Living in southern Utah usually elicits questions surrounding the two popular National Parks Bryce Canyon and Zion. People often tell me, “I’m so jealous you live in Utah! I love Utah!” and they continue to tell me how much they admire the unique landscape and scenery of this part of the United States. I’m not surprised or rolling my eyes at their comments, but living somewhere we often neglect being tourists in our own backyard. Making a trip to Bryce Canyon National Park usually means you have to plan a day to make your way up the canyon and I hadn’t thought much about visiting Zion after my fateful hike on Angels Landing. However the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary changed all of that, and to my surprise I experienced Zion like I hadn’t before. Leaving a place I’ve known for years and then returned to, I have a refreshed perspective and see things I didn’t before. Working in the arts I find the process is the same. After spending days at the office finding the latest videos and podcasts about Shakespeare and making plans to see shows, I sometimes need a break and a visit to Zion National Park provided more for my creativity.
Arriving with my fellow graduate students at Zion, we begin discussing the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Projects Administration (WPA) that were both started during the Great Depression to employ people with government projects including constructing buildings and roads. The WPA and CCC have been in the back of my mind ever since my visit to Red Rocks Amphitheatre and I being to think of that Colorado landscape as I look around Zion’s cascading canyon walls.
Our conversation continues to the Federal Project One that involved projects for artists, writers, musicians, actors, and media personnel in various arts projects throughout the United States. With the federal government support, artists were hired to create illustrations for posters for WPA writers, musicians, and theatres as well as posters for National Parks. During this time the government commissioned public art without restricting content or subject matter, a controversy that still lingers in the arts today. In addition to this, the projects also involved teaching classes to the public, an aspect many arts organizations incorporate into their programs today.
Thinking on these projects from the past, I’m in admiration of how it’s shaped the current state of towering dark red and orange canyons in front of me. Now that I’ve worked in the Southern Utah Museum of Art, my mind continues to return to the paintings of Jimmie Jones inspired by this landscape. For the first time, I’m beginning to see what he saw and I recall his depictions of every mountain rock and trees that line the valleys as I take time to soak in Zion National Park.
Returning home, I delve more into the WPA and learn something that resonates with me even more. Established through the WPA, the Milwaukee Handicraft Project employed 900 people classified as unemployable either because of age or disability. It’s inspiring to think that before I ever heard of ethical practices in fashion and empowering artisans this mentality was put in place long ago. Closing my eyes, I take a few minutes to recall my hike to Emerald Pools and think of the beauty not just from artisan hands, but from the artisan work of nature itself. We can create incredible art, but it’s nothing like nature. If you visit this park, you’ll see why so many people are amazed and wish they could make art as phenomenal as Zion National Park.