Monday, February 3, 2014

Exploring the Past by Illustrating in the Present

One of my many obsessions is an insatiable curiosity about ancestral pueblo archaeology. My first visit to Mesa Verde National Park when I was 12 initiated a still-present admiration for these people, how they lived and the astounding beauty of their homelands. I was raised on TV and movie Indians who spoke in halting guttural awkwardness and rode horses to attack settlers circled in their wagons sending arrows and spears into their midst while being shot off said horses. Not very smart "savages"!
But here were a people that were farmers, built elegant masonry villages and worshiped from subterranean holy chambers.
This spurred my continuing studies of these people and soon led me to the premiere cultural nexus centered around Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico that started around 800 A.D. What fascinates me about the Chaco phenomenon (as it is known by some) is that this super civilization erupted overnight and into a sophistication that then deteriorated over several generations. The elegance of the super villages they created were unprecedented in the Southwest - and they were masterfully planned - symmetrically and astronomically oriented super-villages that made earlier prototypes seem awkward and rare.
When you get a chance to wander around these ruins today, one is struck by the immensity of the pueblos and the thousands of hours to work the sandstone and to haul in thousands of massive timbers, some from over 50 miles away.
I was instilled with the burning desire to be able to see these structures in their prime, with gleaming fresh stucco and crowded with the people.
After a trip to Chaco and pushing miles on foot into one of a dozen of the Super Pueblos or Great Houses as most say, I decided to "rebuild" a village to help myself and others to see how it must have looked to witness such a remarkable sight- a shining city floating above the desert washes.
I was drawn to the structure known as Penasco Blanco (Spanish for white rock, referring to the pale sandstone that caps the mesas in this canyon) unique in that has an elliptical configuration with not one square corner on its exterior walls found in all the other villages. It was one of the original core towns when the canyon was pioneered in the 8th century.
Penasco is at the west end of "Downtown Chaco" and was the portal city for the western edge of "main street" for the people entering or leaving the outlying vastness of the cultural province the Chacoans created.
For more information about the fascinating Chaco phenomenon please visit the National Park Service site for this World Heritage site. Chaco Canyon National Historical Park

Around 1999, I decided to do a rendering of Penasco as a response to the abundance of imagery and obsession by many concerning Pueblo Bonito, the "darling" of Chaco Canyon. Bonito was the largest and possesses a singular presence of grace in design. But I wanted to feature something that had not already been done.

This is an aerial photo of Penasco Blanco Ruin in present day. The round depressions are Great Kivas and the faint line on the right is an ancient roadway.



Some remnant standing walls to this once 5-story structure. This is the approach from the canyon below. 

A wall fragment showing the skilled masonry of the Chacoans. The walls were covered with stucco, thus veiling the structural beauty.

This is the view and elevation that I based my restoration on. This vantage point has a stone shrine structure nearby.


I found this floor plan and used it as reference

This is a study I did to get an idea of structure and lighting.
From the reference material I composed and completed the painting below. Of course the accuracy of the building details is speculation. Some folks think that the Chacoans completed room blocks with fully filled out spaces and elevations creating smooth cube shapes. I chose to show the reenactment to display that although there was definitely a master plan, some segments were complete while others were in progress. I also indicated some sections falling into disrepair.
This massive building was created over many generations and expanded in leaps and bounds. Great Houses in Chaco Canyon started out with open plazas but were soon partially and then eventually completely enclosed with room blocks.
I chose to pick the time when the plaza entry had been reduced to one central gateway, around 1125 A.D. Soon after even this was sealed off and entry to the pueblo was only by ladders that had to be lowered from above. Trouble seemed to have arrived at the canyon.
"Penasco Blanco" oil on linen  32" x 44"
I also took liberties with the topography to augment the feeling of Penasco hovering over the fields below.
I hope you enjoyed sharing in my proclivity- and that you managed to read this far!


  1. Chaco Canyon...isn't this where you ruined us out? Enjoyed reading your article and seeing your art work at the end. I hope your dreams come true. :-)

    1. Yes indeed- I also remember the trick birthday candles that couldn't be blown out!

  2. Enjoyed the post, Dave, and I am very lucky to get to see your lovely painting on a daily basis!