Visual Art | Zion Eyes: A Century of Sanctuary explores the way artists see southern Utah. 

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One of the big draws at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 was an exhibition of paintings of a canyon outside of Springdale, Utah, by artist Frederick S. Dellenbaugh. The pictures of the towering, beautifully colored canyons were so incredible, even unknown to those used to the landscapes of the eastern United States, some viewers began suggesting that the place didn’t really exist. Luckily, a young man named David Hirschi, who just happened to be from Rockville, Utah, also just happened to be passing through St. Louis on his way home from a Mormon mission in Europe. He confirmed for the skeptics that the place did exist by pointing to a hill in one of the paintings and telling an audience he had killed a deer there and used its skin to make the shoelaces on his feet. n

Lyman Hafen, who relates the story in A Century of Sanctuary: The Art of Zion National Park, notes that, even today, seeing Zion live for the first time “can stop you in your tracks and cause you to wonder if such a place truly does exist.”

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The Dellenbaugh story illustrates the role artistic interpretations of Zion National Park have played in making the southern Utah landmark an international travel destination for millions of visitors each year. What we now know as Zion National Park was originally called Mukuntuweap National Monument when President William Taft set it aside in 1909. The name changed to Zion in 1918, and it became a national park in 1919. Whatever one calls it, the place marks its centennial in the coming year, and part of the celebration is an art exhibit of 68 pieces, which runs at the St. George Art Museum through Jan. 24, 2009.

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Those pieces, along with many others, have been collected into a book illustrating the wide variety of ways Zion has been interpreted by artists. The gathering of paintings (and the occasional photograph) alone makes this a worthwhile visual venture, but the essays by Hafen, Peter Hassrick and Deborah Reeder make for an intellectually stimulating journey as well.

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Hassrick touches on everyone from Kant to Thoreau in discussing the role art played in creating a national mindset where “Americans realized that aesthetic relationships with nature assured some of life’s truest pleasures.” Hassrick credits an art exhibit put on by the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., in 1917, with documenting a victory in a decades-old debate about whether beautiful settings should be preserved just because you want to have them around to look at in the future. He writes, “Just as art was in the forefront of establishing the national park idea, … art continues to play a vital role in how these park treasures are understood, enjoyed, and preserved in modern times.”

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Reeder, curator of the art exhibit, provides an excellent description of how the paintings in the collection represent an intersection of factors: the degree of difficulty in physically accessing the area; the major movements occurring in the art world at the time; and the experiences and expectations artists brought to the pictures. For example, she notes that artists who live in Utah “generally soften subjects and make the scenes less rocky, harsh and forbidding,” because it is their home and they want to make it seem familiar. On the other hand, outsiders “felt no need to make habitable the place they were visiting. Rather, they sought to make it sublime, even exaggerating the extremes.” Reeder goes on to note, “The non-Utah painters and photographers … tend to show places that are close to uninhabitable. … Zion is shown as a forbidding, formidable yet sublime place.”

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Of course, the best way to experience the amazing vistas of Zion National Park is actually to visit the place. But for those who don’t live close enough to drop by on a regular basis, the next best way could be to see it through the eyes of the gifted artists presented in this book.

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A CENTURY OF SANCTUARY: THE ART OF ZION NATIONAL PARK
nLyman Hafen, executive editor, Zion Natural History Association, 2008, University of Utah Press
n132 color pages, $34.95 cloth, $24.95 paper
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