A River Runs Through Us:
Viva La Verde Via Artists
Ellen Jo Roberts
Sometimes we're high and
Sometimes we're low.
Just like the river,
We go where we flow.
Reflecting the sky,
Connecting the earth,
It all comes together,
Through sorrow and mirth-
chorus of “Life is a River” by Wendy Harford.
© April 2013
Cool grey-green waters and muddy footprints. Polished rocks of all sizes, down to the tiniest bit of warm, grainy sand. Caves, cliffs and dried reeds tangled high in the willows. Shaded arboreal canopies cooling a summer day. Starting with a trickle from its headwater springs near Paulden, the Verde River builds up speed as it collects groundwater, tributaries and springs en route to its eventual joining with the Salt River. Its lush banks of ancient Cottonwoods, a curving trail of green when seen from high above, gives name not just to the river but to our entire valley. The Verde evokes images and emotions in all who have frolicked along its banks. A perennially flowing stream, its very special riparian ecosystem makes up a rare 2% of Arizona’s geography. And as with any rare element, demand exceeds the supply.
However, one thing not in short supply locally is creative folks: Painters, sculptors, photographers, poets and musicians. Perhaps they can use their talents to engage the public about the river’s value and the importance of its conservation. A group of 25 Arizona artists is attempting to do just that. In launching their kayaks downstream for a three-day group camping and paddle excursion this spring, they soaked up the river’s beauty and now prepare to translate it into fine art.
The Verde Artist Challenge, a project sponsored by the Cottonwood-based Verde Valley Land Preservation Institute, will share their inspiration via a traveling art show, “A River Runs Through Us.” The artwork, in a variety of styles and media, will be the results inspired by the group’s foray along the Verde. The first showing opens on July 27th at the Manheim Gallery in Old Town Cottonwood, and will travel to other local venues throughout the next year. Phoenix Sky-Harbor Airport has also expressed interest in the series, sharing the artists’ view of the Verde River with an international audience.
“The Verde is a verde emerald in the high desert. An incomparable jewel,” said VVLP president, Bob Rothrock. An avid river-runner, Mr. Rothrock explained to me how the Verde Artist Challenge took shape, nearly by chance during the “Walkin’ on Main” event along Historic Highway 89A in Old Town Cottonwood last autumn. Attracted to a piece of art created by the multi-talented Wendy Harford of Cottonwood, Rothrock and wife Kristen began a conversation with the artist about the river and were quite surprised to discover she’d never paddled it. Mr. Rothrock, an avowed paddle-junkie, admitted he gets a “large charge of taking people on river trips.” I can practically see the light bulb going on above his head as he says, “Wouldn’t it be great to get artists on the river and get them inspired?” Working with Ms. Harford who had experience with artist group events, the Verde Artist Challenge came to life.
Artist applications were accepted and judged in early 2013. “At first we thought, gosh, are we going to get enough artists to apply for this?” said Mr. Rothrock, “It was uncharted waters.” They received 32 applications for 25 positions.
From April 5th through 7th, the 25 artists participated in a 10 mile Verde River adventure beginning at Camp Verde’s White Bridge and ending at Beasley Flats. Two nights were spent camping at Rocking River Ranch, midway, with daytime symposiums on birding, nature photography and archaeology led by local experts. During free time at camp, artists were able to sketch and paint en plein air, take photos, swim in the river and dangle from rope swings, play music, sing and write songs around the campfire. Videographer Bryan Reinhart of the Sedona Film School joined the group to film the journey for a future documentary.
The grant-supported trip provided river guides, inflatable kayaks for the artists, as well as meals at camp. The grant also provides each artist with a $200 stipend for their eventual donation of art. Each artist will donate at least once piece of art to the VVLP, with rights for the images to be used by the organization. At the finale of the traveling exhibit, the artwork will be auctioned with all proceeds benefiting the VVLP and the Friends of the Verde River Greenway.
“Honestly, I feel more importantly than the money is the public and getting their hearts connected to the river,” said Mr. Rothrock.
By connecting the community to its river on an emotional level and engaging with the art, we share the Verde’s importance to the populations it touches. I was able to join the group for the final five-mile stretch between Rocking River Ranch and Beasley Flats. We’ve spent many rewarding afternoons floating the Verde in Clarkdale and Cottonwood, but this was my first time paddling this portion of the river, extremely scenic with gypsum cliffs, limestone caves and something the river guides referred to as The Tunnel of Love. Though most of the rapids were no more than Class 2, they were abundant. Several were slightly technical and all quite thrilling, eliciting a “weeeeeee” more than once. Refreshing splashes made me happy to have packed my cameras in a dry sack. The artists, most from the Verde Valley, but several from further away, were each a delight in their own unique fashion. Most had never visited this stretch of the river, and in fact many had never kayaked before.
