Samantha Zim’s rendition of Castleton Tower and the Rectory in Castle Valley. [Photo Courtesy Samantha Zim]

Samantha Zim’s pen and ink and watercolor artwork reflects the drama and mystery of the landscapes she depicts. Intricately lined sandstone features and juniper trees; lofty, colorful clouds; sunset oranges and dusky purples animate her scenes.

Zim has been selected as the Community Artist in the Parks for the Southeast Utah Group of national parks for 2020.

“Samantha’s art is grabby, vibrant, and captures the intensity of these desert landscapes we all know and love,” said Karen Garthwait, coordinator of the Community Artist in the Parks program in the Southeast Utah Group of National Parks.

The Community Artist in the Parks program, initiated in 2009, invites one local artist per year to spend April through October creating work inspired by the region’s parks and sharing that work with park visitors.

“I’m super excited to have gotten it,” Zim said. “I like having it for the 2020 season.”

She applied for the position last year, and was not selected, but feels it may have been for the best.

“It feels like the right time for me—I think I’m in a much better position going into it than I was a year ago, having had more time to settle into my own groove and my own style.”

Zim earns her living as a medical illustrator, but since moving to Moab in 2012, she’s been inspired by the desert to experiment with landscapes in her free time.

“Moab has had a huge effect on the type of artwork that I produce,” she said. “It took some time for the landscape to really kind of get under my skin, to the point where I wanted to draw it.”

Zim explained that the kind of illustration she does for her day job must have a very realistic quality. Her landscapes, in contrast, have a stylized, dreamlike character.

“Landscape really only opened up for me when I stopped having realism be the goal of the work that I was creating. And then I started chasing the feeling of being here, instead of exactly what it looks like,” she said.

Her professional work does influence the look of her personal art, however. Traditional medical illustration is done using techniques that emphasize strong line quality, an element also evident in her personal work. From that strong line, her style “spiraled out from there and got more abstract as I spent more time drawing the Moab landscape,” Zim said.

Moab’s world-class rock climbing opportunities are also reflected in Zim’s work. She’s been a climber for about 14 years and has always spent a lot of time outdoors.

“I primarily draw things that I climb, because that’s what I’ve developed a relationship with,” she said.

She continued, “I don’t draw places I haven’t been. This stuff isn’t rooted in realism for me—it’s very much filtering landscape through my experience. And if I haven’t physically been there, then I don’t have any business trying to draw it.”

For Zim, part of the Artist in the Parks program will involve deepening her connection with the four park units that are part of the Southeast Utah Group: Arches, Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, and Hovenweep. She has never visited Natural Bridges or Hovenweep, and plans to make trips to each this winter to prepare for the program, which requires her to work in each unit.

“I’d like to spend a little bit more time in those places, to cultivate those relationships,” she said.

Zim also looks forward to a more profound exploration of Arches and Canyonlands, where she has spent time but not done a lot of drawing. She has a few ideas of the formations she’d like to feature in her work.

“I’m super excited to draw the Three Gossips,” she said. “I’ve never done it and they’re so stunning. I’m a tower person, not an arch person necessarily.”

There is one arch, however, she feels she can’t overlook.

“Obviously as Artist in the Park, you’ve kind of got to draw Delicate Arch,” she said, referring to one of the most iconic features in Arches National Park. “It’s this thing—it’s been done so much, now there’s almost this extra weight on it, like, ‘Okay, how are you going to do it?’ It’s been done this way and this way and this way—it’s almost a loaded subject.”

In addition to the artist drawing inspiration from the parks, a key element of the Artist in the Parks program is the artist creating a bridge for visitors to connect to the parks.

“A lot of visitors rush through these parks, but when they meet an artist on the trail it gives them a reason to slow down and really take in what they’re seeing,” said Garthwait. “They relax a bit, smile, and maybe put down the camera for a moment to just enjoy the view. I think they walk away feeling a more personal connection because of that moment.”

Zim wants to make that connection a focus of her time in the program.

“I want to provide an opportunity for people in the local community, people who are working in the parks and just different elements to share stories about their experiences in the parks,” she said, “and I also want to provide that same opportunity to people I interact with who are visiting.”

Her concept for her art project is still evolving, but she says she wants to combine the stories she discovers with her own artwork.

“I would like the outcome to be some kind of little booklet or field notes where you really have this tangible thing that talks about people’s connection to place, specifically southeast Utah,” Zim said.

She sees a book as a perfect medium for her work and for the Artist in the Parks program since they share a common theme: story-telling.

The selection panel for the program liked her concept of incorporating visitors’ stories into her work.

“How she wants to interact with the visitor is intriguing,” said Sam Wainer, operations manager for the Canyonlands Natural History Association and a member of the selection panel, “to learn from the visitor about their experiences in the natural world, collect their stories and present them with her artwork. Interacting with the visitor is a strong component of the program and is always factored into our decision.”

Wainer noted that these interactions can be as profound for the artist as for the visitors.

“What’s really amazing is to hear stories from past artists about the connections made while in the field,” he said. “It is hard not to get teary-eyed listening to the passion, enthusiasm and bonds that are formed through these encounters.”

Zim is curious to find out what kinds of exchanges with strangers the program will facilitate. She is used to sketching in public places and eliciting glances and remarks from passers-by.

“But I’ve never had any kind of capacity like this will be, where literally there’s a sign pointing at you saying, ‘This is the artist, go bother them,’” she noted. “I think it’s going to be an interesting experience.”

Community Artist in the Parks program forges deep connections to place

“They walk away feeling a more personal connection because of that moment. That’s what the program is about.”

– Karen Garthwait