[Photo by Murice D. Miller / Moab Sun News]

Despite the many years Julia Buckwalter has spent in desert regions throughout Utah and New Mexico, she recently found herself deeply affected by the ocean while she was house-sitting near Cape Henlopen in Delaware.

“I found all these interesting parallels to the desert: the openness of the sky, the intensity of the clouds and wind, and the variation,” Buckwalter said.

Both the desert and ocean felt secluded and untouched; there was a symbiosis between the wildlife and extremes in weather.

“It’s easy for me to transition between the desert and the ocean because so much of the imagery is similar,” she said.

Buckwalter has been chosen as the Community Artist in the Parks for the Southeast Utah Group of national parks for 2021. The Community Artist in the Parks program put down its roots in 2009, the idea being that one local artist would spend time in the national parks producing new work from April through October. The artist would make themselves available to interact with park visitors during the artistic process.

“Art can be a solitary thing…you’re in your comfortable space, you have everything in its comfortable place,” said Chad Niehaus, founder and artist representative for the Community Artist in the Parks selection panel. “The artist is showing vulnerability by creating art in front of somebody, which in turn lets the viewer feel comfortable sharing something about themselves.”

Despite last year being impacted by COVID-19 and the many challenges it brought, Buckwalter feels especially optimistic going into this year.

“One thing that’s really helpful for me going into all of this—and for everyone—is that we have the opportunity for the vaccine,” Buckwalter said. “I think that because it’s outside, there’s just a lot more comfort there as well.”

Unlike last year when it wasn’t possible for visitors to meet up with the artist, this year there is again the chance for visitors to watch the artist work in real time. This will perhaps lend a new set of eyes to a familiar place, which Buckwalter looks forward to.

“As locals, we go to our little favorite areas, we explore new nooks and crannies, we take friends and family,” Buckwalter said, “but if you’re going out to specifically focus on different sections like I’ll be doing, I just think that I’m going to notice so many different features.”

Buckwalter’s earliest memory of painting comes from a photo her father took in 1987. Celebrating her grandpa’s birthday, a young Buckwalter sits coyly at the dining table with her mother and grandparents—her grandpa mostly concerned with when he can cut the cake. Up in the corner of the kitchen, a painting of a red elephant rearing on its hind legs is taped to the wall.

The painting likely drew inspiration from the French children’s book character, Babar the Elephant, whom Buckwalter was a considerable fan of.

Although she used acrylic a bit in her earlier years, Buckwalter admits that it’s been a while.

“To be honest, I haven’t painted acrylic since I was a child, so I feel really inexperienced there,” she said. “I plan to dabble with it for fun while I’m out in the parks since it’s quick-drying.”

Many of Buckwalter’s oil paintings embody much time spent observing her natural surroundings, experimenting with vivid blues, pinks, and oranges in a way that is soft and dreamy. They feel like she is finding her place in the whole of things—never too tied to where that might be—and the viewer is welcomed to witness.

“The work she does with clouds shows a classic day in the desert,” Niehaus said. “Those memorable moments when you’re out on the public lands. Everything is so crisp; the colors seem unreal, but that’s just how they are.”

Beginning her artistic journey with sketching, and being somewhat of a self-described perfectionist, Buckwalter ran into frustration as she began working with oils. By nature, they are much harder to manipulate and control than other mediums.

“That really kind of opened up art in a different way,” she said. “For the first time, it sort of felt like art became more emotional to me because I was able to blend something gently or use a harsh line. Sometimes my colors would get all muddy, and sometimes it would make me irritated, but then I would like it—you know, happy accidents, as they say.”

Using oils and working with larger canvases are some qualities that made Buckwalter stand out among other applicants to the Community Artist in the Parks program.

“I respect oils as a medium, especially doing it out in the field in front of people,” Niehaus said. “I like that she works big a lot of the time, though I don’t know if she’ll continue for this.”

Since Buckwalter will be moving frequently around different areas in the parks, she plans on improving her ability to work small and play with media ranging from watercolors and pencil to pen and ink.

“I would say nothing feels as good as painting on a giant canvas,” Buckwalter said. “Artist in the Parks is such a fun experiment for me in this way, because I’m going to give it my all when I’m out…and then I’ll reflect and carry that energy back into the studio.”

For some artists that apply to the Community Artist in the Parks program, creating work in front of strangers can feel daunting and distracting. Buckwalter, however, expressed genuine excitement at the possibility of running into different types of people.

“You get a lot of people having really powerful experiences when they come to the desert,” Buckwalter said. “And then just that random person who’s gonna stumble on you and just be so curious and delighted and interested in sharing their story.”

While serving as the Community Artist in the Parks, Buckwalter hopes to secure a spot at the Devil’s Garden campground to get a sunrise painting of Delicate Arch. She is planning to start a flower series for Moonflower Community Cooperative. Also on the list are Double Arch, Mesa Arch, and something a little out of her repertoire.

“I’ve always wanted to paint a raven and I have yet to,” Buckwalter said. She is also interested in painting crows, though she noted, “I still need to learn the difference between the two.”

Creative outlets have been an escape for many during the pandemic—offering inspiration and respite during times of uncertainty.

“I do dream of painting lots of gardens,” Buckwalter said. “The thing I take comfort in is I sort of feel like so long as I have my health, I can just paint forever, you know?”

Find Julia Buckwalter and her work at Gallery Moab’s Art Walk on Saturday, April 10, 2021, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Gallery Moab is located at 59 S Main St., Suite #1.