My American Dream: City of Angels
Monument Valley, 2024 Oil on linen 60 × 108 in. (152.4 × 274.32 cm)
Monument Valley, 2024
Oil on linen 60 × 108 in. (152.4 × 274.32 cm)

I went to Monument Valley last summer, in 2023, specifically to get this image on a photo journey that I have been hoping to take for many years and now for this exhibition.  I’m a John Ford fan, and grew up in Colorado, loving the American West and all representations of it, and wanted to take an image and feel the environment to make for me the ultimate Western landscape.  The Denver Art Museum wasn’t as good and as contemporary as it is today in the 70’s and 80’s when I visited as a child, and I was too naïve to appreciate their amazing collection of Western art that I love now.  I’m a big into the Hudson River School and those works, but also specifically the landscapes of Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and Thomas Hill that they have in their collection, in addition to treasures of Western art (despite and acknowledging all the politically problematic themes they can bring into discourse of Western colonialism).

In any event, I was excited, and after some thwarted attempts (plans to go in the winter when there turned out to be blizzards and storms!), got into my Porsche Spyder convertible and drove out to Arizona and Utah (en route ultimately to visit my folks in Denver).  I’ve painted the Grand Canyon (which I visited on the way), Yosemite (also a Moran subject, of course) many times, but have never visited Monument Valley, which I’ve yearned to visit since I was small.  Listening to the Grateful Dead all the way (I’m the only gay Deadhead I know!) I was in the perfect mood (although I’m a full tenured Professor of Art at the University of Southern California, Roski School of Art and Design, where I also started a Visual Narrative Art Program, and we were interviewing new faculty along the way, which was the wedge to force my chillaxed binary against while on the trip and even the days I was at Monument Valley!).   Wonderfully, the Navajo Nation owns this territory, and I had arranged a photographic journey for my second day there with an Indigenous guide Harry, who took me around for four hours before daybreak the next morning (my first goal was to photograph “John Ford’s Point” at sunrise, but alas, a woman who owns her house near here forbids tourists coming before 9 am!), and he did an amazing job bringing me to fantastic locations (he also was a great photographer, much better than me, and lent me his tripods and more).  But the night before this proved to be better for getting the ultimate sublime views that I was looking for—from the general balcony of the View Hotel.

I had ordered terrific Mexican food from the woman who actually lives at John Ford Point, but wasn’t there for the delivery at the front desk as I was out on the balcony at the back of the hotel—there was a rainstorm, so luckily no one wanted my spot (but I did let those in who occasionally did!) and I stationed myself before, during, and after the rainstorm, taking hundreds of pictures, as the light kept changing as the sunset was approaching and the storm was moving through.  Just as I thought all was over (and my good cameras were in the foyer keeping dry near their Trading Post gift store), a certain light came across the landscape, and for an instant, the monuments in the valley turned this incredible orange, and a rainbow appeared out of the sky, and I yelped with excitement, feeling the moment through my whole body, as I took as many images I could in this precious moment with my iPhone.

I chose the best of these for this image, the last painting for the City of Angels show in this exhibition.   Rather than listen to the Dead (which I’m always inclined to do!), I sometimes listen to the Rolling Stone magazine “Top 500 albums” (the 2023 version!) as I hope to be one of the “top artists” of my time and listening to the classics (and some of the new great entries!) helps to inspire me—and also bring me back to my own history of memories while I’m painting, and it works a sort of clock to bring me to the absolute best (the current #1 is Marvin Gaye’s incredible What’s Going On) before I finish the work.   I love painting the pixels and the “noise” of an image as if its “real”, and loving Cézanne and how, in his Mont Sainte Victoire paintings, he was able to project his unconscious onto the “map” of what his mind was cognizing, subconscious worlds would also project into the image.  Here, like looking at clouds and seeing faces, eyes, and other forms would emerge in the landscape, but I try not to illustrate these or bring them out further than what my mind organizes the abstracted elements (especially from a relatively low-res iPhone image) into the work.

We live in such tumultuous times, and perhaps it’s the melatonin I take to sleep, but, especially since the Trump years, I have had intense vivid nightmares and visions, and hope we are progressing towards a better future and not the opposite.   While not painting, I was watching some of the great John Ford’s that featured Monument Valley, the quintessential was the first, Stagecoach, that has almost this same panoramic tracking shot, with John Wayne’s stagecoach crossing over what seems to be the exact same road, in black and white, from 1939.  Some things, especially in nature, don’t change, and that this is Navajo tribal land, it is considered sacred gratefully it feels much the same.  My indigenous guide Harry mentioned that he has seen UFO’s there—he made sure to tell me that they don’t call them “aliens” but “star people”, and the ships were like thin slices of gleaming metal shimmering gliding across the sky like clouds.   I didn’t see any here but given the context of wanting to create a panorama of UFO paintings and National Parks in this gallery, to remind us of if we don’t take care of our Earth and the people, flora and fauna on it, perhaps the star people will—and we probably don’t want that to happen!  I feel that even conservatives must come to places like this and feel that we need to preserve our National Parks for our grandchildren to enjoy, and along with this, clean air and water, and how this could open the conversation of our interdependence with one another, and taking care of our planet, something I hope sublime paintings like I try to create, can have upon the viewer.

There was a gleam in the rainbow that almost felt like an angel—I’m spiritual, not religious, but wonder about the great beyond, and was thinking of my childhood best friend Dan who recently passed, along with recent family, and my own mortality.  The elements towards the center of the rainbow almost felt like people gathering for some cosmic event, and I was finishing this picture, after going through all the “best albums”, I decided to listen to the “best concert” of the Grateful Dead—the fateful Cornell 1977, and right before the art movers were driving up, I was working on the rainbow when my favorite song by them, “Estimated Prophet” came on (this show was originally to be titled this!), that has the lyrics:

My time coming any day, don’t worry ’bout me, no
Been so long I felt this way, but I’m in no hurry, no
Rainbows and down that highway where ocean breezes blow
My time coming, voices saying they tell me where to go


Like an angel standing in a shaft of light
Rising up to paradise, I know I’m gonna shine

And the gleam of light in the rainbow really seemed like an angel, and I felt the painting was complete!