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Elizabeth Murray Paints Utah

Escalante is the name of a town in Utah, and also of a winding green-brown river that flows nearby through basins, mesas, and hills. Combining the scenery of Bryce and Zion canyons, the area around Escalante is one cubist trip—colors and shapes imploding, jutting, overlapping; deep-blue skies shooting in and down and beyond. Certainly one of the most intense visual feasts in the world, the landscape here has, I have found, inspired the shapes and colors in my paintings over the years.

For the last decade, I have been in the habit of escaping from New York with a few girlfriends, usually to southern Utah. We talk and hike and look for four or five days, which is just long enough to become transformed by the region's spectacular beauty. This time, we made Boulder (Boulder, Utah, that is) our base. It's right on the edge of Burr Trail, which, with a name change or two, winds all the way to Lake Powell, 70 miles south of town. There's no other way to take in the dizzying views but on foot.

The sandstone and siltstone formations around the Escalante River are 180 million years old. The colors are stunning—layers of pinks, maroons, yellows, ochers, and siennas. Each layer of rock has a different name—Kayenta, Navajo, Wingate—marvelous, evocative names, too many to remember. The warm tones are concentrated against the pure blue of the sky. Puffy clouds mimic the shapes of the rocks, which are combinations of jagged and flowing lines—like a lava spill, in some areas. The sinuous lines in the rocks echo the branches of the scrub oak. Junipers and pines add their various greens to the riot of glorious color and shape: the solid rock, with the airy sky an opposing plinth, gives it all dimension.

Most of these drawings are from sketches made during a walk down into Bryce Canyon early in the trip. Bryce is just as dramatic as the Grand Canyon, only smaller and easier to take in. The sense of space and distance is quite incredible. The rest of the drawings are from walks along Burr Trail and the Escalante River to Calf Creek Falls and Capitol Reef, which overlooks the Fremont River. In spring there can be rain, but there is no danger of the flash floods that come in summer. The air is pure and smells deliciously of juniper and pine. For bird-watchers this place is heaven; we spotted grosbeaks, pinyon jays, bluebirds, and magpies, to name a few. For me, it's unforgettable.

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