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Thursday, September 22, 2011

AfterImage Series

Entry 3

I had some responsibilities at the Canyon. It wasn't a scott-free deal, but it was a pretty sweet one. The AIR program gave me an astonishing place to live for 3 weeks. I was about as far from the sheer drop of the South Rim as a pitcher is from home plate. And I was on the second floor, with access to a rooftop deck (really just the flat rooftop of Verkamp's Visitors Center porch), so I could overlook the earth's innards. I loved it when tourists would pose in front of the Canyon, which meant they'd be facing Verkamp's, and muse to the wind, "How'd that woman get up there?"

In return for all this I provided the AIR program with 3 public services. I gave the 8th graders at the Grand Canyon School a creative writing lesson; I gave a talk on how petrographs came to be; and most memorably, I judged a children's art contest.

The class went pretty well. Halfway through I realized I'd forgotten to wear a bra in front of a group of 8th graders, and lost my concentration. To make up for it I became even more energetic than usual, until a girl sitting cross-legged at my feet asked me to stop waving my arms around. "Whenever you do that," she said, "the ashes fly up in the fireplace behind you and rain down on our heads."

Sure enough, the kids were covered in ash.

I gave the class the sentence, "I was making pancakes when the monster came, and..." The assignment was to complete it.

One kid said, "...cut eye, mouth, and nose holes out of the pancakes and wore them as a mask." But this was my favorite: "...said, "Hi honey, what's for breakfast?"

Judging the art show sounded like fun, but proved to be a real conscience-tickler. How do you choose between a kindergardener's masterwork and a high school student's pretty good assignment? Technique or inspiration? A young woman named Celina--my co-judge--and I nearly pulled out our hair.

Here's what I wrote about it for The Daily Telegraph...

Artist in residence: creating art in America's natural masterpiece

In the first report from her three-week asignment, Pamela Petro, artist in residence at the Grand Canyon, is tasked with judging the creative efforts of America's imaginative youth.

Creating art in America's natural masterpiece: blog one
Examples of the work created by Pamela Petro's young novices 

I woke this morning to coral-colored sunlight streaming across my bed and furious snow flurries framed in my window.

Canyon weather is like a kid’s drawing or a Cubist painting, an otherworld where no space/time combinations are impossible. Very cool, but it makes dressing difficult. The weather, as it happens, was a perfect template forthe day’s activities. One of my responsibilities as Artist in Residence is to do a series of community programmes, and today was my first.

I and a young woman named Celina, who’s about to embark on a career as an art teacher, formed a panel of two as jurors of this year’s Grand Canyon’s Kolb Studio Annual Student Art Show. It was our job to select first, second, and third place winners in four groups: 5-7 year-olds, 8-10 year-olds, 11- 13 year-olds, and 14-18 year-olds.

The theme this year was “Creating Traditions,” which, we discovered, can mean just about anything. To get the kids’ paints, pencils, markers, and crayons moving, organizers set a series of questions.What unique traditions do you or your family follow? What traditions do you have in common with others in your community? How do you create new traditions?

Based on the work we saw today, the American Southwest is in for some freaky new customs.

“Deers Kissing” is one. (Not “deer,” but “deers,” as the title insisted.) Another is sword-carrying snakes, pictured in a work called “Camping in the Woods.” There were also more, well, traditional traditions: kids drawing the Canyon, kids depicting the Canyon in collages, kids drawing animals, brothers, sisters, still-lives, friends, Native American iconography, and that perennial favourite, bugs.

At one point Celina remarked that many of the pieces must’ve been made at Christmas, since the kids filled their skies with massive, bright-rayed stars that looked like shorthand for the star. “Oh, no,” said Helen, one of the organizers. “That’s the way stars look to these children.”

That exchange, more than all the rock strata scribbled in yellow, red, and orange markers, reminded me I was judging a contest at the Grand Canyon and nowhere else. That’s how the stars look to me at night, too, from the crown of the sky all the way to the horizon. These children take nothing for granted.

Some of the titles were extraordinary. “Weather or Not” showed a storm over the Canyon—black clouds that looked like they needed a shave, heavily crayoned on neon-orange paper. “Night of the Silent River” and the cerebral “As You Go Within” were more about words than images. As was my very favourite title, “The Grand Canyon with 19, The Red Headed Condor.” We never figured out what that meant, but we liked it a lot.

