Another post brought to you by Mr. Andy Ryan – Deputy Seeker.
Well it happened ladies and gentlemen, we fell in love with a place.
Wedged between the Dixie National Forest and the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, the town of Escalante, Utah sits with just under eight hundred permanent residents and has direct access to nearly four million acres of federally protected land. A stunning place to lay your hat – we found ourselves in the open shrubby desert searching for slot canyons one day and at an elevation of over eight thousand feet where the rainy day in Escalante was snow flurries at Posey Lake. With such a varied and wild landscape, the town attracts a number of transients. Scenic Byway 12, Escalante’s main street, is a just a handful of restaurants and gas stations that are completely outnumbered by the campsites, inns, and motels. Year round, the majority of visitors are climbers, backpackers, and canyoneers. We happened into the town during a unique time of year – in the middle of the 14th annual Plein Air Art Festival, which is where we met Jim and Sheila.
Plein Air, as we soon learned, is painting out of a studio and in sight of the subject. Although there were about one hundred completed paintings during the week-long art festival, we only saw a few painters at work while we were in Escalante. A few we found by the side of the road, another artist set up her easel and captured the beautiful mountain view from the RV park where we stayed, and one we watched during a scheduled demonstration, assistant professor Yidan Guo from Southern Utah University. Professor Guo found an old wooden shack in the middle of town, set up her supplies, and began sketching what would soon be her next watercolor.
Just before she began painting, Professor Guo smiled widely and said she would try to be done before the Awards Banquet that began at 7:30. It was just after 3 o’clock when she put that first bit of blue to paper, and none of us could tell if the Professor’s comedic timing was just a bit off or if we should really get comfortable beneath the spotty shade of this Honey Locust tree. The small crowd settled in though, popped open fold out chairs, and paid their deposit of patience to see how the painting would progress.
This is when I noticed Jim circling the scene, taking photographs with a metallic red pocket-sized camera. Jim looked to be late fifties or early sixties, with some gray coming out from under his ballcap, and an oxygen tube running from his backpack, over the bits of gray around and under his nose. The faint humming of the machine in Jim’s backpack was soon the only sound as the crowd grew quieter, running out of simple questions to ask the Professor while she worked.
The crowd only came back to life as the Professor announced that she was nearing completion. About an hour and a half had passed. Among the chatter of the crowd, Jim and I started talking about the watercolor, Edward Abbey, and soon about the trip. Jim’s reaction to our trip was pretty typical to other people we’ve met on the road, lots of “Good for you!” and “Exactly, do it while you’re young.”
Between small talk, Jim would snap a picture of the Professor’s progress as she focused in on the details. Jim started to talk about his life: working thirty years and taking early retirement through the teacher’s retirement plan; living in the “starter home” with his wife and not upgrading to avoid a higher mortgage payment; getting sick and being given a terrible prognosis.
“Four years ago, my Doctor gave me two years to live.” Jim shrugged and held up his palms as though his mechanic had underestimated the cost of repair by twenty dollars. “And that would be my advice, do what you can to retire early. Don’t put it off until one of you is too sick, too weak, too old to go out and do what you want to do.”
We talked awhile longer; Jim was bursting with recommendations of things to do in the Southwest, including some details on Chaco Canyon where we hoped to be in a few weeks. Finally, our Professor announced she was finished; two and a half hours had passed. The painting was life-like, detailed down to the broken and open windows and the powerlines behind. The wood of the shed had been given new green hued life. The Professor didn’t leave anything out. It was a beautiful depiction of this everyday scene. Jim snapped a few more pictures, said goodbye, and then disappeared with Sheila into their RV.
I met Jim, living on borrowed time, outlasting all projections, watching paint dry. We met sitting in silence for an hour and a half with a dozen other people we don’t know and won’t remember. In a way, a man could be doing anything else, not sitting and watching a stranger paint a shed in a small town to which he may never come back. In another way, Jim spent this time watching an artist do something beautiful, with time to spend on every old knot in the wood, time to paint sky and then paint a tree or mountains over it, with patience for creation.
I’ll never forget spending this time in Escalante with Kathryn, wondering around the Art Festival and taking the time for this demonstration. I’ll never forget Jim or his wife and their advice and the lesson to have patience. Even when it appears that everything is rushing to an end, there is beauty in time passing and that is part of life.