Geographical wonder

Six million years went into carving one of the greatest geological feats in the world.

With the fast-moving Colorado River working tirelessly to erode it, the Grand Canyon reveals the staggering power of wind, water and other forces working at a geological pace. The results are stunning rock cliffs and natural formations.

But in and around the rocks themselves, the Grand Canyon tells a story of ancient cultures, daring explorers and breath-taking artwork.

“It’s such a momentous place, such a powerful place,” said James Nottage, chief curatorial officer for the Eiteljorg Museum. “I want people to come and have a sense of its natural beauty, but also have a concern for its preservation and survival. They can appreciate the work of artists and the history of native people in that region, but realize that we have to protect it as well.”

The Eiteljorg will focus on one of America’s most iconic natural wonders with the opening of its exhibition “The Grand Canyon.” Museum officials blend Western and Native American art, as well as film, music and storytelling to relate the importance of the canyon to U.S. history.

From photographs and paintings capturing the expansive scenes of the canyon, to artifacts and tools used by those who live around it, the hope is that people come away with a greater appreciation for everything the Grand Canyon is.

“The Grand Canyon is a revered icon of the American West,” said John Vanausdall, Eiteljorg president and CEO, in a statement. “But its interconnected natural and human histories are perhaps lesser known. The Grand Canyon exhibit explores the extraordinary natural beauty and delicate ecosystem of this remarkable landmark and gives visitors a view that can only be topped by visiting the canyon itself.”

The exhibition aims to tell the entire 6 million-year-old story of the landmark, from formation to modern times.

Minerals and fossils collected from the canyon speak to its formation over millennia by the Colorado River.

Pottery, baskets and weaving from Native American tribes such as the Hopi, Navajo and Hualapai showcase the landmark’s role in the lives of those living in the Southwest.

“One thing you learn when you’re researching the Grand Canyon is not only is it a place of great antiquity, but you can get a richer sense of how people have occupied the space,” Nottage said.

The idea for an exhibition emerged after repeated suggestions from museum visitors, Nottage said. So many people wanted to learn more about the canyon that curators started working on ways to tell its story.

“The Grand Canyon has a lot of resonance. People are really interested in it,” he said. “We thought we’d explore that, look at it as a place and look at how people interact with it, how people have expressed it.”

For people seeing the canyon for the first time, the most striking thing is the size of it, Nottage said. The chasm extends 277 miles, and is on average 1 mile deep.

Nottage likes to help people visualize that depth using Indianapolis landmarks.

“If you stacked 15 JW Marriott (hotel buildings), one on top of each other, you’d almost be to the top,” he said. “It is so huge and so impossible to imagine.”

The artwork included in the exhibition helps to put that scale into perspective.

Photography by Ansel Adams and paintings by William Henry Holmes shows the canyon through the lens of artists over generations.

One of the most striking pieces in the exhibit is Thomas Moran’s “The Grand Canyon.” Moran, an English-born painter known for his landscapes capturing 1800s North America, first glimpsed the canyon on an excursion with explorer John Wesley Powell.

The trip led to nearly 50 years of involvement with the Grand Canyon, painting it at various points along its 277-mile-long route.

His version from 1917 included in the exhibition depicts the vibrant colors and breathtaking vistas of the canyon through clouds that seem to rise through the buttes.

“We see through art how the canyon has been promoted,” Nottage said.

Artifacts and artwork were loaned by the National Park Service, as well as the BNSF Railway which had commissioned artwork of the canyon to encourage travel in the mid-1800s. Items from private collectors also augment the Eiteljorg’s own collection.

One of Nottage’s favorite pieces is a painting done in 1904 by artist Louis Akin. The scene shows the famous El Tovar Hotel, build on the canyon rim.

“It was commissioned by the Santa Fe Railway, but has not been seen publicly for a very long time,” he said. “It’s a beautiful painting.”

But in addition to artwork, the exhibition also speaks to life along the Grand Canyon through artifacts and everyday items related to it.

A life vest on display tells the tale of an early river runner who used it to navigate the rapids of the Colorado River. One display juxtaposes a 4,000-year-old straw sandal worn by an ancient inhabitant of the canyon with a modern sandal lost during a recent river-rafting trip.

The split-willow twig creations of deer and sheep, which were found in the canyon, showcase the enduring work of Native American artists. The pieces are between 2,000 and 4,000 years old and still tightly bound together.

In collaboration with the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, uniforms such as jackets and Stetson hats from the Grand Canyon rangers describe the evolution of those charged with protecting the country’s natural spaces, Nottage said.

“We talk about how historically people have traveled in and enjoyed the canyon, from river-rafting to mule-pack trains,” he said. “Visitors will see and experience everything from really early film of the canyon to sitting on one of the mule saddles.”

The museum also has planned a series of performances and special events to augment the exhibition. Curt Walters, an impressionist painter hailed as the greatest living Grand Canyon artist, will deliver a gallery talk on the exhibit’s opening weekend.

Demonstrators will perform a Native American social round dance, inviting visitors to join in. The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will perform “Grand Canyon Suite,” by Ferde Grofe.

In an effort to connect with visitors to the museum, exhibit designers invite people to submit their own vacation photos from the Grand Canyon.

“We have kind of an old-timey slide show that they’ll be included in, as a way for them to relive their travels,” Nottage said. “And those who have never been to the canyon, I hope it inspires them to take a trip themselves.”

Ryan Trares is a staff writer for the Daily Journal of Johnson County, a sister publication of The Republic.

If you go

The Grand Canyon

What: A comprehensive exhibition telling the story of the Grand Canyon, from its creation to its exploration to its modern legacy. The exhibit includes geological artifacts, Native American artwork, paintings, photographs and other items related to the landmark.

When: Saturday through Aug. 7

Where: Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, 500 W. Washington St., Indianapolis

Special events:

Friday: Opening night celebration, including cocktail hour, low-country boil dinner and campout s’mores; $55 for non-members, $45 for members.

Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., including:

  • Lecture and gallery talk by Curt Walters, world-renowned plein air impressionist painter famous for his work at the Grand Canyon.
  • Geology gallery talk with Dr. Erika Elswick, director, Analytical Geochemistry Lab at Indiana University
  • Native American social round dance, participation open to all
  • Art-making activities

Monthly programming: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. April 9, May 14, June 11, July 9


  • Public talks with artists, including painter Peter Nisbet
  • Film showing of “Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk”
  • Performance of the Grand Canyon Suite by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra
  • Curator talks, art-making activities, studio activities

On-going programming

  • Junior Ranger program
  • “Roaming Ranger” guide telling stories of the Canyon
  • Visitor comment wall
  • In-gallery photo op location

Cost: $13 for adults, $11 for seniors 65 and older, $7 for youth 5 to 17, free for kids 4 and younger.


By the numbers

Grand Canyon

277 miles: Length of the Grand Canyon

18 miles: Width of the canyon at its widest point

1 mile: Average depth

6 million years: Time geologists believe it took erosion to form the Grand Canyon

12,000 years: Age of the earliest human artifact found at the Grand Canyon

373: Species of birds found in Grand Canyon National Park

92: Species of mammals found in Grand Canyon National Park

4,564,840: Number of visitors to Grand Canyon National Park in 2013

Important dates

1893: Designated a “forest reserve” by President Benjamin Harrison

1908: Established as Grand Canyon National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt

1919: Designated Grand Canyon National Park by an act of Congress on Feb. 26

1979: Designated a World Heritage Site on Oct. 26