August, Osage County, Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

Blooming ironweed on a sunbaked tallgrass prairie in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, rendered in pastel. The wind, miraculously, was quiet for the day.
Blooming ironweed rendered in pastel out on the lonesome prairie in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The wind, miraculously, was quiet for Oklahoma, and for August, the heat wasn’t too bad.

With singing dickcissels every fifteen feet (it seemed), giant swallowtails (Papilio cresphontes) flapping over blooming ironweed, and goldenrod pushing up through clumps of big bluestem- and where off in the shade bison rested, the bulls getting itchy, ready to rut- where else could this be but Oklahoma’s Osage County on a late summer day, out on the rolling green acreage (39,000+) of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve?

The most abundant, or at least the most obvious, bird on the prairie that day- a dickcissel sings its own name. I was looking for Henslow's sparrows- they nest here, but no go.
The most abundant, or at least the most obvious, bird on the prairie that day- the dickcissel. A bird that sings its own name. I was looking for Henslow’s sparrows- they do nest here, but they were too elusive for me.

I drove out here last August for a day of scouting and sketching. It’s a long way from everywhere and mostly removed from everything, a truly wide open prairie, no fence for miles, hawks circling in endless skies. And of course, as I was enjoying the solitude, my phone rang. I was in the middle of drawing a dickcissel perched at the top of a solidago spike, and because it was my hairdresser and really hard to get an appointment with her, I took the call. After I hung up, the dickcissel was still on point, emitting a two-second song clip every ten seconds or so. I resumed sketching.

Second pastel of the day, at a waterhole by the side of the road. Favored by sneaky bison, apparently.
Second pastel of the day, at a waterhole by the side of the road. Favored by sneaky bison, apparently.

If you paint in a wildlife refuge with charismatic megafauna (more than 2,500 bison here) wandering around wild, look over your shoulder from time to time. Late in the day I set up by a bucolic waterhole and began a new painting. My car was parked a dozen steps away. As I worked, a pickup pulled alongside and a ranger leaned out the window. “You might not want to stand there” she said, “you’re on a bison trail. They’re hanging out under that copse of trees just around the bend.” I asked her if there’d be time to pack my things if they appeared on the trail. “You might have time to reach your car. How fast can you run?”

"Waiting for Bison, Tallgrass Prairie Waterhole"; mostly plein air pastel 15" x 14"
“Waiting for Bison, Tallgrass Prairie Waterhole”; mostly plein air pastel 15″ x 14″

Rather than staying to find out, I packed everything up and finished the pastel at home where no buffalo roam. But the painting, I’m pleased to say, has been juried into America’s Parks II, a traveling exhibition March 16-April 13 at the Ella Carothers Dunnegan Gallery of Art in Bolivar, Missouri, going from there to the Wildlife Experience in Parker, Colorado, May 24 to August 10, and finally showing at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson September 13 to October 26. Catch the show if you can- there are 100 wonderful works of art celebrating America’s parks and refuges, with an emphasis on the American Southwest, which includes Osage County. Hope you get to see it. I’m just glad I got out of there with two paintings and my skin intact.

Happy Friday.

11 thoughts on “August, Osage County, Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

  1. Erin Libby says:

    I am overjoyed to see these remarkable paintings. There is a high probability I will never visit Oklahoma, although my mother and father married there. There is a good chance my next car will not be four wheel drive. It may be two years before I purchase the darkest of dark pastels set to go with my other colors. But none of that matters. I have a goal to work towards, which is to learn to do a landscape with tenderness, power, lush tones, and a profound honesty as you have done. Erin Libby

    Sent from my iPad


  2. fionrk says:

    I love the waterhole. Now you’ve made me want to pick up my pastels again! Beautiful wide open spaces. I must go camping this year. I must! Congrats too, wish I was on your side of the world so I could see your exhibits.

  3. Chris Marsh says:


    Thanks for sharing these. I love your landscapes too! I’m headed out tomorrow for the NC Outer Banks for a winter birding trip. Since I turn 60 at the end of this year I thought I would try to do a Big Year in my spare time so I’m off to look for winter gulls, sea ducks and snowy owls!

    Hope you two are doing well!

    Chris Marsh
    Spring Island

  4. Katherine Harra says:

    This painting, and the accompanying story, is a wonderful introduction to the REAL Osage county (rather than that depressing movie which I shall not name or recommend). Thank you! (And some of us LIKE that song running through our head).

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