Eye of Bitter Creek
Chad Niehaus, like many artists, has
been doing artwork his whole life. He studied for career
in graphic design at Colorado State University in Fort
Collins, CO, but switched his major to National Resource
Management (of which he also did his graduate work) when
he became burnt out in graphic design. While in college,
Niehaus came to live in Moab seasonally and he continued
to nurture his artistic passions through pastel landscape
drawing. Niehaus, now a permanent resident of Moab, works
for the Bureau of Land Management here in Moab, as a resource
manager. Although Resource Management and fine pastel
drawing appear unrelated, his professional work and his
artwork are truly complimentary.
I originally went to interview Niehaus
under the pretense that he did drawings, even though he
was primarily a writer. But this is a shallow view of
what is really there.
Niehaus makes large-scale soft pastel
images (as well as paintings) of landscapes or images
that evoke memory, emotion and his experience of the land.
His writing officially takes the form a novel called Living
for the Epic published this year. Similar to his imagery,
the novel recounts Ian’s, the main character’s,
adventures of world travel seeking (and finding) ecstatic
and intimate experiences with the land.
Sensing that there was more content to Niehaus’
images than beautiful landscape imagery, I probed him
for further illumination. Niehaus described his drawings
as snapshots of experience, collections of memory, or
as records of significant moments in his life. Like the
photos in a family album, a person who was witness to
the event in the photograph would recall or relive details
of the event, like its sights, sounds, smells, and emotions,
when provoked by the image. For outsiders, who did not
witness the event captured in the image, the viewing contains
feeling and emotion, but the feeling is not attached to
specific memory and experience of the event. Rather, like
looking at some stranger’s family album, one experiences
a vicarious intimacy with the experience that is being
represented. Niehaus admits that his images were made
for personal satisfaction: a compilation of memories for
Nevertheless, I find his imagery
both visually and emotionally compelling, while exhibiting
a universal appeal in terms of their formal qualities.
Long, one of his most recent
pastel drawings, is immediately emotionally engaging.
Standing at five and a half feet tall and approximately
three feet wide this pastel on raw canvas is overwhelming,
like the land it represents. The vibrant colors and simplified
shapes exemplify the psychical presence of the scene.
The color contrast created between the sky and the rock
formations further heightens the emotional force in this
image. Through the bold use of contour lines and solid
areas of exaggerated color, Niehaus achieves the affect
of abstracting the landscape, while making it his own.
The appeal of abstraction and simplicity continues throughout
his imagery. In Lured by Coyotes, the viewer experiences
an intimate encounter with a single tree on a gently sloping
hill. The day— expressed by enchanted clouds, a
pale blue sky, and golden grasses swaving to the illusion
of a slight. warm breeze— could not be more lovelv
and peaceful. Generally, a single figure in a composition,
like the lone tree in Lured by Coyotes, signifies isolation
and possibly loneliness. In addition, the simplicity of
form in this composition generally implies starkness.
In contrast to the general reading, however, what is illustrated
in this image is the intimacy of the encounter with this
particular tree on this particular day. Rather than isolation,
the viewer feels solitude; rather than starkness the viewer
experiences the friendly presence of something larger
The quality of emotion expressed by Niehaus’ abstraction
of the landscape in his pastel drawings enticed me into
questioning him even further, regarding his intimate
relationship with the landscape. I asked him more or
less point blank whether the experiences recorded in these
drawings were spiritual experiences. I defined for him
spirituality, in my own words, as the self-conscious relationship
to and participation with a force larger than oneself.
He agreed that under this definition his images (and the
adventures recounted in his novel) could be considered
records spiritual experience. Niehaus, however, more aptly
defined the emotional content of his drawings as records
of his experience of rapture, implying full physical,
mental, emotional and spiritual engrossment in an experience.
I must concede that rapture is the most appropriate term
for what is being conveyed in Niehaus’ pastel drawings.
Furthermore, the experience of rapture with the land is
the central axis to which the passions of his life revolve:
be it stewardship of the land through resource management,
wildness adventuring, or the pastel illustration of his