Desert art to raise awareness of fragile landscape

Desert art to raise awareness of fragile landscape

Scott Copeland, a Lander based-photographer, started exploring the Red Desert last spring by chance. He’d driven by the edge of the Red Desert and wasn’t impressed by the endless sagebrush. When he finally ventured into the desert, what he saw brought him back on four more separate trips.

Kelsey Dayton
Kelsey Dayton

He saw a kaleidoscope of colors: reds, oranges and muted pastels. Sudden signs of life, like a migratory bird oasis suddenly appearing in the desert. And a landscape unlike anything he’d seen or photographed.

On one trip he captured images of the iconic Boar’s Tusk that juts suddenly out of the landscape. He was driving home, when in the distance he first glimpsed Honeycomb Buttes; an unworldly rock formation radiating color and texture.

“I wondered if they were even on the map,” he said.

Copeland created a large panoramic of the area that will hang in the “Art and Landscapes of the Red Desert,” a professional-level juried art exhibition in Rock Springs in January sponsored by the Wyoming Wilderness Association. The show features photography and fine art representing, and inspired by, the Red Desert — an area often overlooked for more obvious scenic landscapes.

“It’s as impressive as Badlands National Park, yet no one knows it exists,” Copeland said.

Scott Copeland’s “Rainbow West of South Pass City,” is one piece in an art show in Rock Springs in January that features images capturing the Red Desert. The show opens Jan. 3 and runs through Jan. 28.

The vastness and lack of easy access deter people from the area. The art in the show will give people a chance to experience the remoteness of the place, without the logistical planning and route finding needed to navigate the area.

Copeland is a strong believer in protecting the land for future generations and often uses his photographs to bring awareness to areas in need of protection. He wants to pass on the beauty he sees to his daughters.

“I feel if I can get some compelling photographs of these areas they can have some values … and maybe we can get some of these places protected,” he said.

His personal mission fits in with that of the show in which he will present photos of Honeycomb Buttes and several other places in the Red Desert.

There is a reason conservation websites all feature beautiful landscape photos, said Jennie Trefren, Bureau of Land Management outreach associate for the Wyoming Wilderness Association. People react to visuals.

The Wyoming Wilderness Association intermittently holds art shows in areas that are facing significant changes, threats or controversy, said Trefren said.

“It provides an opportunity for a visual dialogue about the place,” she said. “If someone hasn’t been to the Red Desert, they don’t know how beautiful it is. They might think it’s a sage brush wasteland.”

The BLM is beginning a revision of its resource management plan, which is updated about every 20 years. While a draft of the plan hasn’t yet been released, the art show will bring awareness to people about the area and why it should be protected, Trefren said. The land has low oil and gas potential in the Red Desert, but there is more pressure all the time to develop public land, she said. And most of the Red Desert is open for oil and gas exploration.

“This area is such a sensitive ecosystem, when any type of development is talked about, the impacts are massive,” she said.

Rick Jones, who painted “The Wild Bunch,” is one of 25 artists featured in a juried show in Rock Springs in January. (Click to enlarge)

The Red Desert spans about 6 million acres, making it about the size of Denali National Park, Trefren said. Similar landscapes are only found in Mongolia, she said. The desert ecosystem makes it susceptible to erosion. There are rock formations such as hoodoos and archeological sites with prehistoric fossils and stone rings.

The area also is home to several sensitive species, including one of the largest herds of desert elk in North America, as well as sage grouse, pygmy rabbit, the burrowing owl and ferruginous hawk, Trefren said. Many of the species found in the area sensitive to changes in the sagebrush steppe.

“The Red Desert can really be considered the last stronghold for many of these sensitive species that are on the brink of being listed as endangered,” she said.

The Red Desert is wild and unsettled, and looks for the most part the way it did when pioneers came through the area on the Oregon Trail, Trefren said. Its remoteness makes it a place often forgotten.

The art show will allow people to see the area.

“It’s just a really nice way for people to look at an area and perhaps imagine for themselves the value of it,” she said. “Maybe they will see this area has a higher purpose than oil and gas development.”

The juried show received more than 100 images, said Debora Soule, director of the Community Fine Arts Center in Rock Springs. Due to space 60 were selected from 25 artists. About half the pieces are photographs and half are fine art, she said. The fine art pieces range from oil and water color paintings to ink drawings to a silk screen, Soule said.

Several years ago artist Dianne Wyatt visited the Red Desert on a trip organized by the Wyoming Wilderness Association. The Sheridan artist still remembers her initial response to the landscape. It was wilder than most places she’d visited. Travel was long and rough.

“It’s a harsh place, but it’s beautiful and windy and the sun is strong,” she said.

The Honeycomb Buttes in the Red Desert surprised photographer Scott Copeland when he first saw the formation. His image “Honeycomb Buttes Sunrise” will hang in the Art and Landscapes of the Red Desert exhibition in Rock Springs in January. (Click to enlarge)

She remembered looking out at the landscape as dusk began to fall. The light defined the washes. The horizon shimmered with purples and blues as the dark touched down, while parts of the hills still glowed orange.

Wyatt recreated the scene working with pastels. It will hang in the show in Rock Springs.

When people see the work, she hopes they are inspired to visit the Red Desert, but also to protect it.

“I want them to know how fragile the Red Desert is,” she said, “and how careful we have to be with it.”

Check it out

The show hangs Jan. 3-28 at the Community Fine Arts Center located at 400 C Street in Rock Springs. Juror Joan Hoffman will offer a public exhibition critique from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. Jan. 3, followed by an opening reception with free refreshments from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Jan. 3.

From 7 to 8 p.m. Jan. 2, Hoffman will offer a free presentation, “The History of American Landscape Painting and Public Lands,” at the center.  The talk will include information on the importance of art and visual representations in public land management, including its role in the creation of Yellowstone National Park.

Jan. 3 Hoffman will offer a three hour landscape painting workshop for all levels of artists in watercolor or acrylics. Cost is $35. To sign up call 307-362-6212.

— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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  1. It would be wonderful if the show could go on the road and come to Sheridan. As one person wrote, she had never been to the area and is a native of Wyoming. Having the show in other areas of the state would allow more people to see what an amazing place it is. The book – Red Desert-History of A Place – with photographs by Martin Stupich and edited by Annie Proulx is great. But – hard to find.

  2. I’ve known the Red Desert from the cab of a dusty pickup, the seat of a roaring semi, the saddle of a cow pony, the windshield of a pavement-bound automobile, and the eyes of many artists.
    She is like a quiet wallflower who will dance beautifully …. if you will only ask.

  3. Glad to know about the show; I’ll try to make it. Many people miss the beauty of Wyoming’s deserts. There is a lot there, if a person looks. I enjoyed this article.

  4. Interesting article and beautiful pictures. I am a native of Wyoming but have never visited the Red Desert