Bruce Aiken's artistic devotion to the gorgeous Grand Canyon drives his painting and his life.
By MICHELLE ROBERTS
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, Ariz. -- Bruce Aiken is an artist with only one subject. He paints the Grand Canyon over and over and has for more than 30 years.
The sheer rock walls cut by the blue-green waters of the Colorado River are his lone muse, his love, his obsession.
"She's the model. She runs my life," he says.
The Grand Canyon is a siren that enticed the 54-year-old Aiken to drop out of art school in New York City at age 19. He worked any job he could to stay near her and raised his family within the canyon's walls.
"The Grand Canyon is such a big part of me. How do you leave your muse? I feel like the canyon controls me sometimes," he says, his shoulder-length, salt-and-pepper hair fluttering as he walks through a South Rim visitor's plaza.
In the beginning, Aiken was so intimidated by the canyon that he could only tentatively sketch it in a notebook as he analyzed the rock layers and botany of his model. After three years of studying, he worked up the courage to begin painting the Grand Canyon. He never stopped.
Today, his panoramic oil paintings, which range up to 6-feet-by-9 feet in size, sell for up to $45,000 and he has a line of waiting commission work, mostly for private collectors who are equally taken by the natural wonder.
Commercial success has surprised Aiken, who arrived in Arizona in 1970 with $18, a paint box and few ambitions beyond a desire to live near something beautiful. He was raised in New York by a mother who was an artist and a father who was an actor. He had visited the Grand Canyon as a child, but by the time he reached college, the stunning scene had faded into something he thought he'd only imagined.
He saw the canyon again after his first year at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and he was totally taken. He spent another year in art school, but could not forget what he had seen in Arizona.
So, he hitchhiked west in 1970, landing in Phoenix to live with supportive grandparents and cousins, who figured him for the "wild, crazy hippie cousin from New York," he says.
He spent about a year taking community college classes, where he met Merrill Mahathy, a Southwestern landscape artist who instructed and inspired him. Aiken also met and began to woo Mary Shields, a nursing student he persuaded to share a motorcycle ride and eventually marriage.
Then, in early 1972, he rode his motorcycle to the South Rim and decided he wasn't leaving. "I felt like I had arrived at the ultimate destination," he says.
However, the only people allowed to live in the park were employees, so Aiken got a job with the National Park Service. He repaired trails and worked on a construction crew, lugging bricks and doing other work that no one else would. He camped in the woods near Hermit's Rest on the South Rim. Aiken and Shields wed several months later.
In 1973, he talked his way into a job maintaining the water pump house on the canyon floor below the North Rim at Roaring Springs. He had never before turned a wrench, but he desperately wanted the work because it came with the best accommodations he could imagine: a white-framed house with a porch and a picket fence at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Life on the floor
Mary Aiken, a shy woman with straight, dark shoulder-length hair who grew up on the Pacific coast in Seattle, had figured she would end up living near the ocean. However, Roaring Springs gave her the same sensation, so she and the couple's then-9-month-old daughter, Mercy, went with Bruce Aiken to the canyon floor and stayed. The Aikens had two more children and still could not bring themselves to leave. So, they home-schooled and raised their children below the North Rim as long as they could.
The children met tourists on the trail and invited them to dinner, and, as a result, the Aikens had dinner guests nearly every night.
"The environment lends itself to camaraderie," says their daughter, Shirley Aiken, now 30, who knew her upbringing was unusual only because others told her it was; it was all she knew.
In the late 1980s, the family got a home on the rim so the children could attend regular school, but Bruce Aiken's love affair with the canyon continued. He still moved to the canyon floor seasonally and painted constantly, his wife and children visiting on weekends and holidays. Even today, the Aikens still return to the canyon home. Their two-bedroom, wood-frame ranch house is surrounded by sheer rock walls that climb thousands of feet. A creek streams past the house, feeding cottonwood, box elder and oak trees. A front porch runs the length of the house, built from materials helicoptered in by the National Park Service.
Shirley Aiken, an artist in Tucson, remembers how her father labored over painting after painting earlier in his career, "just constantly up to the canvas" doing meticulous and detailed work, his face almost brushing the wet paint.
For a while, he did 12 to 15 canyon paintings a year, sometimes working on two or three easels at a time.
These days, he works at a slower pace, but Aiken always has work in progress at his studios, one wedged between his kitchen and living room in the rim house and the other at the Roaring Springs home. His best known works are blue-hued panoramas, some from rim vantages and others from river level. Blue, he insists, is the main color of the canyon despite its red rocks.
What compels him, draws him in, is the "absolutely pulsating life vibe" of the canyon, he says, waving his arms as he leans against a guard rail at the rim. "It's dynamic at every single level."
Sharing the vision
Many of his collectors are as compelled by the muse as he is.
The Grand Canyon is "a spiritual thing in my life," says David Bakke, a retired vice president for the U.S. Postal Service. "His work best gives me the feeling that I'm there." A Tucson resident who has hiked the canyon at least 50 times, he long admired the painting he eventually purchased from Aiken.
"It was kind of a love affair with his work, with the canyon and with the whole story," says Bakke of the decision to make his first ever big art purchase.
Collectors generally prefer Aiken's sweeping canyon portraits, but he has begun painting more intimate views -- close-up images that appear abstract or to contain hieroglyphiclike patterns.
After three decades of painting and living in the Grand Canyon, Aiken is finding more to create.
"As I'm going down the trail, I'm not looking at the big picture anymore because it's obvious," he says, stomping on the wood floor of his studio as if he's hiking downhill. "There is more to see."