Category Archives: California State Parks

Malakoff Diggins, Again

Here’s a painting I did last summer: a small one of Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park . This is “the diggins,” where 19th Century miners used large hydraulic cannons to was away the mountainside in search for gold.

The place fascinates me: beauty in destruction.

Malakoff Diggins by Stephanie Benedict
Malakoff Diggins ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. 6″ x 12″, oil on panel.
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Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park

I finally got myself to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park to paint last week. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for some time, and we got a relatively cool-ish day so I packed the car and drove the two-plus hours from my house. (Far nice than this weekend, which is another scorcher*.) As I drove up into the foothills on ever narrower roads, I kept thinking about the truth behind Sacramento’s big claim to fame: it really is just two hours from anywhere. The weekend before, I’d driven two hours to San Francisco.

A view of the "diggin's" at Malakoff Diggins SHP.
A view of the “diggin’s” at Malakoff Diggins SHP. The trees in the valley have grown since mining ended in about 1884.

Malakoff Diggins is the site of the largest hydraulic mine of the California gold rush. Huge water cannons were used to literally wash away the soil overburden and expose the gold beneath. It’s a terribly destructive process that washes away mountains, leaving badlands behind.

Today, Malakoff Diggins is recovering, sort of. The mining generally ended in California in 1884, after a legal battle with farmers downstream, where the sediment washed down from the mines changed the rivers and caused flooding**. In the intervening years trees have grown where there is soil. The valley floor is covered with marsh, even in this dry year. The mountains of course will never regrow; there will always be scars from what the humans did here.

But those scars are both fascinating and beautiful. I’ve long wanted to paint the scene, so I set up my easel in the shade of a Ponderosa pine. The air smelled of pine and manzanita. I sketched for a couple of hours. I didn’t intend to do a complete painting; I just wanted to record the colors for reference.

Benedict plein air painting at Malakoff Diggins
My set-up at Malakoff Diggins. I found a great spot right next to my car. How convenient is that?

Now, I’m back in the studio working on the painting. It will be 30 x 40. Here’s a shot of the underpainting, done with acrylic paint mixed with gesso. This is actually my favorite part, probably because I really can’t mess it up yet. The only down side to this is that I have to wait overnight to start the oils, because I need to let that gesso dry thoroughly, and I’m eager to work on this one. I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

Stephanie Benedict Malakoff Diggins Underpainting
The underpainting. 30″ x 40″. ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. The colors are darker than they ultimately will be, because I was focusing on the shadows within the trees here.

What hidden gem of a park is close to where you live?

*I talked to a friend who is actually is a weather forecaster in the Navy reserve. He thinks that the next few decades will be notable for NOT having a “normal” weather, but rather by increasingly chaotic weather patterns. He may be right–the system cannot stabilize while we keep pumping energy into it. I think that we all need to get used to this extra heat.

**But it’s still practiced in other places around the world.

Russian Gulch State Park to remain open!

My email recently delivered some great news: thanks in large part to the Mendocino Area Parks Association, Russian Gulch State Park will remain open!

Russian Gulch ©2011 Stephanie Benedict. Oil on board, 6" x 8"
Russian Gulch ©2011 Stephanie Benedict. Oil on board, 6″ x 8″

Russian Gulch is one of my favorite state parks along the Mendocino coast. It’s located just north of the village of Caspar, and south of Fort Bragg. I’ve painted there a number of times, mostly without much success—the colors are subtle and, at the time, were beyond my grasp.

Why live in California if you can’t visit the parks?

The closure of California’s state parks is, to my mind, a travesty. I think people here don’t appreciate what they have—open space where they can visit, camp, walk (even paint!), get away from the city’s noise and concrete. I lived in Massachusetts for several years and, while I love New England, I also realized that there are very few parks there. Even the coast there is typically private property. California’s parks, by contrast, may be crowded on holiday weekends, but they also offer places where nature can thrive and people can remember what the land was like before the asphalt took it over.

I know we have budget problems in this state. I welcome a discussion of the role of government. But do we have to pit parks against support for the frail elderly or against schools? We need them all. When parks started charging entrance fees under the name of “user fees,” I didn’t like them because, if you can’t afford the user fee, you are also excluded from that public space. But compared to permanent closure, that $5 or $10 entrance fee seems like a small price to pay. For once the parks are closed, the next step is selling the property.

Hurray for the people saving some of the parks!

So I’m really glad that several of the parks have been removed from the closure list, to be operated by non-profits or other groups. Here’s what you can do to help:

Stockton Art League National Juried Show

I’m very excited that one of my paintings, The Lighthousekeeper’s House, has been accepted into the 57th Stockton Art League National Juried Show. As a special treat, the show will hang at the Haggin Museum in Stockton. The Haggin is one of Northern California’s hidden treasures, and I’m honored to have a piece shown there. The show runs from July 5 to September 2, 2012.  The opening reception is July 5, from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm.  I hope you can join me there.

The Lighthousekeeper's House by Stephanie Benedict
The Lighthousekeeper’s House ©2011 Stephanie Benedict. Oil on canvas, 400 mm by 1000 mm

The Lighthousekeeper’s House is one of a series of works I’m doing at California’s endangered State Parks.  This one is Pt. Cabrillo Lighthouse State Park, in Mendocino. I will donate a portion of the proceeds from the sale of this painting to keep California state parks open.

The Haggin Museum is located at 1201 N. Pershing Ave. Stockton. Their phone number is (209) 940-6300.  The museum is typically open in the afternoons until 5:00, and first and third Thursdays until 9:00. Admission is $8. For directions, and to see the show online (after July 5), please visit the Haggin Museum’s website.