Searching the Shale

Sitting at the edge of a landfill isn’t what I envision when I’m anticipating an afternoon of landscape painting, but that’s exactly where I found myself a few weeks ago. The way this happened is nothing new. When my husband and I travel, each of us gets to select a natural feature, historic site or roadside oddity that he or she particularly wants to see. In this case my husband wanted to search a bed of shale that purportedly held Cretaceous fossils, particularly ammonites, extinct mollusks whose appealing spiral-shaped shells resemble the curved horns of big-horn sheep.

Ammonite fossil – ink & watercolor on paper, 5 x 5

This works for us, because when he hunts fossils or photographs industrial sites or railroads, I paint, and vice-versa. Besides, I like the challenge of these occasions: no matter where we are I bet myself I can make a painting of it. This time we were on our way for a week’s R&R on Colorado’s Western Slope, picking our way leisurely across the Rocky Mountains toward Grand Junction and the Grand Valley, near the Utah border. As the shale bed was at a landfill just a few miles off the interstate, it seemed too convenient not to stop. 

The thing about fossil-hunting at a landfill, of course, is that as earth gets dug up to cover over the modern world’s trash it brings to the surface creatures from ancient worlds. There’s an irony in this flipping of the modern for the ancient in our trash heaps, but no matter. For the amateur paleontologist, it’s the treasure-hunt that counts. For the artist, it’s the challenge of finding something to paint that counts.

Big gray clouds pregnant with rain and a dust-kicking wind made painting outside problematic, so I placed myself in the driver’s seat to sketch whatever was in view: Highway 131 stretched out in front of me, a gravel road leading to the landfill curved up to my left, spring-green hills of the valley of Alkali Creek filled the distance and a parade of dump trucks, like the unstoppable brooms of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, shuddered up the hill to empty their loads before the end of the day. Ignoring the dust, the noise and the truck drivers’ puzzled looks, I painted away, peering between the trucks to record details as best I could as they went roaring by.

And the shale bed? No ammonites, but fossilized shells of a tiny mollusk, ubiquitous in this area 70+ million years ago, give or take a few. A satisfying, if unspectacular find.

Shale Bed, Eagle County – ink & watercolor on paper, 5 x 8



  1. Ruth Potter says:

    Sorry to have missed you at any of the organ concerts this week. They really outdid themselves this time around, and it’s always fun to have the same organists return each year. However, I can see that you and Al are having a ball!! Not sure a landfill would be my favorite place to visit, though. 🙂 Hopefully we’ll meet up at the end of the month.


  2. Shirley rosseau says:

    Hi Marilyn, I was one of your beginning students at the JCCFC about 8 years ago and Ruthie Potter is my cousin who kindly reconnected me to your beautiful website.
    These paintings near the shale beds show what a true artist ‘sees’. Beautiful paintings done under difficult
    circumstances. Glad to see how you have become a westerner.
    I am sorry that we cannot get to folk school any more. Too old to enjoy the drive etc. but Dick and I have wonderful memories of the place and classes.
    Best wishes to you. Shirley Rosseau

  3. Siobhan says:

    What a beautiful spot for trash! Perhaps in the distant future someone will excavate this and conclude that we were terraforming. I was kind of hoping to see a little caterpillar of dusty dump trucks. But seriously, your sketch is perfect. I love the fossil in the road, the rounded border on the right with the sense of escape to anywhere on the left.

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