Utah Is an Oasis for Artists

<i> Merin is a New York City free-lance writer. </i>

This quiet desert town, founded mid-19th Century as a Mormon settlement in eastern Utah, is a haven of manicured homes and clean-swept streets. At first glance it might appear to be a cultural backwater.

But look again. Moab is an artistic oasis, the center of a vital Western art movement with more than 200 professional artists in a town of only 4,000 residents.

That makes it fertile territory for nature-loving visitors who can celebrate the land’s scenic beauty, meet the artists who study it and visit their studios for buys in art.

Serena Supplee, a Moab-based landscape oil and watercolorist born and raised in Iowa, discovered Moab on a family vacation in 1969 and never forgot the place.


“When I was in art school in Iowa years later, I finally got into advanced classes where I could paint what I wanted to paint, and the images of red rock country around Moab and over the Colorado Plateau immediately came to mind,” Supplee said.

“I began painting rock formations, arches and castles of rock, spires and great vistas that had given me such a strong feeling of serenity and wonder. My profs noticed how strongly I felt about the images and suggested I move closer to my source of inspiration. So I did.”

For Supplee and other resident artists, Moab is surrounded by inspiration. Within a 35-mile radius of the town center lie the majestic vistas and geological wonders of Canyonlands and Arches national parks, plus vast expanses of unspoiled red rock country.

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine anyone, artist or not, who doesn’t feel compelled to take sketchbook or camera in hand as they view Canyonlands’ amazing Maze Overlook or Arches’ gravity-defying Balanced Rock.


But for those whose inspiration exceeds their accomplishment, Moab’s resident artists supply a rich and varied selection of collectible work.

Many Moab artists are represented in museums, including the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City and Santa Fe, N.M.'s Armory for the Arts. Most exhibit at Moab Mercantile and Gallery, 5 N. Main St. Prices run $25 for signed prints to $10,000 for large oil paintings of red rock country.

Painting styles range from exacting realism to dramatic impressionism.

Subject matter also varies. There are landscapes featuring multicolored rock strata, river beds, tapestry-like red and black rock coloration known as Navajo varnish and fascinating rock shapes. Also depicted are aspects of the area’s history, including the legacy of now-ruined cliff dwellings and mystery-shrouded petroglyphs left by the Anasazi Indians who used to live in red rock country.

“We each have our own way of working in and with the desert. I go on long sketching trips, or sometimes work from photos I’ve taken. I sometimes paint in the field, but working in my studio gives me more control,” Supplee said.

Her bold impressions of red rock country are monumental in feeling, although many are diminutive in size. Supplee’s style is understated, with simplified shapes set down in strong earth tones, purples, greens and blues to give a feeling of volume and re-create the dramatic play of light. Prices $100 to about $1,000. Supplee also makes wonderful greeting cards. Suitable for sending or framing, they fit into business envelopes and sell for about $1.50 each.

Wayne L. Geary’s watercolors, oils and acrylics are detailed close-ups of sections of rock formations such as “Barrier Canyon” (oil on canvas, $750), which examines the multicolored rock strata and lush greenery as if it were under a microscope.

“Moon Phase” (oil on canvas) is a detailed close-up of rock strata covered by traces of petroglyphs. The foreground of “Behind the Rocks” (oil on canvas, $1,000) is a detailed rock arch. “Lost Mesa” (oil on canvas, $1,200) is a panoramic overview of red rock ridges and mesas.


Pete Plastow, formerly a cowboy and museum exhibit designer, paints large realistic canvases that have a romantic, heroic mood.

“Sanctuary” (oil on linen) shows three Indians watering their horses in the shade provided by a sheltering rock overhang. “Cut Back” (oil on linen) depicts a cowboy in all-out pursuit of a runaway longhorn. Plastow’s paintings sell for $500 to $10,000.

Ben Schnirel’s gouache paintings are realistic and detailed. A rich and varied palette is used to create images that at first glance seem to be almost monotone. Matted and framed paintings sell for $175 to $450. Signed matted or unmatted prints sell for $25 and up.

Page Holland, one of the few resident artists who grew up in Moab, is a photo-realist who paints scenic vistas, cowboys and wildlife.

In addition to producing detailed oils and limited edition prints, Holland paints on irregularly shaped slabs of sandstone. Although the sandstone paintings are done in oil, the process requires a watercolorist’s sureness of hand because the sandstone absorbs the paint quickly. The sandstone paintings are $75 to $150; oils on canvas are $300 and up.

Photographer ViviAnn Rose is also a Moab native. After 15 years away, she returned to delve into red rock country landscape. Rose custom prints black and white compositions and then colors them with oils to create vivid and dramatic images of rock formations. Prices vary.

With a photo file of more than 14,000 images, photographer Tom Till is responsible for many of the scenic shots that bring travelers to Utah and the Colorado Plateau.

His magnificent landscapes--which have appeared in travel magazines, on calendars and in photo books--show the artist’s keen knowledge of red rock country in all seasons, all moods. Prints from $300 to $3,000, depending on size and use.


Todd Campbell’s unusual photographic studies are impressionistic double exposures that juxtapose the magnificence of red rock landscape with the mystery of Anasazi petroglyphs.

“Friends Across the Canyon,” for example, shows a wide-angle vista of mesas and spires under a sky etched with an Anasazi petroglyph of people with arms outstretched to each other. Framed prints cost $35; matted prints are $20.

More artists are expected to gather in Moab for the University of Utah’s recently established Moab art school, which will offer a range of Canyonlands-oriented studio and field courses and workshops.

Short-term adult extension programs are open to non-professionals. For a catalogue, write to Division of Continuing Education, University of Utah, 1152 Annex Building, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112.

In addition to the paintings or photographs in Moab’s galleries, most of the artists have others that are shown to prospective buyers by appointment in their studios. The Canyonlands Arts Council, 64 S. Main St., (801) 259-6929) will supply information.