The path to Kane Ranch takes you through the red-rock country of the Arizona Strip. Route 89A cuts through the Navajo Nation where small shacks line the highway with Native Americans selling handcrafted jewelry and rugs. Crooked houses lie at the base of the towering Echo Cliffs until the Navajo Bridge carries you over the Colorado River and spills you into the winding roads parallel to the red and pink and orange and white walls of the Vermillion Cliffs. Finally, after nearly 10 miles of unpaved road through House Rock Valley, Kane Ranch rests quietly under a thin grey film of smoke from prescribed burns. The smoke lingers over the monocline that leads to the north rim of the Grand Canyon.
After purchasing the historical landmark in 2005, the Grand Canyon Trust has used Kane Ranch for scientific and archeological research, hosting numerous groups from Northern Arizona University and the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. The ranch once hosted five columnists from Flagstaff Live! for “Homers on the Range: Writing Out from Kane Ranch.” And from Oct. 27-29, the ranch was a weekend home for 10 Flagstaff artists during the three-day Kane Ranch Artist Retreat.
Billions of years ago, the land on which Kane Ranch stands used to be ocean floor. Millions upon millions of years of shifts in tectonic plates and changes in climate and sea level and erosion from the Colorado River likely carved and shaped the natural wonder that is the Grand Canyon. Now, these 10 artists are picking up ancient fossilized plants from limestone monoclines, discussing conservation issues regarding the Colorado Plateau and sharing stories about their connection to the land.
While the Trust typically uses scientific research, policy and legal action to address conservation issues to the Colorado Plateau, volunteer program director Emily Thompson thought there could be another way to talk about these threats: Art.
“If we want to evoke passion and care, art has a unique ability to speak to people on a different level,” says Thompson. “It’s a different way of communicating with people and, in doing this, we hope to reach an audience that we normally wouldn’t.”
From 30 applicants, the Trust selected 10 artists whose specialties include still life and plein-air painting, landscape photography and sound design. Each artist is tasked with creating at least one art piece to tell a story about social, political or environmental challenges that threaten the region. An exhibit at the Museum of Northern Arizona in April will feature the works. While discussions during the weekend included the proposed Grand Canyon Escalade development, the Canyon Mine uranium haul route and climate change, the artist’s pieces are not limited to the discussions and events that transpired over the weekend.
“The artists aren’t required to do any work during the retreat,” says Thompson. “They have the option to start their piece, or they can hang out and meet the other artists, go hiking or do nothing. But the theme of the exhibit, and this weekend, is creating voices for the land.”
As the weekend progressed, however, the artists connected, sharing hikes, food and drink while discussing ideas for their pieces, jotting thoughts and sketching drafts. Almost immediately, each artist began to make themselves at home at the old Kane Ranch.
When they first arrived, Ed Grumbine, director of North Rim Ranches, gave them a tour of the ranch, saying, “There’s something special about the quiet and the space that transforms this old Mormon house into something people could really connect to. As an artist, how do we deal with things people can’t see? How do we portray feelings and beliefs? How do we really take a look at these issues affecting our region? Because issues create opportunities for resistance.”
While most artists had only vague ideas about where their piece would take them, each wanted to try to get something down to spark some sort of idea. Deb Strong Napple, a synesthetic artist, took to Marble Canyon and sketched the sounds of its white and red and saffron walls. Andrew Orr took photographs of the ranch with his Wista Japanese film camera. Rebekah Nordstrom, a plein-air painter who hopes to create a painting a day, crafted her 300th painting of the view from Kane Ranch. And Diane Hope, a writer and sound artist, began using the method of binaural recording to create soundscapes of Kane Ranch, recording conversations with other artists, the squealing of doors and gates and the wind as it pushed itself into the canyon.
But as an artist, how do you answer questions about reducing harmful emissions, grazing issues or tourism?
“The job of an artist is to ask questions, not give answers,” says Shawn Skabelund, a sculpture and installation artist. “There is an objective beauty in the world, and it’s our job as artists to share and explore that beauty.”
With the Kane Ranch Artists Retreat and the future exhibit, Erica Fareio, an ink and watercolor painter, hopes to reach people in a new way, a way that speaks to the heart on a visceral, raw level, the way only art can.
“As artists, we have an incredible opportunity to get people to think,” says Fareio. “If we can do that then I think we’ve accomplished our goal.”
Thompson, the retreat’s organizer, hopes to include more Native American voices in future gatherings to bring new perspectives to these familiar issues. And while the artists have yet to come up with a concrete name for the exhibit, Thompson says the tagline will likely include voices from the Colorado Plateau because, “I think people want to do something about these issues, and I think people care a great deal more when there is that voice, something to connect with.”
In Annette McGivney’s new book “Pure Land,” she explores concepts in Shinto belief, stating, “nature is more than beautiful; it is pulsing with unseen spiritual essences that can hold sway over human life.”
From its breathtaking views of the Vermillion Cliffs and the sunken terrain of Marble Canyon to the sweeping winds that carry the scent of warm earth and dry grass, the diamond studded night sky and the layered sunsets like oil on water, Kane Ranch captures all who seek a connection to the land.