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In the shadow of Vermilion Cliffs

  • 9 min to read
In the shadow of Vermilion Cliffs

Tyler Norman of the Beehive Collector is facilitator of the discussions and early planning stages for the mural. He draws on a whiteboard the group's plans for the mural thus far in an "improvisiational composition."

On Wednesday, Sept. 4 Flagstaff High School AP Art students piled onto a small, white bus and headed north into the northern Arizona desert with the ultimate goal of designing a new mural for Flagstaff. It will be showcased on the Grand Canyon Spirits store’s wall. The mural will illustrate the effects of mining on indigenous peoples.

The project is part of the Grand Canyon Trust’s (GCT) Youth Leadership program, in collaboration with Flagstaff Unified School District, the Beehive Collective and Mural Mice. The idea is the brainchild of Maria Archibald, manager of the GCT youth leadership program, who aims to show that young artists can enact positive change in their community.

“Very often in environmental and conservation work there’s a huge emphasis on science and there’s a huge emphasis on politics — those things are enormously important,” said Archibald.

But, she wants to create a platform for people who are not scientists or politicians to join the conversation surrounding water in the west.

“A huge goal of this program is to make room for the young people with passions and skills and voices that haven’t been traditionally integrated into conservational and environmental movements,” Archibald said.

The art camp is divided into three sections, driving and learning, intense discussions on the issue of water on the Colorado Plateau and how to translate ideas, symbols and motifs into art facilitated by the Beehive Collective’s Tyler Norman. The Beehive Collective, a group of artists, activists and educators, work together to make art that tells a story.

On Saturday and Sunday of the project, the design phase is over, and the students started to design and paint a mock of the mural.

Before the young artists reached their campsite at the Vermillion Cliffs, they heard the stories of two community leaders who shared what mining has done to water supplies on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations. Their stories became the inspiration for the students’ painting.

First, the group met with Sarana Riggs, Grand Canyon program manager at the GCT. She took the students to an abandoned uranium mine outside of Cameron, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation.

In the shadow of Vermilion Cliffs

Zia Kypta-Keith discusses the mural with her group which is tasked with showing a cityscape and suburban sprawl. The three person group focuses on showing opulence in a wasteland.

Uranium is not dangerous until it is oxidized, which happens after it is drawn out of the ground for refining and transport. Because it is so heavy, it stays close to where it was mined and is spread via wind and dust. Contamination can occur from breathing the dust, swallowing the dust or having the dust touch an open wound. The uranium dust can also seep into groundwater sources.

“It’s insane, you can just see the wind blowing up all this [contaminated] dust towards people. It’s awful,” said Robin Bradley, a senior at Flagstaff High School.

Riggs informed the students on the massive scale of the issue — it is spread across the southwest, and other regions of the country, not just localized to the Navajo Reservation.

“[The mine] was scarily close to the city of Cameron so that really brought a lot of things into perspective for me,” said Cecily Shaddy, another senior at Flagstaff High School.

After their time with Riggs, the group headed to Moenkopi to visit farmer and former President of the Black Mesa Trust, Leonard Selestewa.

Moenkopi is an idyllic oasis of green in a desert of Loony Toons orange. The town resides on the side of a sharp cliff overlooking a lush valley of traditional Hopi farms and the occasional tree.

“I could always just go back to Flagstaff and turn on the faucet ... It’s eye-opening to hear from someone who doesn’t have that option,” Shaddy said.

Selestewa detailed how Peabody Coal Mine’s water use and abuse has affected his farm. The coal mine utilizes a water-fed pipe system to ship coal to the Mojave Generating Station in Nevada. Selestewa told the students that when he was young the river which feeds Moenkopi farmland was full, clear and ran year round.

“Now its super muddy, its full of silt and stuff and runs maybe six months out of the year,” Bradley said, recalling the farmer’s stories and her own visit to the region.

After Moenkopi and a short detour to Coal Mine Canyon, the students got back on the bus and shot up Highway 89, then cutting west on the 89A to the Vermillion Cliffs and their destination: Kane Ranch.

The GCT’s Kane Ranch sits 11 miles down a pale brown dirt road in the House Rock Wildlife area, in the shadow of the towering Vermillion Cliffs.

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument looms and towers sharp and jagged in the distance reaching heights of 2,000 feet.

