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  • Michael Baum

Creative Quicksand

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Backpacking in Grand Gulch:

An artist's encounter with quicksand

The word "quicksand" conjures images of slow death by drowning and suffocation. Boyhood images of the bad guy in some adventure movie slowly...slowly sinking, panic-stricken, screaming for help that would never come, gasping in disbelief as he finally goes under: first the chin, then the mouth, the nose, finally the eyes. Only his hat remains, floating on the surface.

I always thought that quicksand existed only in exotic, far-off places I would never visit. Not so. In fact, it's common in the sandy canyon bottoms of Utah during the spring run-off. Not exactly the deadly kind of movie fame, but enough to give you the general idea. Water saturates the fine sand in the creek bottom. As the water sinks below the surface, the sand becomes jellied on the surface but remains nearly liquid below. Step in it, and it sucks you down and holds on. Fortunately, I stepped in with one foot, realized what was going on before putting in the other foot and was able to get out without great difficulty.

Where quicksand hides

But that's not the kind of quicksand I really got stuck in. Just before our trip , I came down with the worst cold I've had in years. Two days before our departure, I felt so bad I didn't think I could go. Spending five days and four cold nights outside in the bottom of a canyon sounded like torture. A few days later, I found myself strapped to a backpack hiking with Patrice and eight other members of the Colorado Archaeological Society into Grand Gulch in southeast Utah. This was our third trip into the canyon. Grand Gulch is 52 miles of winding sandstone galleries filled with ruins, rock art, fantastic rock formations, hidden pools, cottonwoods, giant sage, and peace.

In spite of the head cold, I had a great time. Days filled with exploration and basking in the warm sun. Nights illuminated by a full moon.

Then I tried to paint.

Day four: I climb to a wide, sloping ledge above our camp. Cottonwood and box elder, intensely green with new leaves, crowd the canyon floor, hemmed in by soaring sandstone walls. I've tried a few pencil sketches on previous days, but just couldn't connect. This is my last chance. Paint or die. I can't concentrate, so I try the stream-of-consciousness approach. The stream is full of quicksand sucking every bit of creativity from my sand-filled head. Six paintings later, and I'm beaten. The "paintings" are as garbled and muddy as my head (so bad that you will never see them). I give up, let go, just looked, listened, and felt.

My watercolor kit

Down canyon, a murmur of breeze approaching. It grows to a rush as it rounds the bend, stirring the trees, racing up canyon into what could have been my painting. Then stillness. The croak of a raven grates off the canyon wall. Gentle conversation floats up from camp below. Sounds that seem to enhance the "silence."

Shadow climbs the east wall, a violet backdrop to trees blazing with green

fire. Shade engulfs my ledge in cool, glowing, unnameable grays.

There is something to be said for having higher thought sucked away, leaving only the ability to sense, to perceive without the agenda of creating something from it. This is what I carried with me the next day as we hike out of the canyon, back to the world of horizons, and back to the studio where I used all of those impressions to paint "Spring in the Canyon"

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