Gloria Brown: Nature on Paper

Article by Ed Quillen

Local Artists – August 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

YOU MAY WELL HAVE seen her art, but not in a gallery. Gloria Brown is a commercial artist whose designs and illustrations have graced everything from cookbooks and compact disks to nature guides and medical texts.

But her latest project, the illustrations for A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country, will get her a show of her own. Some of the line drawings and watercolors used in the book will be on display this month in Salida.

[Gloria Brown]

Canyon Country, of course, is the dissected slickrock around Moab, Utah, one of Brown’s former homes. For the past four years, she’s been the only year-round resident of the old town of Monarch.

Many people think of Monarch as the area right around the Monarch Ski & Snowboard Resort, but in a historical sense, that’s actually the town of Garfield, whose post office was renamed Monarch in 1994 at the request of the ski resort.

The historical Monarch, the one Gloria Brown inhabits, is a couple of miles west of the resort. Most of it vanished long ago — the Monarch Park Campground sits on the main townsite — and an immense limestone quarry looms above the town. Tucked into the woods under the highway is a cabin, and that’s where you can find Brown when she’s at home.

It’s been her home and workplace for the past four years. Summers are pleasant at 10,000 feet, but they’re short, and the winter is long and hard, even though she has electricity, a telephone and running water. “One day I couldn’t tell where the snowdrift ended and my house began,” she recalls. “There was eight feet of snow on the roof.”

She can’t drive to her home in the winter. “I keep my car at Garfield, and to get to town, I ski, or snowmobile, or even just walk down there. The guy that runs the snowmobile rentals and tours at Garfield is an angel — he usually arranges to get my trail packed, and he’s pulled me out a few times when I got my machine stuck.”

Brown, a soft-spoken woman in her mid-40s, was born in Utah and grew up in Colorado. The big world beckoned from Denver, and she spent some time studying art in Europe.

“When I got back to New York in 1981, I had only $100,” she recalls, “so I couldn’t travel much farther. I found some free-lance work as a designer and illustrator.”

[HAIRY WOODPECKER by Gloria Brown]

She contracted with ad agencies, corporations, printers and publishers to come up with corporate logos, cassette covers, posters, magazine ads — graphic arts in many forms. And it was more complicated than just envisioning an image and putting it on paper — she was in charge from concept to completion, which required administrative skills and considerable knowledge of the mechanics of graphic reproduction as the industry was beginning to use computers in a big way.

Brown held a day job from 1986 to 1993, as a book designer for Churchill Livingstone, which specialized in clinical and medical textbooks.

“I wanted to get out of New York, though,” she says. “My neighbors were all crazy, and I was getting sick of people.” Her trip west put her in Moab, where she became the publications specialist for the Canyonlands Natural History Association — a foundation that works with federal agencies to publish information about that area: Canyonlands and Arches national parks, Natural Bridges National Monument, Manti-La Sal National Forest, and the Moab district of the Bureau of Land Management.

WHILE SHE WAS THERE, writer David Williams proposed his naturalist’s guide. “But the book needed illustrations if it was going to work,” Brown recalls. “Generally there were photos available, but photos often don’t show enough to enable you to identify a plant or small animal, and that’s what you need in a field guide.”

So that project was on hold for lack of illustrations. Meanwhile, Brown had revisited Salida, decided she still liked the place, and then bought the Monarch cabin. Her New York contacts could provide free-lance work when she wasn’t illustrating the flora and fauna of the canyon country.

For an illustrator, there’s an easy answer to that question that can keep college sophomores up all night: What is the purpose of art?

It’s not self-expression here. “It’s subjective, in that as an artist, you need to find what makes a plant or animal distinctive, and bring that out, because you’re trying to help people identify the natural world around them. You also want to show some of the habitat, and you don’t want to overwhelm people with detail.”

Finding “models” was her biggest challenge on the Canyonlands book. John James Audubon shot and stuffed every bird he painted, but Brown notes that “I really couldn’t do that.”

SO FOR BIRDS and most mammals she traveled to museums, primarily the Denver Museum of Natural History, and for further detail, she borrowed pelts. Snakes weren’t something she cared to observe live in the field, “but one of the BLM guys in Moab had a whole freezer full of them.”

[FOURWING SALTBUSH by Gloria Brown]

Utah’s canyon country, like Central Colorado, is a high desert, “so many of the plants and animals we have here are also there.”

One notable exception was the potholes — cylindrical depressions in the slickrock which hold water for a few days after the occasional thunderstorm. When the water comes, dormant organisms — diving beetles, fairy shrimp, snails, rotifers — spring to life and quickly reproduce before the water goes away. Most of these are so small that Brown had to use a microscope.

What’s next? Well, there will certainly be some commercial art to pay the bills, and Brown is working on 50 line-art illustrations for the Arkansas Valley Driving Guide to be published by the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area.

A move downhill from Monarch might also be in order. “While there are some nice things about being in your own little cabin in the mountains,” Brown says, “I really don’t know whether I want to go through another winter up there.”

Ed Quillen enjoys looking at field guides, and occasionally uses them when he’s not stuck indoors in front of a computer screen.

Some of Gloria Brown’s artwork for the Canyonlands book will be on display at Bongo Billy’s Salida Café from Aug. 12 through Sept. 4, and she will be signing copies of the book from 2 to 4 p.m. on Aug. 12 at First Street Books in Salida.