Michael Rosato – Muralist for the National Parks

By Diana Lambdin Meyer

Few places celebrate Mother Nature as uniquely as Bryce Canyon National Park. The spires and hoodoos, the pinks and crimsons, the Grand Staircase. It must be seen and experienced in person to fully appreciate all that makes this such a spectacular destination.

That’s why artist Michael Rosato of Cambridge, Maryland, cherished his opportunity to hike the trails, to watch the sunset and sunrise, to feel the texture of the soil before painting murals in the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center.

Photo by Bruce N. Meyer.

“I was simply stunned by the power of nature and the overwhelming sense of just how majestic and ancient it all is, how much grander it is than all of us,” said Rosato, who was in the rare position to see a hoodoo collapse. “The other-worldly nature of the terrain defies words.”

It became Rosato’s responsibility in 2016 to translate his emotions and experiences into a massive mural for the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center Museum, interpreting the Paunsaugunt Plateau in the 1890s. This area led to the region being protected as a national park in the first place.

The mural runs about 64 feet and is almost 9 feet tall in some sections, spanning the ecology and human history areas of the museum. One half depicts the ponderosa forest and high-elevation meadow populated by prairie dogs. Along with field recordings, it helps create a multisensory experience.

Photo courtesy National Park Service.

The mural continues into the human history section of the museum, showcasing pioneers digging what would become the Tropic Ditch. Very few photos exist of this work, so this interpretation on a large scale contributes significantly to the park service’s ability to tell the story.

“I know of very few pieces of artwork that depict Bryce Canyon at this scale, and I appreciate how Michael’s artwork celebrates what I think is a lesser-appreciated aspect of the park,” said Peter Densmore, visual information specialist at Bryce Canyon. 

He notes that visitors often point to details in the murals, leading to questions and conversations that develop a better understanding of the park region. On inclement weather days, rangers often lead guided museum walks, using the mural to illustrate details of the park’s ecology and human history. 

“I hope that our visitors leave this section of the museum ever slightly more aware of the presence of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, rather than letting it flash by on their way to overlooks along its edge,” Densmore said. “The artistic quality and care for detail in Michael Rosato’s work makes me think that many of them do.”

Rosato has created murals throughout the national park system, although a majority of those appear in the eastern U.S. Some of his most famous are of Harriet Tubman in his hometown of Cambridge. His work has also been used to illustrate many of the junior ranger books available in the national park gift shops.

Unfortunately, budget cuts have prohibited Rosato from visiting many of the sites he’s been asked to help interpret. That was the case with Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument in Texas, just north of Amarillo.

Working with photos, archeological records and historical drawings, Rosato created eight murals on brushed aluminum that help bring life to the 13,000-year-old site known as the primary source for flint for tools for inhabitants of the High Plains. His efforts focused on the Antelope Creek people who lived in Texas and Oklahoma between the years 1150 and 1450. 

“Bringing ancient history to life requires a number of different sources and Rosato’s murals are an important part of our storytelling here,” said Alibates park ranger Tim Cruze.

While he prefers to visit sites and work in person, Rosato says there’s something special about being in Maryland in his studio but being surrounded by the beauty of the American West. When those are the requirements of his commission, the mural becomes a digital file that is then recreated onsite at the park.

A third national park that Rosato helped interpret is Big Bend National Park in Texas. At the Rio Grande Village Visitor Center, Rosato created the illustrations that showcase various flowers in the river valley. At the Magdelena House, Rosato’s illustrations help interpret the Castolon Historic District on panels found around adobe structure.

See more of his work at www.michaelrosato.com.