As you enter Zion Canyon, it's impossible to avert your eyes from the sandstone ramparts that frame the cleft cut by the Virgin River. They're just that impressive.
Both the canyon, which to many is the hallmark of Zion National Park, and the surrounding landscape, such as Checkerboard Mesa, have thrilled visitors and challenged artists and photographers for decades. It was this rippled landscape, as well as the arid climate, that in 1939 lured artist Maynard Dixon to nearby Mount Carmel, where he would spend his summers.
Dixon was one of the dominant Southwest landscape painters of the early-to-mid-20th Century. Many of his paintings graced the covers of Sunset magazine in its early years. From June 1939 into the 1940s, much of the landscape in and around Zion found its way onto his canvasses.
According to Desert Dreams, The Art and Life of Maynard Dixon, the artist "painted over 40 canvases in and around Zion National Park. The colossal stone giants of Zion -- Watchman, Alter of Sacrifice, Great White Throne, West Temple, Three Patriarchs -- were signposts in his encounters with this magnificent country. Broad stretches of sky dominate the horizon, but in the canyon bottoms 'standing up' country prevails: gorges, cliffs, buttes, mesas, an endless variety of sculpted erosional forms."
Today those images survive in such Dixon paintings as Approach to Zion, Moonlight Over Zion, Cliffs of Zion, and Dianan's Throne.
While Dixon is long gone, many follow in his footsteps to Zion, working both to perfect their brush strokes and camera angles. Through January 24, 2009, you can view some of the success stories at the St. George Art Museum through the exhibit, A Century of Sanctuary, The Art of Zion National Park. Among some of the works on display are a few by Dixon.
Once you've been to Zion it's easy to understand why photographers and artists would strive so hard to capture the park's essence. Here in the heart of southern Utah's canyon country erosion has had a wonderfully colorful palette of sandstone to work with, one that the rumpled geology adds considerable depth to.
If you think your own photos of Zion are among the best you've seen, you might want to enter the Zion Centennial Photo Contest being staged by the Zion Field Institute. First-place honors come with a $1,000 prize, and the possibility of another $500 that would give the institute the right to turn your work into a commemorative poster.
Art trivia aside, today marks the 89th birthday of the place now known as "Zion National Park." In truth, come next July 31 the landscape will mark its 100th year as part of the National Park System. It was on that date in 1909 that much of the land within the park's present borders was protected as Mukuntuweap National Monument.
Nine years later, on March 18, 1918, the name was changed to Zion National Monument, and on November 19, 1919, the "monument" became a "national park."