The ranch is in a flat pale area of House Rock Valley, overrun with shrubs, bushes and one Joshua Tree. It is composed of a small handful of buildings including an outhouse and a homestead. The homestead is made of orange cobblestone and a paneled roof flared with structural posts and window frames of painted white wood.

The group camped outdoors in tents and hammocks, spread about the ground like pellets from a satellite mounted shotgun. Inside the homestead, students took shifts cooking and washing dishes. They flirted with the “too many cooks” conundrum with caution, limiting the kitchen to four campers at a time.

The large dining room had two hanging lights — kept off in the day, creating a low natural light — a red brick floor, a small wrought iron fireplace, a long wooden table to fit enough chairs for a board meeting and a wood panel roof. By the end of the week the walls were coated with large teal and pink construction paper covered with notes, ideas, graphic organizers, schedules and mind maps.

The sizable area felt cramped with 10 students and the four adults. Tyler Norman of the Beehive Collective facilitated discussions and promoted collaborative thought around the table. Archibald, Dave Hale, arts instructor at Flagstaff High School and Margaret “Maggie” Dewar, co-director of Mural Mice, shared their thoughts with careful scarcity because they tried to let the students lead as much as possible.

The trip was free and open to any student in AP Art who wished to join, 14 signed up and 10 attended out of the 30-or-so person class.

Dewar’s main role is to assist with the painting of the mural on the Grand Canyon Spirits store and the logistics required. During discussions she focused on learning from Norman, and seeing his method for mural design and discussion facilitation. Her organization, Mural Mice, is an Arizona-based artist group that paints public art all over the state, including the murals on The Lumberyard Brewing Company and The Orpheum Theater.

Norman let the students take the wheel — it is their mural. He facilitated and kept the discussions on track, but surrendered all design and thematic ideas to the group. He conducted creative exercises, team building games and discussions about the political climate around water on the reservations.

“The role of a teacher is not to stand up and download information into students’ brain’s but to ask the right questions that begin the right conversations,” Norman said.

The AP Art group started by listing everything they could think about relating to water in the Southwest — from coal mines to Tamarack plants. From the broad ideas, they refined the list over and over tossing out second-rate ideas as they went.

There was a long discussion about which animal characters to include. A large list hung on the wall: bees, turtles, bears, beavers, dinosaurs and geese. There were others that did not make the cut. The students played with the thought of drawing penguins as outsiders — suit toting businessmen who steal resources and deprive the environment.

“I feel bad about villainizing penguins and animals in general,” Shaddy said with a laugh.

The discussion was free form and controlled by the students at the rectangular table. The penguin controversy led to a discussion on invasive species in Arizona, which somehow found its way into talking about the art produced in South American Revolutions. The South American Revolution symbolism led to an idea likely to be included in the final piece: corn personified as farmers.

In the shadow of Vermilion Cliffs

Cecily Shaddy and Sherrissa Brown discuss how they should tackle their quarter of the mural: Pollution and Historic Resistance. Brown shows Shaddy a potential design.

The students doodled and painted whatever came to their mind as the discussion continued. The table was covered in random art including hunting rifles, farmer bees, Spiderman, self-portraits, Cowboy Kermit and watercolors of Kane Ranch. Each student had their own artistic style, and it showed in their mindless drawings.

“My input is laid down through the past two or three years that they’ve had me in their [art classes] but that input is through their [understanding] of how to use art elements and principles of design,” Hale said.

The group decided the mural should flow chronologically from left to right, showing the past, present, and future, with a river that branches through sections of misuse and healing.

“This group doesn’t want to argue, they want to come to consensus, they want to invite each other to participate, they want to listen to each other,” Norman said.

Native American students, like Samantha Woody, were consulted to make sure the symbolism matched Navajo and Hopi culture with accuracy and to not be offensive.

“I think [the mural] accurately represents everything that’s happening here on the reservation and what the people are going through,” said Woody.

Woody lived in Flagstaff through sixth grade, but now lives on the Navajo Reservation with her parents. She attends Flagstaff High School, and like her classmates, is excited to tell an important story about water through art.

The group is including Native American culture such as coyotes being tricksters, but is also trying to turn tropes on their head.

“We’re also going to make [coyotes] seem like extreme activists to show that they will go to extreme lengths to fool people into seeing the true meaning behind the water crisis,” Woody said.

