Priscilla Wiggins recalled a March day in 2003 or 2004 when she set up her easel under some cottonwood trees at Daniel’s Ranch, sweltering at 101 degrees. As Big Bend National Park’s volunteer artist-in-residence, part of her job was to interact with visitors while she painted. People often came to see the water at Daniel’s Ranch, which is why she chose it. She had reserved K-bar campsite for the night, and when she returned there, it was still so hot that she didn’t set up her tent, but slept on the earth on a pad, with her sleeping bag spread over her.
Before dawn, a cold wind blew her sleeping bag off into the bushes, and she crawled into the back of her Subaru. At dawn it started to snow, so she hunkered down and painted a watercolor of snow blowing sideways for two hours as the temperature plummeted to 22 degrees.
Recently I visited Wiggins at her camp at Stillwell’s primitive camping area, just north of the entrance to Big Bend National Park, sipping tea while the spring wind howled around us. Sheltered from the usual gale by her pickup-mounted camper, the February sun was warm on the stony ground. Agates sparkled enticingly around her campsite. A few hundred feet away, her plein-air painting supplies were planted facing north across the desert toward the distant hills.
Born in 1941 in Chappaqua, New York, Wiggins spent the winters of her childhood in Manhattan and the summers in New Hampshire at her uncle’s camp on Lake Winnipesaukee. She considers that she has always been an artist. Her mother was too: an abstract expressionist, she sent Wiggins to an experimental school run by Columbia University, where every child had an easel. Wiggins later attended Bennington College in Vermont, where she studied art theory, form, space and color.
Around 1964 she was living in a loft in Jersey City and working in an out-of-print bookstore, where she began to read a lot about Native Americans. She borrowed a station wagon and drove to Hopi land in Arizona—her first foray west of the Mississippi. In 1968, she moved to Albuquerque to finish her degree at the University of New Mexico, studying painting and earning her bachelor’s degree. Later, at the College of Santa Fe, she studied under David Barbero, a noted contemporary artist.
In 1977, Wiggins felt a growing conviction that the planet was being destroyed by our species, and a deep need to celebrate the beauty before it was gone. “I decided to spend the rest of my life living in nature and painting my surroundings. I wanted to see if I could live that way.” She discovered that she not only could live that way, but that she preferred it. She began to camp full-time and sell her paintings.
“I realized I only needed food, gas, art supplies and my health,” she said. “I’ve lived year-round outdoors ever since. I hardly ever sleep inside.”
With only a handful of exceptions, Wiggins has spent the last 46 years camping full time, migrating seasonally between several locations close to her heart. She began near Santa Fe on South Mountain, with summers in Colorado mostly above timberline. “I was addicted to being above timberline and camping with the mountain goats,” she said. “For 20 years I would hike and climb for three days to visit the goats.” Wiggins stayed on a ranch between Pagosa Springs and Durango, spending the worst winter in 50 years there during one of her visits as the ranch’s artist in residence, caretaking the property and recording her surroundings in her art.
She returns there every summer to paint the aspen trees—an endeavor she has accomplished every year for over four decades. When I first met her here in the Big Bend, this particular fact most caught my imagination: for longer than the span of my own lifetime, Priscilla Wiggins has painted the same groves of aspens every year, with the exception of 2022, when she drove to Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to visit friends and family, painting watercolors. The intimacy of her relationships with the natural world is palpable in her work.
It was there in Colorado that she first heard about the Big Bend, in 1981. She decided to give it a look.
“That first year I was overwhelmed with so many places to go,” she said. She wound up exploring and painting the furthest reaches of the National Park, climbing every possible mountain and backpacking in the desert, and has made it her winter camp every year since, with the exception of Covid years.
In 2003, after Wiggins’s mother passed away, she drove to the park and camped at Rice Tank on a two-week permit. When she emerged to get another permit at Panther Junction, the ranger told her that her limit was up. Increased visitation had caused the National Park to change its camping permit policies, to allow more visitors access to its campsites. She drove instead to Stillwell’s at sunset, where she was greeted by W.T., the wonderful old manager there, who invited her to a ranger talk that evening.
“The head of the volunteers at the time was named Angelina Yost,” she said. “After her ranger talk, I asked her if they’d like a volunteer artist-in-residence in exchange for a camping site. She said she’d discuss it with her people and I should come to her office at Panther Junction the next day. All agreed it was a good idea. I got a uniform, filled out the forms and got started.”
Wiggins held a show in her mother’s honor at Panther Junction on April 7 of that year, her mother’s birthday. She gave painting demonstrations, talked to visitors and displayed her work.
In 2006, she became the artist in residence at Stillwell Ranch, just west of Black Gap Wildlife Management Area, which borders the park to the north and east. It’s a role she’s enjoyed every year since with the exception of Covid years. When truly severe winter weather interferes with her camping, she can drive to the Stillwell store and plug her camper in to keep warm. And the store happily carries the notecards she has printed of her paintings.
Wiggins has visited many places in her decades of outdoor life, spending part of several winters in the tropics. She would fly to Hawaii, Florida or the U.S. Virgin Islands from West Texas. She spent three to six weeks each winter in U.S. Virgin Islands National Park from 2006 to 2016, painting the water, which she loves. “I love snorkeling,” she said. In 2011 she visited the Kingdom of Bhutan in the Eastern Himalayas, intrigued by the nation’s Ministry of Happiness.
“One day the clouds lifted and you could see the Himalayas,” she said. A guide took her and a friend up to a temple, where they climbed the stairs onto the roof. “There were converging valleys coming down in an amazing view, and then an enormous butterfly as wide as my hand flew inches in front of my face.”
Because her simple lifestyle has allowed her to travel extensively, Wiggin’s portfolio is a showcase of a rich variety of nature. Tropical forests, oceans, mountains, rivers and animals. She says that wildlife often visits her while she sits quietly at her work, and she has a rule about them. “If a critter comes while I have the brush in hand, I have to put them in the painting,” she said. She described the day a family of javelina came racing down the hill next to her campsite, but they were too fast for her to paint. She’s had deer, coyotes, lots of bears, rattlesnakes and her beloved Colorado mountain goats visit her, as well.
“I feel the energy around me as I paint,” she said. “I have to be there: amid the sounds and smells of nature.”
When asked what some of her favorite Big Bend locations are, she had to consider a moment. “I hesitate to say,” she said. “The Old Ore Road, Juniper Canyon Road, and the Glen Springs Road.” She added that she was bound for La Noria campsite on the Old Ore Road this March. “It’s one of my favorite places to paint the Chisos.”
Wiggins primarily works in oils, but also loves watercolors. She said it takes her about three weeks to complete her larger oil paintings, working several hours each afternoon if the weather allows. She has had many solo shows in Santa Fe, including at Laurel Seth Gallery and the Eli Levin Studio. She is represented by Argos Studio-Gallery in Santa Fe. Locally, her work can currently be seen at the Old Spanish Trails Gallery outside Fort Davis and at Eve’s Garden in Marathon. Prints of her work are available at the Stillwell Store.
To view her work online, including the aspen trees she’s been painting since 1979, go to http://argos-gallery.com/Argos_Site/Wiggins1.htm