Artist studies what’s above ground at Caverns
By Victoria Parker-Stevens/Current-Argus staff writer
Jun 12, 2004, 09:25 pm

CARLSBAD CAVERNS — The plethora of wildflowers in the area this spring served as a reminder of another way to attract visitors, according to a national parks volunteer.

For the last three years, artist Donald Davidson has organized Chihuahuan Desert Native Plant Conservation Initiative workshops, including at Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

This year, after a month at California’s Mojave National Preserve, the Washington, D.C., resident stayed at the park for about six weeks. He was joined by his wife, Rosie Dempsey, a writer.

This spring’s timely and plentiful rains made it a great one for seeing numerous wildflowers from park trails, Davidson said. The furthest he had to venture into the park to do pencil and watercolor illustrations was seven miles.

Since 1999, Davidson has served as an artist in residence in at least 12 national parks. He and his wife said Carlsbad’s amenities make it one of the best gateway communities they’ve seen.

Submitted photo: Donald Davidson, a volunteer at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, shows kids how to sketch plants at Monterrey Elementary School. Davidson visited with about 120 fourth- and fifth-graders at Monterrey and Riverside elementary schools this spring.

Davidson said he believes the Caverns will become an even bigger draw as baby boomers get tired of the ever-expanding crowds at some national parks.

While the Caverns is well known for its caves, its above-ground resources are also top-notch, he said. The Caverns has about 1,000 species of flowering vegetation.

It’s also one of the most wilderness-accessible parks in the country, Davidson said, with trails of all lengths, including one of the best wheelchair-passable trails.

National Park Service Director Fran Mainella said on a recent visit that she’d like to see more emphasis on the park’s above-ground resources.

“There is a crying need for above-ground programs,” Davidson said.

He said additional programming could help Carlsbad promote the park, as well as attract more local residents.

“It’s their park,” he said.

Because Park Service funding is limited, Davidson said he’s working to build bridges with as many organizations as possible.

For example, this year, New Mexico State University-Carlsbad provided instructors and offered credit for a weekend field course.

Davidson also spends time back home fundraising.

Most recently, he received a $5,000 National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, $500 from the Carlsbad Foundation and $750 from the Puffin Foundation. Some of his expenses, like housing, are covered as a park volunteer.

Davidson said he’d like to be able to increase honorariums to draw more professionals, as well as get more artists capturing plants on paper.

He is also interested in tapping into conservation groups and others like Elder Hostel.

Youth are also important to Davidson, who said he’d like to see more schools involved, as well as a diverse group of students sketching in the park.

This year, Davidson visited with about 120 fourth- and fifth-graders at Monterrey and Riverside elementary schools.

He said in his sketching classes, he emphasizes outlining major forms to aid in identification, continuity of form and concentration on the subject.

“That way they possess it inside rather than by taking it home,” he said. “Part of protection is understanding — helping people see how wonderful (the plant) looks where it is.”

Free sketching classes were also held in the park for the public, along with cactus identification, plant lore and photography hikes.

An average of 10 — and up to 20 — visitors participated in each workshop, which were sponsored by the Carlsbad Caverns-Guadalupe Mountains Association, a nonprofit membership organization.

In addition to Davidson, hike leaders included representatives from the Caverns, the Chihuahuan Desert Network, the Rio Grande Botanic Garden and Kodak.

Ten people also took the first-ever weekend field course offered in conjunction with the workshops. Participants stayed in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and could receive undergraduate credit through NMSU-C.

The course brought biologists, creative writers and artists together to get each other to think in a different way, Davidson said.

“The boundaries we draw between disciplines are like those between states. They’re invisible,” said Sandra Lynn, an NMSU-C English instructor who taught during the weekend.

Lynn said the writers and artists enjoyed using a dissecting scope on walks to get a closer look at their subjects.

Taking sketch hikes “really slows you down and forces you to look closely,” she said.

Lynn is also on the board of the New Mexico Native Plant Society, which has provided some funding for Davidson’s work. A shared interest in conservation got her involved, she said.

In his own sketch work at the Caverns, Davidson said he works largely with the interpretive staff, who have asked him to do illustrations of common plants so visitors will be able to identify them.

He has also had some of his subjects identified as endangered plants, which helps park resource personnel.

This spring, a traveling exhibit of about 20 of Davidson’s watercolors from Chihuahuan Desert parks — which also includes the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend — has been on display in the visitor center.

His work can also be seen on the Park Service Web site, where it is part of the Plant Conservation Alliance’s traveling artist wildflowers project.

Davidson has a bachelor’s degree in studio art from the University of Maryland and is an avid gardener.

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Last updated: 18 July 2004