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Capturing the canyon on canvas

Newlin Township artist Richard Chalfant was artist-in-residence at the Grand Canyon. "I just fell in love with the place," he said.

Richard Chalfant (left) with son Owen at the Grand Canyon early this year.
Richard Chalfant (left) with son Owen at the Grand Canyon early this year.Read more

When people imagine the majesty of the Grand Canyon, they don't immediately picture the canyon engulfed in snow squalls and ice blanketing the trails. But this is the Grand Canyon that local artist Richard Chalfant captured this past winter in his landscape paintings.

Chalfant, a Newlin Township resident who lives in a farmhouse along the Brandywine, was the second artist chosen for a new artist-in-residence program at Grand Canyon National Park's South Rim.

"I just fell in love with the place," Chalfant said, looking back at his experience in an interview last week.

"Watching the continuous change, the constant flow of the environment with the storms, the way the skies, the clouds and sun affected the landscape was immense and amazing," he continued.

"I realized I was in another world," he said. "This was something new. This is why I came. I came to be changed. It's like a tidal wave. Thoughts and ideas are rolling in like those clouds."

A plein air artist, which means a painter who works in open air, Chalfant painted a total of 16 works, sometimes in subzero temperatures.

He also painted in Kolb Studio, an artist space built in 1904 right on the canyon's rim. One wall was almost completely made of glass, giving him a wide-open view of a rock formation called the Battleship.

Judy Hellmich-Bryan, chief of interpretation at the Grand Canyon, said it was the first time officials let an artist use Kolb Studio as a working space. And it was the first time they had a plein air artist as part of their artist-residency program. All the artists donate a work to the Grand Canyon National Park for a planned future exhibit.

One painting, called

The Battleship in Winter,

shows the formation almost hidden by swirling snow. Others are called

Bright Angel Squall



Using impressionistic brushstrokes, Chalfant uses lots of browns, oranges, reds and frosty blues, and occasionally purple. The prices of his works range upward from $1,500.

Sometimes, he hiked with crampons over ice to get to the bottom of the canyon. "I would hear parts of the canyon falling," he recalled. Some trails would be inaccessible because of the snow. When the snowstorms hit, Chalfant said, he "worked furiously" to capture the atmospheric effects.

Often, Chalfant, 54, would get up before dawn and bike to Kolb Studio to capture the sunrise, one of his favorite times of day.

He's used to combining biking and painting. Chalfant grew up in West Chester when the area was still considered rural. As a teenager, he used to bike around the countryside with a backpack filled with canvas and a palette of paints. Sometimes, he'd leave oil paintings under bushes and pick them up at a later time.

Chalfant earned a bachelor of arts degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and studied art history at the Barnes Foundation in Merion.

Now divorced, he has three grown children. Daughter Meredith, 26, lives in California; son R.T., 25, lives in Colorado; and son Owen, 20, still lives in the area.

Many of Chalfant's previous paintings were Chester County landscapes, and at the canyon, he quickly noticed "the contrast of the yin-yang relationship between green, lush Pennsylvania and that dry, stark, red Arizona Southwest thing."

The canyon also forced him to change his work technique a bit. "I love to work big," he said. His Chester County landscape paintings can be as large as 10 feet by 7 feet.

But he couldn't carry such large canvases down on his canyon hikes, so his paintings of the canyon are smaller than usual.

However, he plans on creating another study of the Grand Canyon on a larger scale, based on his experiences and the paintings he produced.

Though one of his Grand Canyon paintings can only be seen on his Web site, he has shown past works at his brother's gallery H.L. Chalfant Antiques in West Chester and Somerville-Manning Gallery in Delaware.

What was supposed to be a three-week study turned into a three-month jaunt in the Southwest, taking him away from Chester County from January to March. The artist-residency program was supposed to last 21 days. He begged park officials let him stay in the artists' housing for an extra week.

Then, Chalfant struck up a deal with a hotel to let him stay for a month in exchange for a painting. He also visited other Southwest artists to get their opinions of his work on what the locals call the "inside-out mountain."

"This canyon was incredibly impressive and mysterious and immense," said Chalfant. He felt so drawn to the area that he has already applied for another artist-residency program on the Grand Canyon's North Rim, which has been running for several years.

He plans on going back later in the summer to paint the monsoons, whether he gets in the artist-residency program or not.

He had visited the Grand Canyon twice before, and even did some sketches on his last trip. "Something keeps pulling me back and I find it terribly exciting," he said.

"This experience will change my work. Before I left, I knew it would change the way I paint and I believe it has," said Chalfant. "There are things that have changed that I won't even realize until the next step" in my painting.

More on Chalfant

For more information about Richard Chalfant and his work, go to


One of his Grand Canyon paintings is posted on his Web site. To find it, click on "About the Artist," then go to "News."