The practice of drawing daily opened my eyes to unexpected insights about ancient Pueblo artifacts.

I started referring to our recent trip to Utah as “The Awe and Wonder Tour” when we’d only been there a few days. We were overdo for a vacation, and I adore the Canyonlands area and everything it entails. But I believe the real reason this vacation was so special was because I was sketching daily. I made connections and saw patterns I might have missed if I hadn’t been awakened by regular drawing.

My sketchbook went everywhere I did, even on hikes. When conditions allowed, I’d take a few minutes to draw something that had caught my eye. As a result, I was actively looking for things to draw and I noticed much more than I would have if I’d just been sight-seeing as usual.

I am a fairly observant person and often notice things other people don’t. But on this trip, what would usually be an idle observation would stay with me. I would have questions about what I had seen. Why was that rock blue? What was that bird doing? Who built this structure and why?

This meant that I was looking at the landscapes around me for the answers to my questions and it led to a rich experience. I’ll be posting about one of the mysteries I solved on the trip later, but here are two things I noticed that made me feel truly alive.

We spent a rainy day in a museum full of artifacts from the pueblos and kivas that are scattered throughout the region. The majority of the pottery was covered with stark if complex geometric designs. I was puzzled by this fact.

Black and white pot from The Edge of the Cedars Museum, Blanding, Utah. Photo by Kit Dunsmore
Intriguing pot at The Edge of the Cedars museum in Blanding, Utah. (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)
Black and white sketch of ancient puebloan pottery and notes. Drawing by Kit Dunsmore
Journal page by Kit Dunsmore

I love the natural world, and while I do plenty of abstract doodling, my favorite art is representational, full of plants and animals. For a group whose buildings show definite alignments with sun, moon, and stars, the ancient peoples seemed reluctant to draw the world around them except in their rock art. Why was their pottery covered with triangles and jagged spirals instead of the plants and animals that surrounded them?

Shelves of pottery in glass display room. The Edge of the Cedars State Park museum, Blanding, Utah. Photo by Kit Dunsmore
Typical pottery for the region, all of it covered with geometric patterns. (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)
Orange petroglyphs on black, small section of Newspaper Rock in Utah. Photo by Kit Dunsmore.
A small section from Newspaper Rock, showing representational art. (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)
Blank and white diagrams of petroglyphs on Newspaper Rock in Utah. Drawn by Kit Dunsmore
Sketches of petroglyphs on Newspaper Rock. Drawing by Kit Dunsmore

I had a big ah-ha moment while I was driving through Natural Bridges National Monument. The canyon wall ahead caught my eye. It had great wedges of fallen rock along its sides, talus slopes a different color than the rock above. Between the rock slides, red triangles of layered stone showed.

The slope that caught my eye. (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)
Triangles in the landscape. (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

A common sight in the American southwest, the line of triangles reminded me of the triangles seen in Navajo and Pueblo weaving. The potters also used arrays of triangles to decorate their pots, and here in front of me were giant triangles, part of the magnificent landscape. The potters were recording their environment in their art, I just hadn’t realized it.

Another thing I saw at the museum was a little display about some markings on a stone. The sign talked about the repeated design and that no one knew for sure what it meant. I was surprised because I recognized the shape. It looked exactly like a kiva seen from above: a circle with a projection on one side, a little like a stylized keyhole. The meaning of this design, like many things related to the ruins and artifacts left by the ancient pueblo dwellers, is a mystery, but I came away feeling like I had made a connection that meant something, and the mystery now had personal meaning for me.

Close up of design on stone tablet (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)
Roofless kiva showing keyhole shape. (Photo by Kit Dunsmore)

Making the connections between these patterns in different man-made objects, or between artifacts and the landscape they were made in, came easily to me. I am convinced I owe my sketchbook for my insights. Drawing opened my eyes and my mind, making my vacation richer and increasing my dedication to my daily drawing habit.

Have you ever had an insight because of the drawing you do?

2 thoughts on “Connections and Insights: The Gift of Sketching Daily”

  1. Excellent observations Kit! Thanks for sharing your adventure and mystery in this post. It’s a lesson for all of us to slow down, be observant, and yes, commit our observations to paper.

    1. Thanks. It’s hard to live intentionally. Glad there are things like drawing (and writing!) that help us be more aware of the world around us.

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