Should someone ever ask you to judge a children’s art contest, don’t think, “Oh, how sweet! That’ll be fun.” You might as well reply, “Oh, forget the contest. I’ll just go straight out and crush children’s hopes and dreams underfoot, rather than critique their work. It’ll go faster that way.”

Celina and I agonized for three hours and looked at over 200 drawings, paintings, collages, and three-dimensional pieces. If Rene Westbrook, the Artist in Residency Coordinator for the South Rim, hadn’t brought us homemade Pad Thai for lunch, we’d still be there, too weak to make our selections.

We finally settled on “Painting of the Grand Canyon” by seven year-old Maria Hernandez as Best in Show, a vibrant, liquidy watercolor that looked to me like Chagall on a good day, with a new paint box. I hope this will create a new tradition for Maria: drawing what she so clearly loves.

  • Pamela Petro will be writing two further columns for Telegraph Travel, recounting her experiences as the Grand Canyon's artist-in-residence.

Here's Celina holding up Maria's winning work:

I heard later that some folks weren't too happy that a second grader had won, but Maria was happy.

Thanks to all the students at the Grand Canyon School whose work is featured in this post! And to all the students who submitted to the show. It was a delightful agony choosing amongst your work!

Monday, September 19, 2011

AfterImage Series


I had a lot of work to do at the Canyon.

Before I went I had an image of myself sitting cross-legged on the South Rim, communing with Time and Stone and other Big Ideas. I also saw myself pursuing Serious Art by day and musing and drinking wine by night, watching the Australian Open on my computer as the sun set, the stars crowded the sky, and the mule deer began to nose around. As it turned out, my MFA in Creative Writing students at Lesley University had major assignments due, so I spent a lot of time grading. And thanks to the kindness and interest of my editor, Michael Kerr, at The Daily Telegraph in London, I wound up with two major stories to write about my time at the Canyon, with three blog entries in between. As for the wine drinking...I didn't react well to the altitude--about 6000 feet, I believe, as opposed to my sea-level life in Massachusetts--and felt ever so slightly motion sick much of the time. Just enough to put me off of red wine (though I gamely persevered as best I could).

It was wonderful to have work and I'm deeply grateful for it, especially after struggling for the previous few years. But it meant I worked from non-stop, from breakfast to bed at night. Some of the work was walking, and taking photos, and thinking, and sketching, but unlike the freeflow of experience I'd imagined, I wound up scheduling creativity between bouts of paying work. Not quite the communing I'd imagined, but heck, I was still living on the edge of the Grand Canyon. Who can complain?

One of the Telegraph stories was due just a few days after I arrived. Because I had nothing to write about yet, I spent an intense day "experiencing" the place--mingling and meeting  Japanese, Dutch, British, German, and Australian tourists, hiking, petting visiting dogs, just generally poking around. Trying to keep in mind what my dad said about not getting too close to the edge. (Everything will be alright, according to my dad, if you don't get too close to the edge and always wear shoes when you ride a bike.)

Then after dark I set into writing the story. I hadn't finished by morning, so I got up around 5 am in order for the ms. to arrive in London by noon UK-time (meaning I needed to send it by 7:00). As I made tea and breakfast I kept rubbing my eyes. I thought they were just early-morning blurry, sticky and not-yet-ready-for-vision. But as I watched the teapot steam I realized there was an image obscuring my sight. I took it to be the after image of something I'd looked at--something high-contrast that burned onto my retina, like a light-bulb in the dark apartment (the sun wasn't up yet). Yet I hadn't looked at anything like that.

The floating thing was stubborn and wouldn't go away. Instead it hovered between the center and left periphery of my vision, obscuring my toast, my tea cup, the computer screen and keyboard. If I tried to look at it it would scoot to the left and pulsate, like an angry sea creature. I was fantastically frustrated and impatient with it as the clock ticked, and London waited, rubbing and rubbing, hoping that when I next opened my eyes, it would be gone.

