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May 2009 cover image eastern screech-owl

Light and Shadow

Jeanne Norsworthy and Fresno Ranch

By E. Dan Klepper

The vistas of the Big Bend in southwest Texas have inspired many works of art over the last century. Alongside Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, the region’s austere beauty and unusual topography is equal to any found throughout the continent. But this vast swath of the northern Chihuahuan Desert also generates a unique draw all its own. The angst embodied in the region’s volcanic upheaval conjures an allure beyond the canvas, compelling artists from across the country to abandon creature comforts and move to the Big Bend. Here, many artists live in stone ruins, campers, tents and caves, contending with the intense heat, the winter chill and the venomous wildlife, all in an attempt to understand the enigma that lies in the mountain and canyon landscapes scattered across hundreds of uninhabited west Texas miles. The geography, lit by an ever-changing light, is as cryptic as the human psyche. But with time and contemplation, an artist can thrive on conclusions that are as much about the land as about their own internal landscapes.

Some artists who choose to live here are dependent on their own entrepreneurial wits to survive. Others bring their fortunes with them. The late Jeanne Norsworthy, painter and great-granddaughter of Dallas Morning News publisher George B. Dealey, embodied the artist’s trifecta — talent, money and an unrelenting call to capture the beauty of the Big Bend. At the age of 47, undeterred by her privileged past, Norsworthy compromised her lifestyle in order to paint the west Texas landscape. For almost a decade she occupied a rundown adobe within the heart of Fresno Ranch, a keystone of this remote northern Chihuahuan Desert wilderness.

Photo of Tony Amos

Fresno Ranch sits within earshot of the mountains of both Texas and Mexico and its relatively static topography, a brief pause in the ridges and arroyos of the region’s igneous tumble, provides a staging ground for a library of natural phenomena. It is an attribute that Norsworthy recognized and embraced, not only choosing to live within it in an attempt to uncover its substance beyond the rigid aesthetics of its landscape but also to possess it completely.

Norsworthy accumulated a checkerboard of 11 sections of the surrounding countryside, starting with the heart of the ranch along the Rio Grande just west of Lajitas and adding parcels northward as they became available, eventually compiling a 7,000-acre laboratory of elements and atmospherics. Now, thanks to a collaboration between her estate, the Nature Conservancy of Texas, federal Land and Water Conservation matching funds and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the ranch resides in the hands of all Texans, artists and otherwise.

It is perhaps the most important land acquisition in the evolution of the park system’s grandest achievement — Big Bend Ranch State Park. The purchase closes the gap between strategic sections within the park and Fresno’s private in-holdings, thereby resolving both protection and access issues. It also adds 8.5 miles of unbroken river frontage to the 25-five mile stretch of Rio Grande River corridor between Lajitas and Presidio currently residing under the protective custody of the state.

"Jeanne was a very distinguished artist," former TPWD Executive Director Andrew Sansom says of Norsworthy. (Sansom helped lead the effort to establish Big Bend Ranch State Park.) "She created a beautiful body of art, much of it done there at the Fresno Ranch. We first began to speak with her in the late 1980s. I last discussed the acquisition of this property a few months before her death, and she told me she wanted it to become part of the park, so in a very large measure, this is fulfilling her vision." Norsworthy never lacked for vision, particularly throughout her years at Fresno Ranch. But an artist is never at a loss for a muse while under the Fresno spell. The property begins in the shadow of the Solitario, one of the planet’s most impressive collapsed volcanic domes, then follows the water- and wildlife-rich corridor known as Fresno Canyon south before terminating with the nation itself — at the Rio Grande River border. Along the way are springs and seeps, migratory birds, willow woodlands, mule deer, peregrine falcon, bats, horned lizards, rare reticulated geckos, and a catalogue of historic and prehistoric sites.

However, as Norsworthy discovered, this litany of environmental treasures does not necessarily complete the list of Fresno’s distinguishing features. The artist, recognizing the infinite reflection in the shallows, set out to capture Fresno in its entirety, painting not only what she saw but also what she sensed. Almost at odds with the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert realities, Fresno hovers like a dream, cradled among the jagged bluffs of the Sierra Ricas, the Bofecillos and the rigors of the Contrabando. Light here bends, it seems, to the will of sorcery, scattering across dawn in crepuscular rays, pin-sharp as lasers or awash in a haze. Virga filters the ambient dusk; night skies explode in terrific fulguration. The summer heat strangles the air and winter rolls in great gusts across the lechugilla flats. Morning breaks so quietly that nothing but the muted rumble of the Rio Grande’s Fresno rapids can be heard echoing off the river cliffs almost a mile away. A hike along Fresno Canyon, a temperamental waterway that alternates between a wide, flat wash and walls squeezed tight, provides a chance for the hiker to wander in aimlessness or with intent, never sure what will arise and scatter from the thickets of cottonwood and willow stands. In late afternoon the ravens strafe the canyon floor, wing beats slow and droopy in the heat. Their shadows slash the trail as they call the canyon in a rasping refrain: "Not you. Not now. Not yet."

Art has a way of speaking truth to beauty. Good landscape painters, in particular, understand that nature’s façade — with its glowing sunsets, thundering waterfalls, and purple peaks — is only the prologue to a more compelling picture. A landscape will yield its entire story, not just its glamour but also its despair, its calamity, apathy and grace, once pinned beneath the discerning artist’s brushstroke. And it is often a story that mirrors the artist’s own. Towards the end of Norsworthy’s decade at Fresno she struggled in the shadow of cancer and the collapse of a marriage. But rather than allowing these traumas to compromise her love of the desert she embraced the landscape with a greater intensity, painting the geography of Fresno in a light that illuminated the intrinsic link between humans and the natural world. In doing so, she exposed a bond that is at once both divine and vulnerable, illustrating the fundamental belief that a mountain profile is no less perfect or more compromised by time and turmoil than the contours of the human lifespan. The desert reciprocated, granting her solace in her darkest hours and hope in those rare moments of brightness.

Fresno is the Spanish name for the ash tree (Fraxinus velutina) that grows within the ranch’s namesake canyon. The Fresno tree is a surprising encounter in this low desert where any shade, however meager, is welcomed. Among the quaking cottonwoods and willows, the Fresno is a lush standout, its leaves an equatorial green and its bark cool to the touch. Fresno trees growing along an arroyo’s dry floor signal the underground presence of a permanent source for the desert’s life blood — water. The tree also embodies the largesse of Fresno Ranch, a countryside where sustenance and renewal are available to anyone who seeks the restorative in the outdoors. Like Norsworthy’s paintings, created by a gifted artisan who accepted everything that the landscape had to offer, Fresno Ranch stands as a legacy for all Texans who embrace the transformative power of the natural world.

Details

A book of Jeanne Norsworthy’s paintings titled Healing Landscapes — A Journey from the Big Thicket to the Big Bend, featuring many of the works she created at Fresno Ranch, was published posthumously in 2001 and is available from Texas A&M Press.

Visitors may access Fresno Canyon via horse, mountain bike or on foot from several locations within Big Bend Ranch State Park. All visitors are required to receive an orientation and appropriate permits once arriving at park headquarters before heading out to front country or backcountry Fresno locations. Orientation and permits are available at the Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center (BWEEC) in Lajitas, Fort Leaton State Historic Site in Presidio and Sauceda Ranger Station within the interior of the park. For additional information call (432) 358-4444 or visit www.tpwd.state.tx.us/bigbendranch.

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