So this is what it means
to be an art thief. A piece of soup
bowl’d in valley masterpiece
yanking down rocks, not to throw,
but confine.
I will box in what I call beautiful
to paper’s edge and dimension two
to bring home to the life painted mundane:
a window facing east
on experience.
–Poem written while painting in Marble Canyon

I want to start this essay talking about the smallness one feels in places like Lee’s Ferry, the Vermillion Cliffs, Horseshoe Bend, the like, but I’m pretty sure that’s not actually my own idea. It’s such a canonized cliché that nature makes man small—thanks, I’d assume, Romantics—that I could never even begin to pinpoint the moment in my life when this dichotomy between individual and landscape took on the essential characteristics of size. I want to say how the towering cliffs in red and the rushing Colorado River in its colorless speed and the desert’s sky in endless star and galaxy put men in their place among things, but how much is said when speaking towards what is already known?

The size thing, however, was a bit overwhelming when I was plopped in front of the tallest freestanding rock tower in the world, at 1,000 feet, after basically being given the instructions to just paint. I took a risk with my Honors Program this semester on a class called, “Art and Literature in the American Southwest,” where one, I assumed, “learned” to paint with renowned Southwestern artist Bruce Aiken at the Lee’s Ferry, the Vermillion Cliffs, and Marble Canyon. Before this honors class on art and the southwest, all of my art experience had consisted of elementary school projects and a more recent development in throwing parties where my friends and I get drunk and make art that says “Fuck off” on them. Now, though, I was given the task of yanking down what was meant to put me in my place and somehow make it mine. We were told we had three hours, with practically no instruction otherwise.

I started with pencil, as I assumed artists, like writers, did, scaling down the magnificent to a smallness greater than myself. I then went for color, trying to make the twelve colors in my basic watercolor set compartmentalize that which was beyond comprehension. The task, for me, felt unnatural, a frustrating affront on the limits of my humanness. Creation like this is an exercise for gods or science or whatever powers-that-be one likes. I tried to put shape to paper and color to shape, but the result was messy and unrealistic in a way that I could, at most, claim as impressionist. I wanted to fill my imitation canyon with “Fuck Off” and write off my painting efforts as a display of comfort in the amateur, telling what was too great for me that I didn’t want it in the first place anyway. Fearing repercussion for something as aggressive as the f-word, though, I turned to poetry instead, a medium with which I have a few months of practice, and painted myself as I felt: a thief—a bad one—trying to take what must be experienced back home with me, forcing land to fit into the souvenirs we’ve grown accustomed to gathering with travel.

I am a bad thief in the realm of watercolors, but, beyond that, I suppose, what is my relationship to these spaces with what I consider myself “good at?” Is thievery only that which is executed badly? Although I am hesitant to claim the title, a week prior to this experience a man told me that I need to start calling myself a “writer,” since I can, to some degree, claim the verb called “writing” as part of my life. I would never say “photographer,” but I do enjoy taking pictures of things and making their colors disgustingly saturated on my computer’s basic editing software. An ex-boyfriend once told me that the way I live my life is art itself, whatever that might mean outside of the watercolored hues of love through which I’m sure he saw me. Language, one of my greatest passions, is one entity inextricably married to souvenirs stolen from the vastness of human experience. Was not Adam naming his garden an act of possessing it? Do parents not name their children as an act of ownership, tacking their last name onto what they picked out themselves? As a child, I used to like to name everything I owned “Fred.”

People—it seems to me from the standpoint of a sunburning, singular person in the middle of a desert that already seems pretty adequately painted—can be made to feel small, but we take this smallness as an invitation to find a humanly route out and back to the superiority we imagine ourselves to belong to. The art with which we choose to express ourselves is our preferred method of minimizing experience to the commodity that works best with our brain. I did not end up finishing my painting that day, discouraged by my tower’s startling phallic-resemblance, but the rest of the weekend with that class continued to demand forays into the discomfort of creation. In the end, my struggles in watercolor with this class, and, more generally, my frustration in any act of creation with this life, were a reminder of my place in these towering cliffs in red, this rushing Colorado River in its colorless speed, and this desert sky’s stars and galaxies. I am human. I cannot take this home, this exercise in watercolors reminds me; I can only appreciate the invitation to visit.

Lizzy Nichols currently teaches English in a small French town and is a recent graduate of Northern Arizona University. Her work has previously appeared in Prompt Literary Magazine, Cardinal Sins, and Inklette Magazine.