The Creative Power of Landscape
Grounding ourselves in the natural world can nourish our imagination
Posted Jan 11, 2016
When I arrived to interview visual artist Chad Niehaus at his studio in Moab, Utah, he had just returned from a morning of sketching, having watched the sunrise at the Green River Overlook in Canyonlands National Park, tracking the glow as it hit familiar landmarks and brought the red rock canyons to life. “I brewed a pot of coffee, read a little, did my best to stay warm, and took photos for source material for a studio piece.”
Many artists work en plein air, of course, but Chad’s particularly physical approach to his landscape painting offers insight into the very visceral, bodily nature of creativity. Chad goes to elaborate lengths to bring his canvasses, pastels, and sketching supplies into the wilderness in order to feel and experience himself in the landscape. “The physical effort of getting into the landscape energizes and focuses me.”
So, for example, at a recent lecture, Chad explained the origins of his small 5-inch square linoleum block print, “Folly’s Fulcrum.”
“To get inspired, I go on long, often difficult trips in the back of beyond, with all sorts of drama — bruises, dehydration, bliss, hunger, hysteria, hilarity, immense peace, and some- if I’m travelling with a companion-- bickering.”
As someone who loves to wander the trails of the American Southwest, I wanted to hear more about how pushing himself to demanding places deepened Chad’s creative process.
Folly’s Fulcrum originated on an eight-day backpacking/rafting trip through the Island In The Sky, Needles, and Maze sections of Canyonlands National park. The trip almost never happened, mainly because of concerns about water: too little of it, too much of it, and, finally, just the right amount.
The day they left brought severe rains and flood warning. Sheets of rain slapped the Moab diner windows as the two men ate breakfast and each silently contemplated cancelling the adventure. As they left the completely socked- in, fog-enveloped and rainy trailhead, though, the weather turned and the landscape revealed itself in looming towers, brief sun breaks, and vibrant color.
In the diner they’d worried that there was too much water, now their concern was whether there’d be enough water. The rains turned out to be a boon. “The weather that almost scared us off is what made the trip possible — the heavy rain filled the potholes and recharged the springs, giving us plenty to drink for the next seven days.” Along the river and the trail “we watched for the rain-filled potholes and would get down on our knees and slowly fill our water bottles by the capful to keep going.”
“There’s something ridiculous about this,” he cautioned. “Most of the time, all I have to show for all of that stuff is one piece of art (and/or a limp). In this case, it’s even more ridiculous, because all I have to represent this recent long trip is this tiny little thing made up of simple shapes and lines, four colors, and a couple of brush strokes. But, the imagery does convey, at least for me — its creator — all that background stuff — to the point where when I look at it, I get goosebumps.”
The “tiny thing” is a linoleum print of a dominant landscape feature in Canyonlands National Park, an immense, remote area: Ekker Butte.
Chad explains both the subject and the print’s size:
“As we were traveling through the park, we quickly found solace and comfort in the buttes, pinnacles, mesas, and mountains that served as landmarks. A lot of the time, we would get our bearings in one district by locking onto a natural feature in another district. One landmark that kept appearing throughout our trip was Ekker Butte. I wanted the print to be small and intimate, to reflect my feeling for that landform which had been our constant companion during a difficult trip.”
To Get Inspired
For a long time, my image of creative productivity and inspiration was the artist or writer or scientist alone in their studio (or laboratory) working in splendid isolation, purposefully cut off from extraneous stimulation. Annie Dillard famously wrote, “Appealing work places are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.” Jawaharlal Nehru, Ghandi’s associate and first PM of India (and a man who spent many years in English jails), advised that prison is an excellent place for aspiring writers (he recommended it for aspiring politicians as well).
While there is profound truth in this—the need for a quiet place, free from distractions for the creative process-- we can also be misled into thinking of creativity as something that springs solely from our heads in isolation from the natural world around us. How do we turn to nature, to the landscape, to the feel of our bodies in the natural world, for inspiration and energy?
That’s what I wanted to understand, and why I found myself in Chad’s backyard Moab studio, pastels of the Utah landscape in various stages of development taped to the white walls.
To Feel The Flow
As we sat in his comfortable studio, the two of us contemplated Chad’s large, recently completed work, Crazy Town (pastel on paper, 22X30”).
How did Crazy Town come to be? I asked.
