Big Bend Real Estate Guide May 2023 | Page 13

Inspiration abounds in Big Bend National Park

Priscilla Wiggins recalled a March day in 2003 or 2004 when she set up her easel under some cottonwood trees at Daniel ’ s Ranch , sweltering at 101 degrees . As Big Bend National Park ’ s volunteer artist-in-residence , part of her job was to interact with visitors while she painted . People often came to see the water at Daniel ’ s Ranch , which is why she chose it . She had reserved K- bar campsite for the night , and when she returned there , it was still so hot that she didn ’ t set up her tent , but slept on the earth on a pad , with her sleeping bag spread over her .
Before dawn , a cold wind blew her sleeping bag off into the bushes , and she crawled into the back of her Subaru . At dawn it started to snow , so she hunkered down and painted a watercolor of snow blowing sideways for two hours as the temperature plummeted to 22 degrees .
Recently I visited Wiggins at her camp at Stillwell ’ s primitive camping area , just north of the entrance to Big Bend National Park , sipping tea while the spring wind howled around us . Sheltered from the usual gale by her pickupmounted camper , the February sun was warm on the stony ground . Agates sparkled enticingly around her campsite . A few hundred feet away , her plein-air painting supplies were planted facing north across the desert toward the distant hills .
Born in 1941 in Chappaqua , New York ,
Wiggins spent the winters of her childhood in Manhattan and the summers in New Hampshire at her uncle ’ s camp on Lake Winnipesaukee . She considers that she has always been an artist . Her mother was too : an abstract expressionist , she sent Wiggins to an experimental school run by Columbia University , where every child had an easel . Wiggins later attended Bennington College in Vermont , where she studied art theory , form , space and color .
Around 1964 she was living in a loft in Jersey City and working in an out-of-print bookstore , where she began to read a lot about Native Americans . She borrowed a station wagon and drove to Hopi land in Arizona — her first foray west of the Mississippi . In 1968 , she moved to Albuquerque to finish her degree at the University of New Mexico , studying painting and earning her bachelor ’ s degree . Later , at the College of Santa Fe , she studied under David Barbero , a noted contemporary artist .
In 1977 , Wiggins felt a growing conviction that the planet was being destroyed by our species , and a deep need to celebrate the beauty before it was gone . “ I decided to spend the rest of my life living in nature and painting my surroundings . I wanted to see if I could live that way .” She discovered that she not only could live that way , but that she preferred it . She began to camp full-time and sell her paintings .
“ I realized I only needed food , gas , art supplies
Aspens in the Mountains
and my health ,” she said . “ I ’ ve lived year-round outdoors ever since . I hardly ever sleep inside .”
With only a handful of exceptions , Wiggins has spent the last 46 years camping full time , migrating seasonally between several locations close to her heart . She began near Santa Fe on South Mountain , with summers in Colorado mostly above timberline . “ I was addicted to being above timberline and camping with the mountain goats ,” she said . “ For 20 years I would hike and climb for three days to visit the goats .” Wiggins stayed on a ranch between Pagosa Springs and Durango , spending the worst winter in 50 years there during one of her visits as the ranch ’ s artistin-residence , caretaking the property and recording her surroundings in her art .
She returns there every summer to paint the aspen trees — an endeavor she has accomplished every year for over four decades . When I first met her here in the Big Bend , this particular fact most caught my imagination : for longer than the span of my own lifetime , Priscilla Wiggins has painted the same groves of aspens every year , with the exception of 2022 , when she drove to Maine , New Hampshire and Vermont to visit friends and family , painting watercolors . The intimacy of her relationships with the natural world is palpable in her work .
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