Out of the park
Yosemite: Art of an American Icon
For Westerners who have never been to Yosemite National Park, the Nevada Museum of Art’s glorious new exhibit, Yosemite: Art of an American Icon, is an inviting, vivid and unrelenting call to go. Through this comprehensive spectrum of artistic interpretation and tribute to the purple-mountains-majesty of El Capitan, the placid serenity of the Merced River and the monolithic strength of Half Dome, artists past and present have captured Yosemite’s unbridled beauty.
The exhibit is as much a nod to the art that’s naturally sprung forth from Yosemite—like the waterfalls themselves—as it is a historical perspective. From the circa-1900 Miwok Indian seed beater basket inside the first of four sections that comprise the exhibit, to the oil and watercolor paintings, to the old silver photographic prints and the contemporary digital photos, curator Amy Scott has left no hewn-to-polished stone unturned.
Notably, a quartet of “mammoth-plate photographs” by Carleton Watkins—and a trio of them by his competitive colleague, Eadweard Muybridge—both captures the immortal grandeur of this granite-coated gem and captivates the viewer’s naked eye. In 1861, Watkins negotiated unforgiving terrain to bring a cumbersome box camera into Yosemite, shooting glass-plate negatives, then coating them with a light-sensitive emulsion and exposing and developing each photo in a dark tent, on-site. “It was a grueling process in which a drop of sweat or a stray insect could ruin the image and hours of work,” the exhibit details. Muybridge also produced amazing artistic feats—like “Pi-Wi-Ack, Valley of the Yosemite"—in a horse-drawn cart he called “The Flying Studio.”
Of special significance is the exhibit’s “Snapshots!” wall displaying locals’ favorite photographs of their personal treks in Yosemite. From weddings, epic rock climbs, crazy road trips, teenage camping excursions, grandparents’ honeymoons, backpacking trips gone awry and romance, the"Snapshots!” wall is a personal, whimsical touch that brings the exhibit full-circle. Locals can contribute their own pictures by bringing photos to NMA staff.
Proclaiming painter Albert Bierstadt’s landscape art as “the jumping-off point for the exhibit … artistically and symbolically,” Scott has invested seven years in this labor-of-love exhibit, birthed at California’s Autry National Center and making its third stop at the Nevada Museum of Art before heading to the famed Eiteljorg Museum in Indianapolis. Accompanying the three-month-long exhibit is NMA’s series of “Exhibition Based Programs,” including “The Spirit of John Muir,” as portrayed by Lee Stetson on Nov. 8, and Washo-Paiute weaver Audrey Frank’s basket-making demonstration on Nov. 10.
At the entrance to the exhibit, Sierra Club founder-naturalist John Muir’s immortal words set the tone: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity, and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
Today—perhaps more than ever—his words echo truth from the vast vista points of the park. It’s an exhibit that would make Muir proud of the place he loved and fought hard to preserve, preserved for all to see.