Journal of Michael Baum / Travels of an Artist

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Butler Wash and San Juan River, Southeast Utah
Watercolors of the San Juan Canyon

San Juan River Canyon, Patrice Rhoades-Baum
San Juan River (photo by Patrice Rhoades-Baum)

"Distant Buttes", Michael Baum
Distant Buttes, WC, 4" x 3"


Tuesday, 4/24/07

Cold drizzle this morning. I'm glad we decided on a warm, dry, motel for the night. Over breakfast, we decide to explore the mouth of Butler Wash where it empties into the San Juan River. Past years, we have seen beautiful ruins and art farther up the wash. We should be able to get our vehicles in there even if it continues to rain. But during breakfast, the clouds begin to break up. The rain ends.

Caravaning west of Bluff, we turn off toward the airport. Another turn brings us to a dirt road, already drying in the desert sun. We park on a flat expanse of slickrock, a natural parking lot. Butler wash yawns to the southwest. We hike down the remains of an old ranch road built over the naked rock into the shadow-filled canyon bottom. A bend in the canyon reveals a set of ruins. We climb up and explore, finding large grinding stones and bunches of claret cups in fierce red bloom. We continue down the canyon discovering several rock art panels finally emerging at the confluence with the San Juan. The day has become beautiful. A striking deep blue sky is punctuated with crisp white clouds. Colors are intense, sky reflected in the river, golden light reflecting from the illumined cliffs.

Rock Art, Michael Baum   Rock Art, Michael Baum   Potsherds, Michael Baum

San Juan River Canyon, Michael Baum
San Juan River (photo) Michael Baum (possible large painting)

Towering cliffs edge the north shore of the river. The cliffs are a giant billboard of rock art images, thousands of them in huge panels, one after another. We slowly work our way along the cliff taking in what we can, photographing. There is a lot of stuff we've never seen, totally baffling. Floating light bulbs, a figure with a child? parrot? monkey? on its shoulder. There is a "cowboys and indians" battle scene. Indians on one side shooting arrows at the cowboys (you can tell by the hats) on the other side. They are firing back with rifles. One poor cowboy lies with an arrow through his head, his hat flung away to the side.

We explore another dwelling finding some interesting sherds and a lot of ground stone. While the others are exploring, I pull out the watercolor kit and sketch the cliffs. The first couple are awkward, overworked. Then they get a little better. The group, by now, has moved on down the cliff leaving me alone to hear only the sound of the river. I climb up the rocks for a view and paint a few more sketches. These are much better. I marvel at the impossibly blue sky filled with chiseled clouds. Then, I notice the intense pink reflection on their bellies. Something very red and massive lies to the south out of sight, bouncing its color onto the clouds above. In front of me is the river and its lining of trees. Beyond the river, the far side of the valley humps up in bluffs and hills. Warm buff and red fading to purple and blue out at the horizon. I try to paint a suggestion of what I see, but feel humbled by what is in front of me.


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