But no. It stayed, and I worked through it. After I sent my story off I sat in the now-light-filled apartment and tried to see inside my brain. How can you focus on your own retina? I'm not sure if I was thinking the image or seeing it, but gradually I got a good impression, and sketched what I came to see as a beautiful obstruction. It was shaped like a boomerang and filled with interlocked geometric forms, very like the designs I'd seen the previous day on Native American pots

Nothing, absolutely nothing, in the apartment looked like this strange image. It was the after image of my own imagination, brought on by altitude, tension, and eye-strain, I guess. I decided to embrace it and make it my motif. As an installation artist I was unable to complete my project at the Canyon: national park land is off-limits as a natural resource for all purposes but inspiration. So my final work would be a kind of after image--or series of after images--as well. It seemed fitting.


Later in the day I took a nap. And that night I had more than one glass of wine...

Here are some random notes from my journal on the day of my first "experiencing," in order to write for The Telegraph:

"At the mule pen: big fight! Much nipping and kicking. Smells!"

"Canyon names features gods and heroes of the world. Why? 'Heroic nomenclature' includes Isis Temple, Kaibab Plateau Cheops Pyramid, Buddah Temple, and Zoraster Temple. Learning meets rock."

"Overheard: "It's just surreally beautiful. My vocabulary hurts."

"From a mule wrangler: The difference between riding a mule and riding a horse is like the difference between riding in a Cadillac and riding in a washing machine. Mules are just a whole lot smoother."

"Quiet. Bright. Smells of pinon pine. Sky crystalline blue. Like taking a shower in photons."

And here are the links to my Telegraph stories on the Canyon:

The First

The Last

My favorite in-between blog about the Canyon's mule wranglers

Sunday, September 11, 2011

GRAND CANYON: AfterImage Series

This is the first of 25 or more weekly posts that will chronicle one of the most extraordinary opportunities of my life: spending 3 weeks living on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon as Artist in Residence, in January and February, 2011.

The blog series will unfold in something like real time--or rather the recreation of real time. It's a stab at capturing the inspiration process, rather than simply presenting inspiration's finished product. I'll begin with my arrival at the Canyon, and the ideas that flowed so fast I could barely make a cup of tea, because I had to keep rushing back to my notebook in the living room, which looked out onto the North Rim, to jot down ideas I'd had while waiting for the water to boil in the kitchen...I had no peace, and that was good.

The Artist in Resident's living room, above Verkamp's Visitor's Center. To the right is the view from the living room window.

As the series unfolds I'll chronicle these invasive, tea-interrupting ideas, and how they evolved from scribbles and sketches into finished artwork--or, I should say, are still evolving, as the work as a whole is still in progress. (Let's hope I finish by February, 2012, as I'd like to conclude the series more or less a year to the day I left the Canyon. It'll be a push, so if my friends wonder why I'm slow in returning emails, please know that I'm not lying on the sofa peeling grapes, but trying to turn these fragments into art...)

Most entries will be posted on Monday mornings--unless I'm traveling, and then it's anyone's guess.

For anyone interested in the South Rim AIR program, see their website:


I arrived at the apartment. And there was the Canyon in the windows. I wasn't ready to see it yet--I didn't feel up to it. I was tired and jet-lagged, already beginning to struggle with what I'd learn would be altitude sickness. I needed to be sharp--ultra-sharp, perception honed, mind's eye memory at the ready--to meet the moment head on, my first view of the Grand Canyon. Ready to make a fine memory. And instead my hair was dirty and I was tired and I had a pebble in my boot. So I turned around and didn't look right away.

That lasted about 30 guilty seconds. When I did look out the lavish windows, into the vast red expanse, I still wasn't on my game, but can anyone ever live up to the Grand Canyon? The first thing I noticed were the absences.

Journal entry: 26 January 2011

My first view of the Grand Canyon

 I saw what wasn’t there before I saw what was. The blank spaces, the deep blue shadows falling from the face of the North Rim—they leapt at me and claimed my sight.

 The majesty of distance; the rocky reds and golds; the ancient tendrils of earth shakily staking a spot in the sun for deep time: these things brought me to the edge of tears when I thought about them.

 But those negative spaces came before thought. The rivers of shadow flowing down the North Rim. Time manifested vertically, pivoting horizontally. The Canyon as sundial, its cast shadows marking a trail of time like the one labeled on the South Rim Trail, albeit in hours instead of eons.

 Alright: I guess I thought about the absences, too. But that came later. First came the lure of abstraction: the blank, blue, negative spaces, streaming like inky tributaries of the night sky—at 5 pm, in strong late sun, a once and future promise—down to the Colorado River. Repositories of the imagination. Where fiction grows and flourishes.