Life in the orange and often alien desert north of Flagstaff has made her experience the effects of mining on water.

“Some of us go so many years without water running to the point where we have to buy the water at the store,” Woody said.

Water is the theme of the mural and is to be personified as a woman in the mural. As the only human to appear in the painting, the water woman had the longest and most controversial discussion. The group spent hour after hour trying to decide if the woman should be a mountain with a waterfall, a cloud providing rain, or the river itself. It came down to an anonymous vote where students raised up to five fingers with how much they liked an idea.

After voting, the woman as a mountain, which rings true with Navajo folklore, won with little struggle with nine students raising four or five fingers, and one raising just one.

The debate was settled, and the group moved on to create an improvisational composition — the roughest form of the mural and first actual drawn plan. They read notes on the wall, which to the untrained eye appeared more as a random collection of loosely related words and concepts than actual notes and ideas in order to remember the plan they have been working on at Kane Ranch.

Norman drew lines on a large whiteboard to mark a 1:3 scale. The Grand Canyon Spirits wall is 13 by 39 feet.

After the rough sketch was drawn, there was still uncertainty in the design. Norman opted to draw four options overnight that the students could choose from.

“I’m doing that personally because I want to make it a little easier for them,” Norman said. “The compositional part, deciding what goes where, is the hardest part. They don’t want to argue, they just want to get to work. They want to start painting,” Norman said.

Away from the long table, the creative intensity dropped and the high schoolers came back to themselves, talking about crushes, teachers, crazy experiences, how much boys suck and what classes they like and don’t like.

As the sun set on Kane Ranch, the group was ready to create their mural the next day. Once the sun had set and the moon had rose, a fire was started and everyone shared campfire stories. There were no s’mores, but a dark chocolate bar made the rounds.

“The whole project is putting a giant aspect on how people should be taking care of water and not be taking it for granted. Water to me is a gift and we shouldn’t be taking it away and using it up,” Woody said.

The next morning Norman presented the four options he created overnight, which the students looked at over breakfast of cereal and fruit.

After they ate, the AP students voted on their favorite. This time they marked two “x”s on their favorite option and one on their second favorite. The fourth option won by a landslide, featuring the woman as a mountain and minimal sky. The river flowed from past to present to future. The flow passed farmers, cityscapes, protest, dams, canals and future solutions.

Each student was divided into four groups based off what they were most passionate to work on. The mural draft would be composed on four pieces of canvas.

The first quarter was under the jurisdiction of Woody, Rebecca Encinas and Bradley who are responsible for most of the woman, the farm and a village. The second quarter group, focused on pollution and historic resistance, is made up of Sherissa Brown and Shaddy. The third quarter, which is set to include a cityscape, suburban sprawl and current protest is composed of Zia Kypta, Savannah Bell and Ethan Johnson — the only boy and a master of shadows and perspective. The fourth quadrant, with an emphasis on future solutions, was run by Cynthia Begay and Ava Steele.

“They’re optimistic about how [the mural] is coming along, and I think that’s the most important part,” Dewar said.

For all of Saturday afternoon and the first half of Sunday the artists worked their craft, creating a draft that tells the story of water in the Southwest.

Early afternoon Sunday the group headed back to Flagstaff, back to their regular life of homework and school. They left Kane Ranch toward paved roads knowing that they have created a design that will spread positivity in their town.

“What we choose to put on our walls and our public spaces says a lot about who we are as a community to the people within the community and people who come and visit,” Dewar said.

The final design is to be kept under wraps. Over the week after camp concludes, Archibald and Dewar will take the mockup to Riggs and Selestewa to make sure they feel their stories have been represented in the correct light.

Once the design stage is finished, Dewar and the artists will create a line drawing version to paint over and a colored version of the composition for reference, then Dewar will map the drawing onto a grid.

The grid will be transposed onto Grand Canyon Spirit store's wall, located at the corner of Humphrey Street and Fort Valley Road. Then, the line drawing. Finally, a group of approximately 60 art students, led by the camp group and Dewar, will paint the mural onto the wall. The process could take up to three weeks.

Once complete, the mural will be visible to travelers heading to Humphrey’s Peak, The Grand Canyon and other northern Arizona attractions as well as by locals passing by.