“My wife, Emily, took our six-year-old out and so I had some time in the afternoon. She gave me a ‘hall pass’ for most of that day in August. I wanted to maximize the use of my time and knew just where I wanted to go. I’d taken an overnight pack rafting loop months earlier and fallen in love with one particular spot along the route. That’s the spot I chose for my ‘hall pass’ day.”
Carrying his blank paper and pastels, Chad drove miles upriver, then paddled across the Colorado and hiked three miles up the canyon. “I feel a pull to different spots and spend a lot of time hiking in the Utah outback. When I have a free afternoon, I usually know where I want to go, rather than aimlessly wandering around for inspiration.”
Getting there involved not only the river crossing in a small inflatable boat but also finding his way to a ledge he remembered, crossing a number of rocky outcroppings. “At times I thought this was ridiculous; on either side of me there were drop- offs and considerable danger. I kept moving, with that familiar fear and excitement at what I was doing.”
On the ledge Chad was able to do an initial sketch that became the basis for what would be a finished work in his studio. He worked quickly in pastels, filling in the major shapes and outlines, shadows, of the view. His fingertips burned as he blended pastels on his sun-baked paper.
When the afternoon light faded and he needed to get home to his family, Chad then had to ferry the draft back across the Colorado river, which he did by wrapping the paper in plastic and carefully carrying it down to his waiting raft. “The plastic was sticking to my legs. I worried I would create creases in the paper, and I realized then that I’d taken the wrong boat—my little inflatable raft was too small really for the paper, which I had to carefully curl around my back as I paddled. But I got it home and then I could work on it taped to my wall in my studio.”
Chad readily agrees that when you compare studio work to plein air work, studio work is stronger. Then he adds: “But, when I start plein air, right in the middle of nature, I find I get the flow state that I need. I feel it, the adrenaline and inspiration I need to go deeper. Nothing gives me that like working directly in the remote outdoors.”
It was the experience of water—their dependence on it in the parched landscape, the beauty of water-filled potholes, and especially the phenomenon of “seeps” in the canyon walls—that began to give Chad a focus for his Seep series. Seeps are small rivulets of water that emerge from the porous rock of the Southwest, forming vibrant trails of color on the canyon walls.
“These seeps began to feel sacred, certainly special. In this arid environment, water was dripping out of the canyon walls. A miracle. And the forms the different seeps made were so cool!”
The Seep series began in March, 2014 with Chad stepping out of his inflatable kayak and setting up in the middle of Utah’s remote Dirty Devil river, sketching a very special set of seeps that he imagined as almost human in form, a set of people (Seep No. 1, 8.25x5.5”).
“Standing in the current was central to my getting this series started and to my commitment to it. I was moving, as was the water. Working in this way created a sense of urgency as well. I was forced to create with pure intent and focus.”
Chad is currently working on Seep No. 3 (Another Pioneer, 30x14”). It is a studio piece based on a photograph taken on the final day of a seven-day family raft trip through Desolation and Gray canyons of the Green River. “The week was spent floating on and swimming in the river with my wife and son. I took a photo to record all that amazing color and brought that back to my studio to create the work, but I’m still riding on the flow state of feeling that water. My flow in creating the piece comes out of that involved experience with the water’s flow.”
Working in very physically demanding locations has another benefit: it creates a sense of urgency that allows Chad to get the work done. When he sets up to work on a canyon ledge or in the middle of a river, he knows he only has a certain amount of time. Soon the light will change or the rain will fall, and “on a given day, I know that at five o’clock, say, I need to be home for my wife and son, to cook dinner. So, I can’t be wandering around during the day, looking for inspiration. It helps that I have come to know this land so well.”
As a self-employed artist with a wife and young son, integrating alone time in nature with his family life and responsibilities takes some skill. Careful planning and use of his time makes this process work. “I turn forty next month and here I am a family man wandering around the desert for hours or days? My wife, Emily, gets it and is very supportive of my work, but still I need to show that this process has meaning, that, yes, I’m having fun but also I am being responsible and making my living.”
The result, in Chad’s work, is a very personal and intimate relationship to the natural world. “My work, for me, reaffirms how much I love living in this landscape, the subtle power of even a single juniper tree.”
More than just sensory input is at stake. Rooting ourselves in our landscape is a way of affirming our own humanity and, as Chad’s work suggests, it can inspire our deepest sense of hope, connection, and community.
Dr. Sam Osherson is a psychotherapist in private practice in Cambridge, Ma., and author of the novel, The Stethoscope Cure.