks lending insight into the Grand Canyon artistically and geographically. Visit www.musnaz.org for a full schedule.
Inside the Waddell Gallery, “Grand Muse” charts far-off explorations — the first American government-sponsored treks into the mouth of the natural wonder that include the first plein-air portrait of the Canyon.
Newer works, too, examine climate change’s effect on sprawling views, cultural norms and one of the most contentious threats to the place seen as both a beatific wonder and Indigenous tribes’ place of emergence.
Within the small brush strokes of Ed Mell’s art deco-styled images and Gunnar Widforss’ and Thomas Moran’s watercolor studies, it is easy to imagine the Canyon as a testament to the elements from geological construction to creativity as the fast-dry sun has never subsided.
But, one contemporary work that stands out for its use of media and color — or rather lack thereof — is a sharp-edged photograph made by Michael Namingha, a Hopi-Tewa artist born and raised in Santa Fe, N.M.
The young artist’s connection to creativity reaches back to his great-great grandmother, the renowned Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo. And along with his father Dan Namingha, a professional artist of more than 50 years, and brother Arlo, interpretation in artistry runs deep in this family.
“My father gave me a camera for my birthday when I was 10 years old because I was always using his,” Namingha said in a recent phone interview. “I was always allowed to experiment and play with whatever art supplies he had laying around. There were never any critiques, just guidance about mixing certain materials.”
Forging a self-styled aesthetic, Namingha has exhibited from Santa Fe to New York City and even Russia. Now, his journey has led back to threatened landscapes and to the Canyon itself and the Hopi sipapu: the place of emergence at the Confluence.
The artist explained his tendency to constantly work, at times even without a clear goal, leads to inspiration clicking in certain pieces. His contribution to “Grand Muse” grew from a series he began in preparation for a solo exhibition at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe next year. With drones and Google Earth images, Namingha studied the landscape that inspired the 20th century painter.
“Around the same time, I started reading about Save the Confluence and the Escalade Project and what it meant to the indigenous tribes in that area, the environment itself and how fragile the landscape is,” he explained. “In coming up with these compositions, at the time it was this perfect fit between what I was exploring and what I was reading about.”
The subject of Namingha’s “Grand Canyon” — the Escalade Project — is a contentious topic. Its boundaries shift almost daily as a Scottsdale-based development company vies for the Navajo-owned land known as the Confluence. The strip of beach where the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers converge is the planned site for a tram shuttling tourists to the Canyon floor to a hotel, restaurant and river walk.
The edges of “Grand Canyon,” an image Namingha took from Google Earth, translate greater depth typically unseen in two-dimensional work. Second, a slice of charcoal gray cuts through the image, representing the desecration of a sacred site.
“There is no true up or down to that piece. You can actually turn it and it’ll change the perspective of the piece,” Namingha noted.
In his thematic approach to the series including “Grand Canyon,” Namingha first dissected color and perspective as he digitally explored a similarly threatened landscape in the Galisteo Basin, a preserve near Santa Fe.
He began photographing and creating pieces with blocks of color that represent pieces of the landscape that may not exist one day, as the Basin is threatened by oil drilling and fracking.
“Researching color psychology, I chose colors that have a calming effect,” he said of adding turquoise, pink and green. “That’s the sense I get whenever I’m out there and taking in the environment.”
And Namingha explained the serenity nature offers is the same felt atop Flagstaff’s San Francisco Peaks and at the Confluence, where threats linger in the landscape’s gray area.
He added, “You would lose those emotions and feeling and how you’re tied to that landscape. When you visit someplace you remember as being so beautiful, then when you return it’s not there — all you have is this memory of it.”