ASHLAND — Darlene Southworth strolls quietly down the Pacific Crest Trail and into the Soda Mountain Wilderness Area, her eyes drawn to the popping wildflowers just as much as the transformer towers.
To this 75-year-old watercolorist, the towers are not out of place here in the Cascade-Siskiyou National Forest. Just part of the place.
"I think they look like petroglyphs, almost like guardians of the land," Southworth says. "I shall paint them."
When she does, Southworth will present this little piece of internal irony to the external world as the monument's inaugural artist-in-residence employs her artistic eye and steady hand to tell the story of what it's like to look into, and out of, monument lands.
The retired Southern Oregon University botanist and Ashland resident is in the midst of a two-week stint. She's the first of three artists selected this summer to interpret the monument's raw essence in their own media.
In July, Mabrie Ormes of Ashland plans to create a series of paintings for what she sees along the Grizzly Peak Trail, which is part of the monument's January expansion to 113,013 acres within a 137,500-acre footprint.
In August, photographer Matt Witt of Talent plans to capture images of the wild lands and biodiversity in the monument created in 2000 by President Bill Clinton to protect its "spectacular biological diversity."
They were chosen among applicants from as far away as the United Kingdom to turn creative eyes toward the monument during a summer in which it faces Trump Administration review and two federal lawsuits looking at whether the expansion by President Barrack Obama under the federal Antiquities Act was valid.
Artists stay at a trailer parked at the Bureau of Land Management's Hyatt Lake Recreation Area campground for easy access to the monument. When completed, they each will hold at least one public exhibit of the art they produced during their unpaid term.
As the first "AiR," as they are known by the acronym, Southworth, 75, says she intends her watercolors to offer glimpses of what it's like to look out from the monument as well as what it's like to look within it.
From one rocky meadow within the wilderness area, Southworth can do both.
The meadow is lined with gnarly junipers and is awash with lupine, paintbrushes, owl's clover and other wildflowers that Southworth knew for decades as a botanist but only the past five years as an artist.
She settles on a clutch of blue penstemon and its eye-popping hues that look like neon along the dark basalt rocks.
Sitting in a folding chair, she studies the flowers while sketching them in her pad.
"It focuses me to look very closely, which to an artist and scientist is addicting," Southworth says.
Watercolor pencils fill in the penstemons' optic flavors before she works on adding the rocks for texture.
"Rocks are always hard for me," she says. "They always look like skeletons or skulls."
They eventually will fill in the foreground, while a stunning panorama of Mount Ashland, Anderson Butte and other peaks — as well as Interstate 5 slicing through the Siskiyou Mountains — will provide the backdrop.
She's looking to capture the raw wilderness feel just a stone's throw from everything it's not.
"It's miraculously quiet here, and we're 30 minutes from Ashland," Southworth says. "You can see the freeway, but you can't hear it.
"It's a good place to come to do nothing at all," she says.
If nothing else, Southworth hopes to show people what she calls "the new monument language," how landscape monuments like this one are so different than those with the carving of a president sitting in a chair or four of their faces etched into a mountainside.
"There are no faces around on these rocks," she says.
Hers are images not yet captured like those rehashed artists-in-residence revisiting other monuments, national parks and other places with such programs for decades, she says.
"I can do anything ordinary, and it can be of use," Southworth says. "You paint Crater Lake, well, everybody's painted Crater Lake. Here, that's not a problem. And it's fantastic, like a gift from the gods," she says.
— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4470.