Artists Gone Wild
Alaska offers unique opportunities for artists to engage in art residencies based in remote wilderness locations
by Sheryl Maree Reily
I am experiencing a major case of color intoxication. I peer into tide pools as if they were a snow globe, and marvel at the combustion of hues. In my memory, I am gliding effortlessly on a magic tapestry of anemone, urchins, chiton, kelp, mollusks, with starfish carpeting the floor of the lagoon beneath the canvas deck of the kayak. Watching droplets slice silently from the blade of the paddle animating the scene below, I am reminded of antique mirrors and horror houses. Only this is not horrible, it's delicious.
I promised myself I would be back. Only next time I would load the film in the SLR correctly, come armed with the right tools - art supplies, uninterrupted time, and the space for thoughts. And yet, that day, as I looked into my tide pool gazing ball, I could not have predicted a future without film, or that it would be three decades before I would return to China Poot Lagoon in Kachemak Bay, Alaska.
Sounding like some exotic location from a Pearl S. Buck novel, China Poot, quixotically named after Henry Poot, an early Homerite who employed Chinese immigrants to work in his herring factory, the lagoon is neatly tucked into the coastline of Kachemak Bay, Alaska. As displaced as the words China Poot may sound in the Alaskan landscape, the lagoon itself is perfectly placed - beyond expectations, as is the entire Kachemak Bay State Park.
This past summer I was invited to return to the area as the Kachemak Bay State Park (KBSP) Artist-on-Residence (AIR). The agreement with the park was simple, I would spend a week alone at the ranger station in exchange for giving a public presentation and donating art. In my public presentation titled 'The Importance of Artist Residencies in Wilderness Spaces' I shared the mutual goal of these partnerships, to inspire future work which expands the reach of the park and contributes to the creative growth of the artist.
I arrived at Homer Spit, a four-mile finger of land which points directly across the water toward Kachemak Bay State Park, after driving my mobile art studio from Fairbanks through South Central Alaska and the Kenai Peninsula. I was to meet the park crew at the top of Ramp 4 at 8:30am for the boat ride to the ranger station. I know from personal experience if you miss the tide you miss the ride, so I was standing at the top of the dock EXTRA early in my EXTRATUFs ® when the skiff pulled in. (No self-respecting Alaskan would ever approach water without wearing a pair of the iconic rubber boots. They also work well for piles of bear scat and fish slime - more on that later).
The Kachemak Bay State Park artist residency program is situated in one of the most spectacular locations in the world. Viewed from Land's End at the tip of that finger I mentioned earlier, the more than 400,000 acres contained in the park will steal your breath away. This is nature's majesty on a grand scale, a place where glaciers cleave snow-capped mountains and plunge into the ocean flanked by lush green forest, a terrestrial goddess slipping into a salt bath. On a clear day it's hard to know where the sky ends and the sea begins, and the abundance of wildlife is staggering.
There were no means available for me to access China Poot by water so I decided to hike an unmaintained trail that climbs the ridge separating the ranger station from the lagoon. While hiking the two-mile stretch, wearing my XTRATUFs ®, flanked by devil's club and crops of prehistoric looking sulphur-shelf (a psychedelic orange colored 'shroom that attaches itself to conifers) I counted thirty-three piles of bear scat (poop). Admittedly it was not all steaming, but the insipid tinkle of bear bells did little to reassure me and I felt compelled to augment the soundscape by reciting nursery rhymes and Spanish verb conjugations using my loudest outdoor voice. I don't sing.
Sometimes small-scale shifts portend an avalanche of destruction. Beneath the liquid surface of Kachemak Bay things have changed in the past three decades. During the residency I did not see a single starfish. A disease called starfish wasting has dulled the waters of China Poot Lagoon. Little is known about the cause of this disease which has slowly crept north via the West Coast. There have been other changes, fewer mollusks, and most noticeable are rafts of sea otter, literally. At times gathered in groups of a hundred or more, floating in the bay like a roiling island of flesh, the exploding population of cute critters is shifting the ecology of the area.
My experience commercial fishing and living in remote areas prepared me for managing the off-the-grid systems at the Ranger station. But you don't have to be a 'Wilderness Woman' or 'Mountain Man' to enjoy the park. With a little planning it's all accessible, with common-sense it's doable. There are public use cabins and water taxis to deliver you to trail heads leading to all kinds of options - want to see a lake, a glacier, a mountain, forest, sealife, birds, large mammals, a jökulhlaup (probably not)? It's all there. Sound travels long distances over water in undeveloped landscapes. One of the sweetest moments for me came one evening while observing a family kayak around the bay, baby strapped securely to her mom's chest, singing 'Only You' by the Platters. It was the one-year anniversary of their daughter's first trip to the park and they had returned to celebrate her first birthday!
What exactly is an Artist-in-Residency program? At first blush it might sound like an all expenses paid vacation for the artist (if only), or a good way to decorate the home office, but an Artist-in-Residence program is a privilege for both the artist and the sponsoring institution.
From the artist's point of view the purpose of such programs is to provide uninterrupted time and the resources needed to reflect, research, experiment or produce art, away from the distractions of normal life. Each residency offers its’ own unique set of opportunities and challenges for both the artist and agency. There are as many kinds of AIR programs as there are artists. I have encountered programs where an artist could sleep for three months and the institution wouldn't blink an eye - trusting if the artist needed this to recharge their creative batteries, the residency had fulfilled its’ purpose! Other residencies will run an artist ragged with expectations and givebacks. Most often the artist and institution find a happy medium. Parks throughout the nation have a long history of working with artists and Alaska has embraced this relationship. Today's savvy resource managers know they must reach audiences beyond the walls of the visitor center. Breaking convention, they look for new ways to communicate the value of their charge, using innovative methods to capture the attention of the nation with new media and interventions. That's where I come in.
I am a conceptual artist. Chances are, if you find yourself asking whether a particular piece of artwork is art\ [or not] - it's more than likely conceptual art. The driving force behind my work is an idea and it is the idea that determines my choice of medium and materials, not a discipline. You might wonder why a park would want to form a partnership with an artist whose work is often temporary, seldom hung on a wall or sold in a gallery, who weaves plastic bags into a life size sarcophagus and strings fishing floats to form a fifty-foot rosary?
As an artist I have a unique platform for communicating ideas and the concerns of others. I can say a lot and never open my mouth. You can't fire, furlough or build a wall around me. For several years, I have participated in wilderness artist residencies as a means of un-tethering from the studio, connecting with the physical world, and obtaining access to remote areas, and oddly enough meeting people. Wilderness residencies have become an integral part of my creative practice and an essential resource and source of inspiration for a personal project title, the ReWilding project.
My primary concerns as an artist are human and environmental well-being. I believe the two are inseparable. Wilderness-based artist-in-residence opportunities mesh well with my interest in investigating humankind's complicated and often fraught relationship to wilderness. The ReWilding project is as much about our inner landscape as the outdoor environment, and the setting aside of public lands as parks and preserves, acknowledges both the intrinsic and extrinsic value of the landscape. It's a great partnership.