Painting Outdoors With Friends in the Sierras
By the Granite Group artists
Getting a Sierra pack trip for artists off the ground 14 years ago was an attempt to build community. I wanted to do something fun with other artists whose work I’d admired and who I had met at some recent plein air events. I was inspired in part by reading of Clyde Aspevig’s pack trips in Wyoming, as well as Sargent’s forays through the Alps a century ago with his companions. And, to be honest, I was afraid of bears! I had no desire to be alone in the wilderness at all. I wasn’t after solitude; I wanted to share a unique experience with other like-minded folks. My co-conspirator in all this, Paul Kratter, agreed to the basic premise but had one stipulation: Big Granite…. Whether it has been big, or bigger, granite, we certainly have seen our share of it in the Eastern Sierra, where we generally take our trips.
This year we returned to what I consider one of the jewels of the Sierra Nevada, the Lake Ediza basin in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Even though it is a 7.5-mile hike from the trailhead, with an elevation gain of about 1200 feet, it is hard to consider it “wilderness” when the local high school cross country team from Mammoth Lakes regularly runs up there and back during training.
Whether we visit a new spot or return to a familiar place, our time in these rather remote locations is limited. Even an afternoon rainstorm can cut a fair percentage of working time out of the trip. We were fortunate this time around that all the bad weather occurred on the hike in. It seemed the closer we got to our destination, the worse it got, starting with cloudy skies and the sound of distant thunder, progressing to light rain, then a steady downpour punctuated with regular flashes of lightning and loud claps of thunder. Finally, within a quarter-mile or so of the campsite, it began to hail the size of gumballs.
There’s a personal and group aspect to these trips. The personal, for me, is the sense of adventure, exploration, and discovery I get every time I go. There is nothing better than waking up in the morning in a pristine location, planning the day’s activities, then opening the tent and getting on with it. In that regard it is just joyous self-directed study.
Years ago Bill Cone called me about going on a pack trip with a group of artists to paint in the Eastern Sierras. He wanted to hire a cook and have our gear portered up by mules to a base camp so we could paint from sunup to sundown. That was fourteen years ago, and we’ve gone every year since then and had nearly forty artists join the Granite Group for a unique experience. This year’s trip to Lake Ediza started with quite a bang, quite literally as thunder and lightning, rain and hail descended on us as we hiked the eight miles to camp. Cold, wet, and shivering, we waited out a fierce hail storm until a break allowed us to set up our tents and change into warm, dry clothes and then enjoy a warm meal.
Although smoke from the Yosemite fire filled the area every day, our eclectic artists explored the areas nearby, sometimes painting together, sometimes sticking close to camp or striking out on their own. We painted intimate scenes when it was hazy, and when the wind changed and the air cleared, we focused on the spectacular peaks that surround the lake.
Each trip is different; the bonds we form are quite unique. Painting outdoors every day in such a spectacular environment with no agenda except having fun, everyone fully enjoyed the total immersion in being creative. We always have a show-and-tell evening at the end of the week to look at all the art. It’s always inspiring, and we wish we had more time together.
Camping in the Sierras with the Granite Group captures the best parts of sixth-grade camp. You get to learn and play all day alongside like-minded individuals who both motivate and make you better. Being in the wilderness of the Sierras is utterly fascinating, with something inspiring to admire with every blink. It reminds me how incredibly restorative being a part of nature is instead of being apart from it. Even the Ferguson fire nearby presented opportunities to capture nature in all her varying shapes and colors, which made for unusual paintings.
I can’t imagine a better trip than this. Sure, getting there is tough, but that’s part of the adventure, and it totally ups your bad-ass status! You feel tough when you finally get there (and for quite a while after you’re home again). You get to spend five glorious days painting outdoors in an artists’ heaven, hiking around in search of your next great scene, big or small — and they are everywhere. Once you find it, you set up in the most perfect working conditions ever. You breathe the air (albeit sometimes smoky), listen to the water and to the animals scurrying about as you sink fully into the zone of painting outdoors. You do this a few times, until the sun starts getting low and your stomach is gently complaining, then you hike back to camp for cocktails with good friends and food that never tasted so good. You share stories of life and art, and then you sleep to the sound of the waterfall across the lake (and the occasional bear sniffing around). Then you wake up and do it all over again. And when it’s all over, you hike back down the mountain (hoping no one falls down), eat a final meal with the group, and strike off for home. But long after you’ve washed off the mountain dirt from every crevice in your body, the memories remain, of a special time, with special people. Oh, and you get a few paintings out of it too.
The best thing about the trip for me was being totally immersed in beauty. We were trying to capture the incredible light of the surrounding high Sierra mountains from sunrise to sunset. After painting outdoors all day we would gather around the fire to talk about the day and discuss all things art. All of us were working to create beautiful paintings inspired by the natural beauty around us. We were aware of the artists who had painted before us in these same mountains.
Being part of a supportive group of artists who shared a common passion was an incredible feeling. Inspiration was everywhere … almost overwhelmingly so. The friendships that developed during the trip were a highlight. There is a trust that develops quickly when you see how devoted and passionate a person is about his/her craft. A closeness develops because you share that devotion and can relate to their journey. Overall, an incredibly immersive art experience in magnificent country!
As far as what these trips have meant to me — where do I begin? This was my ninth trip with the Granite Group, and every year I say, “This was the best trip yet!” One of the things I love most about this time is that we are all out in the middle of the most beautiful wilderness area you can imagine, and all we have to think about is, How early do I want to get up and paint, and where do I want to go explore and paint today? Every year we get to be with wonderful, like-minded souls who all love and live to paint. We can share our thoughts and processes, our challenges and victories, and at night just let go and have a good ol’ time around the campfire drinking wine and telling stories. Never a dull moment (thunder and lightning, some bear visitations) and never a year without some sort of adventure! These friends have become like family to me, and every year I learn so much.
Granite Group founders Bill Cone and Paul Kratter have come up with the perfect prescription for a successful plein air experience. Combine a small group of talented artists, add unpredictable weather at great heights, and finally, blend in a solid dose of humor and support.
While the fires of Yosemite weren’t threateningly close, the winds would blow from west to east, right into the bowl of Lake Ediza. Most of the week was quite smoky, which created great atmosphere for watercolorists but often obliterated the high mountain vistas all of us were after while painting outdoors. Even after an initial barrage of rain, hail, winds, and lightning, the always-positive attitude of talented artists Carol Marine, Michelle deBraganca, Ernesto Nemesio, and Scott Hamill, along with Bill and Paul, prevailed, and all of us hiked out with a handful of successful paintings.