Paintings of Rocks

Rain drummed a steady symphony against our umbrella as my husband and I trekked through the sidewalk puddles in front of BYU’s Museum of Art. Couples and excited family home evening groups rushed past us, clutching donuts and flyers to their chests. Gold light streamed through the MOA’s glass doors. Dancing reflections rippled across the wet ground as we made our way inside. 

BYU’s “Night of the Museums” was in full swing. All five museums near campus contained a riddle leading to an exhibit, and participants who solved all five received a cute tote bag as a prize. We were on clue three out of five. In the MOA, participants lingered in the entrance hall, socializing and munching baked goods as a pianist performed live music nearby. We helped ourselves to refreshments as we puzzled over the proffered clue. Then we headed towards the closest gallery, hopeful for some insight. As we entered the exhibit, the sound of applause faded–muffled by thick walls–and the crowds thinned. 

This exhibit, though at the forefront of the museum’s advertisements and closest to the entrance, did not strike me as particularly impressive at first glance. The majority of the paintings all seemed to portray the same thing, but from different angles: rocky cliffs, stained red-orange and pocketed by bristly-looking sagebrush. My gaze skimmed over the first room of paintings in an instant. I saw nothing but puffy white clouds and bare rock. Our riddle suggested nothing of the sort. 

I began to speedwalk. I wanted to solve the riddle, but I felt it would be rude to turn my back immediately on this artist’s work.  Still, I couldn’t help but wonder why he had chosen such a mundane subject. I finally noticed that some paintings included Native Americans or men on horseback, but my mind had already dismissed the exhibit as uninspired. 

Near the end of the exhibit, however, I stopped near a painting of a gruff man on horseback driving a huge herd of cattle through an untamed wilderness. This, finally, made me pause. Something in the shape of the man’s body reminded me, inexplicably, of my grandpa. He had been a rancher out in the open ranges of Panguitch, Utah. He loved to tell playfully exaggerated stories from his cowboy days, such as “the time cowboy Jim jumped over the Navajo Lake with his horse, April” or “the time cowboy Jim hunted killer porcupines in the middle of the night.” The painting seemed like a photo straight out of his youth. The face of the cowboy, not quite as detailed as the rest of the painting, left facial features to the imagination, further allowing my projection. 

I leaned in to see better. This time, I paid better attention, noting the meticulous work. From up close, I could make out the individual brush strokes, slightly raised off the canvas, that knit together to form the image. Each swipe of paint was precisely placed, care and detail evident in the deliberate blend of colors. 

The next painting was just another towering rock formation, but now I could see the same intricate blend of textures, hues, and exactness in this work. In fact, every painting contained these same characteristics. I was shocked at the diligence of the painter. How could he possibly spend so much time on something that seemed so uninteresting? I decided to read the hanging descriptions. 

The painter, Maynard Dixon, traveled the untamed plains of the West during the early 1900s, through Montana, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. His trips lasted anywhere from a week to several months. The raw beauty of the landscape captivated him. Most of his canvases depict real places or people that he saw during his travels (Sublette). To me, the tiny details and stylistic beauty in his works indicated a deep emotional connection to the people and places he portrayed. 

Dixon’s observational abilities allowed him to find value in everyday sights while he traveled. What I had mistaken for a hall full of boring rocks actually showcased rich emotion, history, and detail. The exhibit in the MOA remained my favorite part of the night, even after visiting the remaining two museums and obtaining our tote bag prizes. 

The faster we move, the less we are able to focus on our surroundings.

My experience at the MOA also reminded me of the time when a visiting family friend stopped abruptly in the middle of Brigham Square, transfixed by the gorgeous mountains that I had come to barely notice amidst the chaos of my campus routine.

Our current society seems to have been designed for speed. Social media flashes 10-second videos in endless waves. Our calendars bulge with events and to-dos. Everything comes at us fast, and expects us to react even faster. There is no time to sit back, to analyze, to listen and observe. We are swept away in the chaotic winds of hustle and bustle. 

Yet, there is so much value in the ability to notice the tiny, insignificant details around us. Observation is how writers write their most poignant descriptions, how poets decide on the most surprising of subjects. It is how researchers find world-changing results and how psychologists see what cannot be said. 

Our brains enjoy being challenged. They fixate on the aesthetically pleasing, on puzzles, or on people. They are more than capable of noticing these small, beautiful details, even in mundane situations. However, this requires that we slow down. The faster we move, the less we are able to focus on our surroundings. During my visit to the Dixon exhibit, I didn’t initially notice the beauty around me because I was too fixated on the need to accomplish my goals. I was moving too fast. Even just taking a few moments to hold still and observe, as I learned, can help us diminish stress, increase our focus, and recognize surrounding beauty.

The Massachusetts Institution of Technology also assures us that observing our surroundings helps us to make better decisions, listen, communicate with other people, and respond to new situations. Elder Bednar, during a BYU devotional in 2005, suggests that good observation skills helps us to “find and bring forth the good that may be concealed,” either in ourselves, others, or, I would add, the world around us. 

To be sure, there are things that we might prefer not to notice. Litter on the side of the road or grime in the corner of a public bathroom might not exactly meet our definition of “concealed good.” But as we go out of our way to notice our surroundings, we may find many impactful, intricate details that can inspire us to think differently about our world.  

As I wrote this article, I found myself noticing things that I usually overlooked. Tiny sparkling crystals hide in the mottled granite of my bathroom sink. The east side of the Talmage building showcases beautiful carvings of interlocking geometric shapes. The carpet in the Life Science building is full of bright colors and patterns. I’ve tried to slow down and give myself time to observe despite my busy schedule. The difference it makes in how I see the world is astounding.

The scriptures famously claim that “by small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (Alma 37:6), but if we are unable to notice these small things, miracles might slip right past us. As we make more effort to pause our busy lives and recognize the beauty in the mundane like Maynard Dixon did, we will see more reasons to be grateful for life. We will gain more inspiration for our own individual endeavors. Just take a moment to breathe and observe. Beauty is waiting for you. 

This blog post was written by Kaitlyn Thiriot, a BYU Humanities Center Student Fellow.


Bednar, David A. “Quick to Observe.” BYU Speeches, Brigham Young University, 10 May 2005, 

“Improving Observation Skills.” CCMIT, MIT Office of Digital Learning, 

“Maynard Dixon.” Museum of Art (MOA), BYU, 2023, 

Sublette, J. Mark. “Maynard Dixon: Biography.” Maynard Dixon (1875-1946), 2023, 

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