Opuntia Blooms, Organ Pipe National Monument, AZ
Oil on Canvas, 71in. x 55in. 2021
On exhibit at the Western Spirit: Museum of the West Scottsdale, AZ
November 12, 2021- January 16, 2022
Inspired by the photography of Josef Muench, published by Arizona Highways Magazine, January, 1959.
It started with a request to choose one reference photo from the almost hundred-year archive of Arizona Highways Magazine. The image chosen would serve as inspiration for an original painting; not an easy task.
I was browsing Arizona Highways Memory Project by subject when up popped Josef Muench’s photo “Engelmann’s Prickly Pear” on the January 1959 cover. I loved it instantly; the jagged mountains in the background, the golden bouquet of opuntia blooms in the foreground, and of course the blue Arizona sky dotted with cotton candy clouds. Perfect!
The description read, “April, sunny day, photo taken in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, south of Ajo, in Southern Arizona.” The inside cover photo, also by Muench, held an equally captivating photo of the same area. I knew I had the perfect inspiration for an amazing painting; now I just needed permission.
Robert Stieve, editor and chief of the magazine, obtained permission from the Muench family for my endeavor. I had a large canvas built, and began planning.
Now that Muench and I would be partners in this creative endeavor, I wanted to learn more about the photographer responsible for this image, and so many important images that have graced the pages of the magazine. When I researched Muench’s biography I learned that he was an immigrant from Bavaria, Germany. So, Muench and I both had a German immigrating story, and I wanted to know more.
Muench received his first camera as a gift from his father when he was 11. I, too, was gifted a camera from my father at about the same age. Muench worked as a landscape gardener in his late teens; I worked as a landscape gardener in my late teens. I also worked as a landscaper (not for pay, but in the form of chores) which gave me a great appreciation for all things botanical.
When Muench was in his early 20’s he followed his brother to Detroit, Michigan, finding a job at the Ford motor company at age 24. In my 20’s, I had a short stay near Detroit as well. Then I headed back to the west. In 1930, so did Muench. He purchased a model T and eventually settled in Santa Barbara, California. In 1938, Joseph met with the editor for Arizona Highways, who published Josef’s photographs of Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon, one of my favorite places on earth.
Josef Muench loved the west and was quoted as saying, “When I first saw the desert, I liked it. It was new and different. It immediately took on a meaning to me. I had heard it was barren. It isn’t. A little cactus– so delicate and beautiful can hide from you. You have to go slowly, and look carefully.”
Speaking of hiding and looking carefully, I felt it important to travel to where the inspiration photo was taken, stand where Muench stood, and experience that part of the Arizona desert for myself. Knowing he took the photo in April, my husband and I traveled in April 2021 down to Organ Pipe National Monument, to hunt down the jagged mountains in Josef’s photo and find a blooming opuntia.
We spent several days searching within the park boundaries—west of the 85, and east of the 85, and along the Mexican border—but we never found Muench’s exact mountain. Perhaps he backpacked further in, or flipped the negative? I am not certain, but the exact location of his photo shall remain a mystery to me. Wandering through Organ Pipe National Monument, however, did provide valuable inspiration for my painting, because the adventure is always important to my work.
Once home, I purchased a copy of the magazine online from a used bookstore and pinned it to my studio wall for reference. I would gaze at the cover every working day in the studio for the following two months.
I also chose to use the landscape from the inside cover of the ’59 issue titled “A Saguaro in Bloom” as my back drop, as I was really enamored with the shadows that Muench captured during a different part of the same day.
My final composition choice was to place myself within Muench’s landscape. In the distance, near the horizon, you’ll find me in my Jeep, True Blue, exploring Muench’s Cactusland in the sunshine the way the photographer did 62 years ago.
Thank you Muench family, and Arizona Highways Magazine, for the privilege and honor to partner with Josef in this creative endeavor. My hope is that I’ve created a painting that captivates readers now, and years from now, the way Josef Muench’s work captivated me.
-dh November 2021
See more art in the December 2021 Issue of Arizona Highways Magazine
*Information about Muench’s biography from NAU’s Cline library.