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Artist Paints Pollution to Save Landscape

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Twenty-five years ago, when Curt Walters got bored painting in his studio, he packed up his easel and oils and headed for the Grand Canyon, where he planted himself at the edge of the stunning expanse.

It was the beginning of a love that would make Walters famous for his sweeping canyon landscapes. But as he studied his muse over the years, he noticed troubling changes in the quality of the air.

“I paint what I see, and I started to notice drastic changes in my painting, in the texture and softness,” Walters said. “I could tell which days were polluted, had pollen, were dusty because of pollutants and which were not.

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“I found myself going to the canyon during the winter a lot and avoiding summers.”

In 1993, Walters found a way to use his art to help protect the canyon--and the environment.

With his paintings fetching up to $42,000 apiece, Walters approached the Grand Canyon Trust, a regional group based in Flagstaff that is dedicated to preserving the natural wonders of the Colorado Plateau.

The plateau spans 130,000 square miles in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah.

Walters told the trust he wanted to add paintings to the cash gifts he was donating.

“We were very pleased and honored he would do that,” said Eric Howard, a trust spokesman. “It’s an incredible benefit because he reaches audiences who may not be ‘environmentalists.’ Art lovers all of a sudden start to see the light.”

Since then, Walters has donated about $12,000 to the trust. That’s in addition to two paintings of the Grand Canyon--each worth about $25,000. He donated a third painting to the National Park Service in 1994 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Grand Canyon National Park.

“I’m not running out there with the pickets and signs, but this sort of gave me a voice,” Walters said. “I grew up in the Southwest, on the Colorado Plateau, and I see a lot of things happening that I wish weren’t happening.”

A native of Farmington, N.M., Walters cited overdevelopment, dams and open-pit mining as some of the changes he finds regrettable. For the last 17 years, Walters, 46, has made his home in Sedona, a town nestled among spectacular red-rock formations in Arizona.

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The artist’s efforts enabled the Grand Canyon Trust to serve on a multi-state commission that studies air quality problems in the West, said Howard, the trust spokesman. Walters’ donations helped pay for the trust’s representative to attend commission meetings.

A report by the commission last summer found that haze at the canyon during prime tourist season has reduced the views to less than half what they would be otherwise.

The haze is apparent to Walters, who packs his canvases, oils and easel into a weathered van and drives two hours north to the canyon about four times a month.

There, he paints the expanse on canvases as large as 50 by 80 inches, capturing the shifting light and shadows with orange, red and yellow oils.

His work caught the eye of the owners of Forbes Magazine last summer. The Forbes family invited Walters and 14 other landscape artists to paint its ranch in Fort Garland, Colo. The resulting works were exhibited at the Forbes Gallery in New York last January.

Dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, actor Robert Urich and basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar also own some of Walters’ American Impressionist paintings.

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Walters’ paintings hang on virtually every wall in his home, an airy structure filled with colorful oils and large Asian vases.

“I think my paintings have allowed me to step into public groups and make them aware of what’s happening to the Colorado Plateau,” he said. “I don’t need pickets; I have paintings.”

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