Paintbrush in one hand, bug spray in the other

Last month, Scott Parker finished a two-year odyssey in which he visited all 58 US national parks. While others may have matched his feat from their Winnebagos, the 30-something Chicagoan may be the only person to voyage deep within all the parks and document them with paint, pastel, and camera.

Mr. Parker has seen some of the most spectacular landscapes on earth and has distilled them into a series of 187 paintings and pastel drawings.

Along the way, he spent 600 nights alone in a tent, overnighted in a Cleveland-area Wal-Mart near Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and fended off a charging alligator with his kayak paddle in the Everglades.

A selection of his works is on display in Seattle at the National Parks Conservation Association gallery in the Pioneer Square gallery district.

The American public was first exposed to areas such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon through the romantic paintings of 19th-century artists such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt. With funding from railroad companies, these artists idealized the grand Western landscapes to excite the public back East. The promoters' intent was to increase rail travel. These paintings also helped inspire the creation of the first national parks.

Parker's self-financed works, by contrast, don't resemble nature-calendar shots. They have a raw, impressionistic quality. Large blocks of bright colors and subtly distorted perspectives capture the parks without romanticizing them.

Parker stays away from the typical view tourists might snap at a scenic overlook, where they can pull off the road for a moment and take a photo. "A minimum of a mile from the trailhead was the closest I'd start working," he says.

He'd lug his easel, palette, paints, brushes, pastels, camera, and voice recorder as many as 20 miles on backcountry trails. In other parks, he stuffed gear into waterproof bags and paddled for days. Nature didn't always cooperate with his efforts to capture it on canvas. Winds pummeled him as he hiked into west Texas's Guadalupe Mountains National Park, his easel strapped onto a pack stuffed with camping gear. "Walking up the mountains with a big, flat surface on my shoulder, I'd come around the corner and the wind would turn me around like a whirligig," he says.

Once finished, he'd pack his drawings carefully inside a portfolio in his pack. But he had to carry his slow-drying oil paintings on the outside. "Some came out with shrubs or trees brushing against them or sometimes a mosquito stuck to them," says Parker. He would touch up the paintings at trail's end and ship them to his mother or a Chicago art collector for safekeeping while he bagged more parks.

An experienced outdoorsman before embarking on his parks project, Parker did make at least one epic wilderness goof: camping too near the high-tide line with a full moon in Glacier Bay National Park. He left outside overnight a waterproof bag with two completed drawings and all his art supplies.

"I woke up and it was gone," he says. After two long June days of searching by kayak, he gave up. "I just thought it's sunk or it's in Russia."

Nearly three months later, Glacier Bay backcountry ranger Alison Van Dusen e-mailed Parker: She had his bag.

All summer long, she had asked kayakers headed for the bay's East Arm to look out for a large, blue, dry bag. Several kayakers spotted it floating mid-bay and towed it to shore. A later group pinpointed the waterlogged bag's location for Ranger Van Dusen, and she brought it to headquarters. Rangers dried out the drawings - which were wet but intact - and now they are part of his exhibition.

Parker had planned to finance his trip through grants and art sales, but despite a degree from the Art Institute of Chicago and nearly a decade working as an artist, he had decidedly less success than his 19th-century forebears in drumming up support for painting park landscapes.

"I actually have 82 grant-rejection letters," he says.

He ended up selling raffle tickets, trading future works for air miles, and going into debt to cover expenses like bush planes in Alaska and tickets to Samoa and the Virgin Islands.

He thought he had finished last summer after painting Alaska's Kenai Fjords National Park. Then he learned that two new national parks had been created, and he set off with his oils and pastels to capture Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado and Congaree National Park in South Carolina.

Parker says the diversity of the parks - and of America - blew him away. "I wrongly thought that I knew something about the United States and was fairly well-traveled. Now I realize how little I knew about the country."

For all the challenges nature threw at him, Parker says he had a great time and was much more productive than when painting at home. But the loneliness of two years of solo travel did get to him.

So now he's moving to a wilderness of another sort: He'll be painting from his new apartment amid the concrete canyons of Manhattan.

'The National Parks Project' continues at the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) gallery in Seattle through Jan. 30. In March, it moves to the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs Gallery 37. Visit: www.scottwparker.com/.

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