by Michael Zabel
Sonoran desert. Height of summer. Monsoons and haboobs. Hell on earth.
Before setting off on my recent adventure to Phoenix, Arizona I ceaselessly checked the weather report during the week leading up to it hoping that the mid-summer desert fever would break to provide a more comfortable existence for the few days I would be exposed to the relentless “dry-heat.” Let me just say, dry or otherwise, 110 degrees is h-o-t. As luck would have it, half of my journey kept me occupied in northern Arizona where, thanks to the higher elevation, temperatures were much more comfortable. In Flagstaff I was able to sketch a bit outside without drenching the page with my own sweat. Aside from this, I also came across some artworks in Flagstaff that were not desert landscapes, unauthentic Native American patterns, or Georgia O’Keefe hack jobs that are so prevalent in Sedona and Phoenix galleries – Sedona being the vortex (as prominently advertised throughout the town) that sucks in tourists while simultaneously doing the same to the money in their wallets. Sadly, the natural beauty surrounding the area can only be seen in the aforementioned galleries. To see anything even remotely inspiring, a short drive out of town to a designated “viewpoint” or a hiking trial is necessary and even here you will encounter so many tourists that it will prove a challenge to snap a decent photo that doesn’t include a golf polo shirt or a sun visor in your frame.
Now before (before?) this post fully digresses into a loathsome rant, there were indeed many enjoyable aspects Arizona. Primarily I had the privilege of staying at the Arizona Biltmore, a resort designed by Albert Chase McArthur – not Frank Lloyd Wright as some Phoenicians like to believe. Wright, however, did play a part in coordinating some of the decorative elements as a consultant architect during construction of this swanky establishment. Beautifully incorporated in the landscape, the design for the Arizona Biltmore frames the surrounding mountain vistas that look down on the grounds; guardians of a lost temple in the hidden oasis. The decorative relief carvings of Emry Kopta are utilized throughout the entire space to invoke the distinct style and history of the Native Hopi tribes of the region.
Moving back in time, I also had a chance to explore some ancient Pueblo architecture at Wupatki National Monument. This still active archaeological site is home to a very well preserved Pueblo ruins of the Sinagua, Cohonina and Anasazi tribes that inhabited the region nearly 1000 years ago. A true testament to the craftsmanship and ingenuity of the buildings is the sheer fact that they have survived, unmaintained through natural forces and human interaction, so that today we can get a take a small glimpse into the past and speculate what life may have been like for these ancient people. From providing the necessary functional shelters from the harsh elements to the creative and decorative innovations of tools, pottery and weapons for hunting, were they really so different from us today?
Even further we travel, now into the uncomprehending realm of geologic time and the massive natural sculpture that is the Grand Canyon. Attributed to the painstakingly patient Colorado River as its sculptor (assist to tectonic uplift) the vast chasm is still being carved out and formed to this day. Nearly a mile deep already it’s hard to grasp the amount of time it took to craft such an incredible sight. This display of organic force gave me a humbling perspective on the patience a creative mind needs to live by every day, microcosmically etching our own path with each and every stroke of the brush, mark of the pencil or click of the mouse, careening forward into an ever-changing and unpredictable future. The question one must ask themselves pertains to legacy. When you are through with what you have to say, will it continue to inspire after you are gone? The responsibility to uphold significance is in our hands, individually accountable as a piece of a larger ideology.