“Kayaking down the Verde River was a magical and visceral experience; one that reminded me how precious water is in the desert and how often we take it for granted in our lives,” shared Saskia Jorda, an interdisciplinary/installation artist from Phoenix,“The river is part of nature’s circulatory system and so it becomes an extension of our own. Protecting and caring for it is vital to our own existence.”
Watercolorist Judy Jaaskelainen of Clarkdale struggled to verbalize her rich feelings from the trip, “My part, as an artist, is to paint what that felt like, to describe in some way how being with the river delicately touched my patched-up heart. I am still processing my experience from the weekend. I am so very grateful to have been included. I don't know how to put into words how meaningful it was. I hope my artwork will reflect some of the pure joy and happiness evoked by this sweet, sweet gathering.”
“Water is integral to life,” declared Jerome multi-media artist, Richard Johnson, “Rivers are the veins of our living earth. Without our life-blood flowing, part of us will die. The Verde River is that important to me.” As a potter and a sculptor, Mr. Johnson remembers harvesting buckets of clay from the Verde’s banks in the 1970s, “and will again soon, with other artists from our magnificent river trip.”
On April 11th, 2013 at the Camp Verde Multi-Use Complex Auditorium, the U.S. Geological Survey presented the findings of their study "Human Effects on the Hydrologic System of the Verde Valley, Central Arizona, 1910-2005 and 2005-2110: Applying the USGS Northern Arizona Regional Groundwater Flow Model." The groundwater model was based on data collected from 1910 through 2005, incorporating the Verde River Watershed and estimating the impact of human activity on the base flow of the Verde River at the Paulden, Clarkdale and Camp Verde stream gauges. This study of the Verde River’s flow, prepared in cooperation with the Verde River Basin Project and the Town of Clarkdale, indicates a decrease of water in the river due to increased groundwater use. There is future potential for the river to run dry during summer months. Per the Bureau of Reclamation report “Central Yavapai Highlands Water Resources Management Study” a conservative estimate indicates that by the year 2050 the Verde Valley and Prescott will exceed the available water supply by 45,000 acre-feet per year. That translates to more than 14 million gallons we’ll be short if we continue on our current trajectory. The Big Chino Sub-Basin (groundwater aquifer) northwest of Prescott is considered by many to be a crucial element of the Verde River’s flow. Prescott, a historic city and Arizona’s first territorial capital, has exceeded safe yield of water since the 1980s and each year development of the area’s tri-cities lowers the Little Chino Sub-Basin an additional 18 inches. The goal of the Verde River Basin Partnership is to educate the public about conservation and preservation of the river before changes are irrevocable.
“As artists, we are site interpreters,” said Ms. Jorda. “We have the responsibility of showing the world how we perceive the beauty and force of our surroundings. Through this work, we ask our audience to love and respect the Verde River for future generations to enjoy.”
"Verde River to me is the tranquility, solitude and home to the most precious life,” explained wildlife illustrator, Lynn Zubal of Sedona, “Preservation of the Colorado, Verde, and Salt River will protect all life and surrounding areas. We as artists can capture this beauty through art and our art can help protect all rivers and wildlife for a lifetime.”
Marika Vaaranen is a Camp Verde painter and an avid kayaker who grew up in Finland. She and her husband chose their location in Camp Verde because of the river. “To me the Verde River symbolizes life itself. The sounds of the river echo the sounds of all living beings. It takes each individual drop of water to make the river just as it takes each of us to make a community.” Though Ms. Vaaranen knows the Verde River well, she says, “I am still amazed by the amount of beauty and wildlife around her. Especially kayaking you notice that you'll never see the same river twice. The water flows down to the ocean and perpetually returns from rainfall. We hope. The Verde inspires my art and spending time in or near her makes me happy. She is the reason the desert is livable.”
In what ways can artists help the Verde River?
“Artists can open windows to the Verde River for people who may not otherwise have noticed or appreciated her fully,” explained Ms. Vaaranen, “Hopefully the art created by the 25 Verde Artist Challenge artists will make everyone who sees it want to deepen their relationship with the Verde River in some way. Once people have a heart connection to the river, they will want to protect her.”
For more information on the Verde Artist Challenge and “A River Runs Through Us”:
Ellen Jo Roberts lives just up the hill from the Verde River in Clarkdale Arizona.
You can read all about it at ellenjo.com