OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS, ARTIST Bruce Aiken has produced more than 200 paintings, all of the same subject. Even Bruce would admit he’s in a rut. But oh, what a rut! It measures more than 250 miles long and a mile deep and provides some of the most dazzling vistas nature has to offer. You call it the Grand Canyon. Aiken calls it home.
Like the other 1,000 or so full-time residents of the Grand Canyon National Park, Aiken, 41, is an employee of the National Park Service. Since 1973, he has served as caretaker of the Roaring Springs pump house, which supplies fresh water to the canyon’s north rim, 4,000 feet above. The job pays $28,000 a year, but money wasn’t the draw. It was the caretaker’s residence, a small, wood-frame cabin, since upgraded to a three-bedroom, ranch-style house, which he shares with wife Mary, 40, and their children, Mercy, 19, Shirley, 16, and Silas, 14. Located five miles down the steep North Kaibab Trail, it is within hiking distance of some of the park’s most stunning panoramas. “I didn’t know anything about pumps,” recalls Aiken, “but I wanted to live down there bad.”
Taking his cues from nature, Aiken follows a leisurely routine of checking the pump, tending his yard and chatting with the steady stream of hikers who stop by for water. Then, at least once a week, he takes off in search of some remote locale. Back at his studio, he paints from 6 P.M. until midnight, sometimes spending up to a month on a single piece.
The effort has paid off. “It’s a profound space, and he manages to capture it,” says Los Angeles art dealer Lorna Dryden, who sells Aiken’s oils for as much as $7,000 each. “You can’t help but feel that in some way the canyon belongs to him.”
It was a chance encounter. The second of four sons of a radio producer father and a painter mother (“She was my earliest inspiration”), Aiken grew up in Manhattan. He studied at the Art Students’ League of New York and the School of Visual Arts. Then, in 1969, he became fed up with the burgeoning drug scene and decided to head west. “I felt like a refugee from something that could’ve killed me,” he recalls. “All I wanted to do was to get somewhere and paint.” He found what he was looking for on a stretch of Arizona highway. “I remember vermilion cliffs on one side, burnt sienna hills on the other,” he says. “I realized that the abstract images I’d been making up in my head actually existed in nature.”
In 1972, Aiken, by then married to Mary, whom he had met during a stint at Phoenix College, was clearing trails for the park service in the canyon when he first came upon the pump-house site. A year later the caretaker’s job became available. “I was reluctant at first,” admits Mary. “It was so isolated. But gradually you get into the rhythm of living there.”
For the only family on the canyon’s harsh north side, life’s amenities are sparse. Everything from groceries to furniture has to be helicoptered in. The nearest neighbor is a ranger station 1 l/2 miles away. Surrounded by rugged terrain, the family doesn’t even have a suitable place to sulk. “I remember walking out several times, slamming the door and starting up the trail,” says Mary of family spats. “Then I would think, ‘Nah,’ and go back.”
There have been medical alerts too, such as the time Shirley, then 3, was stung by a scorpion and went into convulsions. “There’s no hospital to go to,” says Mary. “We prayed all night. The next day she was better.”
Nor are there schools. Since 1987 Mary, a poet, has spent from September to June in a house on the canyon’s south rim so the children can go to school. (Before then they were home taught.) Bruce joins them there from December to March, when the pump is closed down.
The benefits, however, are also unique. “We always had to be creative,” says Mercy, now a sophomore at Northern Arizona University. “It helped us to become individuals.”
The only outside entertainment comes from their radio, which gets stations as far off as Los Angeles. Dodgers games became a nightly ritual early on. Bruce, a baseball fanatic, eventually took Silas, then 9, to a game. More memorable, though, was the smog. “What do people do with that?” Bruce recalls Silas asking. “I told him, ‘They breathe it.’ ” Only in recent years has the problem reached the canyon.
Once all the children are in college, Bruce and Mary plan to live on the north rim year-round, giving him even more time with his beloved subject. “It’d take four lifetimes to cover the Grand Canyon,” he says. “I’ve only scratched the surface.”
TODD GOLD in the Grand Canyon