My painting setup at Shurtz Canyon, 2014

In this series of articles, Utah artist J. Brad Holt talks about what artists are seeing as they look at the landscape. Holt studied geology in college and is attentive to what the rocks suggest in the scenes he paints. 

I remember years ago, being south of Cedar City with my geology professor when he asked if anyone could point to the nearest fault line. I pointed at the red sandstone bluffs of Shurtz Canyon and stated that this was a portion of the Hurricane Fault. He answered that it was something of a trick question, as the cliffs that I was pointing at were not a fault line, but a fault line scarp. In other words, they represented what the rock had eroded back to, through weathering and mass wasting, since the last major movement on the fault. 

“East Temple Series III,” by J. Brad Holt, 2014, oil, 24 x 18 in.

“Not only that,” he remarked, pointing out a line of hogback ridges between our position and the cliffs that I had indicated, “there is another scarp from more recent movement.” It turned out that if we had hiked toward those cliffs, we would inevitably have found a number of minor scarps, each one indicating an episode of faulting and subsequent erosion. The professor pointed straight down. “It’s a pretty good guess that the actual fault line is somewhere directly beneath our feet.” It was at that moment that I really began to grasp the enormity of geologic time. 

If we were so fortunate as to have a time machine, and we could go back 100,000 years, we would still recognize the place, albeit with major changes. A million years, and we would recognize nothing. Indeed, it would not be the same place, for the continent itself would have moved beneath our feet. At varying points along a receding timeline we would find ourselves deep beneath the earth, or high in the air, or under the waves of an ancient lake or sea. The pretty red sandstone bluffs of Shurtz Canyon, which are so much fun to paint, are around 190 million years old. If our time machine took us back to that time, and we adjusted our position to account for tectonic plate movement, we would find ourselves in a vast desert to rival the Kalahari, or the Empty Quarter. 

“Afternoon Weather — Shurtz Canyon,” by J. Brad Holt, 2015, oil, 14 x 18 in.

The early history of geological science is marked by a debate between the catastrophists and the uniformitarians. The catastrophists maintained that the present landscape was shaped relatively quickly though violent upheavals. The uniformitarians, who eventually carried the day, argued that the earth is of unimaginable antiquity, and that the processes involved in its shaping are those that we observe around us today. The science would later toss a bone to the catastrophists when geomorphologists revealed that certain rare landscapes were indeed formed almost overnight in great cataclysms. A well-known example is found in the “scablands” of Eastern Washington, which were carved by a massive deluge resulting from the breaching of ancient glacial Lake Missoula.

“Indefinite Divisibility,” by Yves Tanguy, 1942, oil, 40 x 35 in. 

It is interesting and ironic that artists and geologists are dealing with different aspects of time. Geologists look back through the vastness of time to understand the processes and events that led to the landscape that we see. The visual structure of that landscape becomes an icon to the plein air painter, who seeks to crystallize the essence of it in a single perfect moment of time. The studio painter often tries to make a statement on the nature of time itself through visual allusion and simile. For example, the surrealist Salvador Dali was obsessed with the passage of time and the resulting decay and entropy: thus the melting watches crawling with bugs and rot. Alternatively, his fellow surrealist Yves Tanguy grew up looking at the rocks of his native Breton coast. They stayed with him always, and eventually evolved into the black shadowed biomorphic forms on an endlessly receding landscape for which his art is known. Artists, at least those artists who paint landscapes, become known by those landscapes. Perhaps each of us should ask ourselves: What is the landscape where I live? What is its natural history? What effect does it have on me as an artist? The answers to these questions could deepen the relevance of our work. Knowing where we are is part of knowing who we are.


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