Robert, we hardly knew ye...


In the fall of 2010, Bob Dalwgowski asked if I’d like to head down to the Verde Valley to paint.  I had no idea that day would lead to eight years of focused painting and fast friendship.  I could barely keep up to him that day as he rambled through the brush, down creek beds, and up embankments.  I learned what real plein air painting was all about that day.  That would be the first of countless plein air adventures I’d share with Bob.  

He encouraged me through my first two rejected applications to Celebration of Art.  “We just need to paint more”, he’d say and off to the Canyon we’d go.  Starting at sunrise and painting until sundown, Bob taught me to really “see" the Canyon.  He taught me the geology, folklore, and amazed me with his own hiking adventures.  Unless I had asked, I would never have known that he did two through hikes, one of the North Rim, one of the South.  Bob probably hiked more miles than the famed Harvey Butchart.  “How many miles, Bob?”, I asked.  “Lost count after 10,000”, he modestly replied. We painted in near-freezing temperatures, wind, heat, and juniper gnat attacks.  We marveled at the fragrant burst of cliff rose blossoms after a rain. After one morning of painting, we realized there’d been a sleeping rattlesnake 10 feet from where each of us had been painting.  We knew it was there when Bob stood on the rock under which it was napping.  You never forget that warning “bzzzzzzzzz”!  

Bob knew the Canyon and it’s geology like the back of his hand, however, his eye was attuned for beauty of small things, too. He’d stop and admire a small cactus in bloom, the irridescent emerald  shell of a beetle, the glint of an arrowhead in the late afternoon sunlight.  

Bob narrowly escaped a flash flood, and survived Viet Nam, but he couldn’t outrun acute myeloid leukemia.  It might have been agent orange he was exposed to in Viet Nam, it might have been Downwinder’s Syndrome, but in the summer of 2016, he remarked about his stamina seeming to ebb a bit and easily bruising and bleeding.  He chalked it up to getting old.  Then came the diagnosis in November of 2016 and a dark winter of chemotherapy.  The Canyon and painting world pled with the Universe for his recovery, and for a time, it seemed to be so.  He was able to do one last River trip, the one I’d planned for painters and photographers.  And he painted and painted and painted.

Dignity.  Bob had such dignity.  He never complained even when I knew he was uncomfortable.  On that River trip, a number of us would discretely tote his gear and help set up his campsite.  Bob knew when to fight and when to step back.  We spent one last summer of 2017 painting and preparing for the 9th Annual Celebration of Art.  We never spoke of the likelihood that the cancer would return.  It did.  A blood test in October confirmed it was so.  And Bob kept painting.  When Hospice was called in, Bob spent his final days listening to his wife, Charlie, read to him stories of Grand Canyon.  Bob passed on to the next life on June 17th.  I’m pretty sure he’s rambling over the back country trails in the Canyon. 

Bob would often say, “It is what it is”, a recognition and acceptance of those things that could not be changed.  His most important advice to me was, “You know the Canyon; now paint it!”.  One of Bob’s last paintings was the one he did for this year's 10th Annual Celebration of Art, "River of Stars”.  It’s a nocturne of the Milky Way reflecting on the Colorado River and his beloved Deer Creek Falls on the right margin.  I’m pretty sure he’s camped out above the falls at the Patio a lovely oasis lined with cottonwood trees and broad flat slabs of sandstone.  His painting will be on display at Celebration in September.  If you’re there, stop and see if you can spot Bob’s reflection in that River of Stars.  © Dawn Sutherland  2017