National Parks Have Inspired Artists for Over a Century

Work by Jim Schlett, an 11-time fellow with the NPS Artist-in-Residence program.

 
Work by Jim Schlett, an 11-time fellow with the NPS Artist-in-Residence program.
How a Hudson River School Painter Helped Launch a Residency

How a Hudson River School Painter Helped Launch a Residency

Weir Farm National Historical Park

A Weir masterpieces in the site’s collection: Julian Alden Weir, Autumn, 1906, Weir Farm National Historical Park, Gift from the Trustees of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, William A. Clark Collection

“Art has been part of the National Park Service throughout its history, and capturing and sharing artwork continues today.”

Shari Orr

Americans can thank, in part, a landscape painter and a photographer for the founding of the expansive U.S. National Park Service (NPS), a governmental agency that manages all of the country’s national parks, most of its national monuments, and other historical and recreational properties.

President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act on August 25, 1916, creating the NPS as a federal bureau in the Department of the Interior. Today, 424 National Parks sites cover more than 85 million acres in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

But the NPS got off the ground due to a series of paintings by Thomas Moran and photographs by William Henry Jackson. Invited to join a geological survey expedition in 1871, the painter and the photographer traveled to an area that would become Yellowstone National Park. They documented the landscape and brought back compelling images of majestic natural beauty in the American West, presenting sites unarguably worthy of the government’s protection.

Befittingly, the NPS, in turn, supports artists of many stripes through the Artist-in-Residence (AIR) programs. Between 30 to 50 parks sovereignly operate one. Artists spend two to four weeks on location. The win-win AIR program provides artists with time and inspirational space in a scenic national park in exchange for a public offering such as a class or demonstration in their artistic medium. Many artists also donate an artwork to the park.

Jim Schlett, a photographer based in Reston, VA, has completed eleven AIR fellowships since 2016. “This all ties back into the first geological survey of Yellowstone,” he told Art & Object referring to the survey in which Moran and Jackson participated.

“When the original reports were coming back East, the newspaper people didn’t believe what was in the geological survey, so they recruited a painter and photographer to document the places and their unique features,” he added. “Only then did people back East talk about setting aside land and saving it as the Park Service.”

Shari Orr manages approximately 300,000 NPS volunteers, including the artists in residence under the volunteer branch.

“Creation of art that shows these places is part of why Congress designated our national parks in the first place,” said Orr with the enthusiasm and friendliness of a camp counselor.

“Art has been part of the National Park Service throughout its history, and capturing and sharing artwork continues today,” said Orr. “We have a fantastic artist in residence program, and the artists are considered volunteers because we don’t pay for their efforts. It’s stated that National Park Service volunteer positions should always be mutually beneficial, so that’s a great starting place.”

“It’s a beautiful blend because the artist benefits from time in the park, and the park and visitors benefit from their artwork, their class or demonstration,” said Orr.

While the program includes literary artists, filmmakers, even comedians, many of the NPS artists in residence are visual artists. Painters, sculptors, fine art photographers and multimedia artists find muses in national parks, whether touted for picturesque mountains, geysers, glaciers, volcanos, coastlines, forests, fields or other settings.

“Experiences in all types of national parks — whether a striking landscape or park site that tells a meaningful history — connect artists to wonder, feelings and emotions best conveyed in artworks,” said Orr. “It’s so fun to see people getting out in beautiful and historic places and expressing them in new and creative ways.”

Bobbi Eike Mullen, a contemporary artist, paints at Weir Farm and instructs the park’s free art classes. 
Courtesy of National Park Service

Bobbi Eike Mullen, a contemporary artist, paints at Weir Farm and instructs the park’s free art classes.  

Spanish Moss Yellow Samples
Courtesy of the artist and National Park Service

“Spanish Moss Yellow Samples” by Diana Eusebio.

Sushe Felix, Blessings
Courtesy of the artist and National Park Service

Sushe Felix, Blessings

Susiehyer, Cub Lake Trailhead by Starlight, Rocky Mountain National Park.
Courtesy of the artist and National Park Service

Susiehyer, Cub Lake Trailhead by Starlight, Rocky Mountain National Park.

Pat Musick
Courtesy of the artist and National Park Service

Pat Musick 

Weir Farm National Historical Park in Fairfield County, Connecticut, is one of only two national park sites devoted to visual arts. (The other is Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish, New Hampshire.) Weir Farm’s 68 acres include picturesque meadows, woodlands and wetlands surrounding Weir Pond. Hiking trails wend past aged stone walls and iconic red farm buildings.

“It’s the Connecticut countryside, and there’s a beautiful light and mood that comes from this landscape,” said Kristin Lessard, who works with the farm’s AIR program.

“We are the only park devoted to American painting, and our core significance is the painting of Julian Alden Weir, a well-known father of American Impressionism,” said Lessard in a telephone interview.

Classically trained in Europe, Weir purchased the farm in 1882 as his summer home and an artists’ retreat.

“Artists have been painting here ever since,” said Lessard. “We leave art supplies outside so anyone can come here and make art.”

As for the residencies, the farm invites any visual artists — not only painters — to apply for a one-month residency in the historic caretaker’s house. The building next door is a modern studio built in 2010.

Lessard reported that the program, which hosts one artist per month from May to October, received 161 applications for six slots.

“We are the only park devoted to American painting, and our core significance is the painting of Julian Alden Weir, a well-known father of American Impressionism,” —Kristin Lessard

“It’s competitive,” she said, “but I encourage people to apply for these residencies. They’re all different all across the country, and there’s something for everyone with opportunities for visual artists and writers. This marriage between the national parks and art also includes art in park.”

Artist in Residence In Everglades (AIRIE), at Everglades National Park, in Florida, hosts one artist at a time for one month in a cabin. The landscape, also known as the “River of Grass,” is home to numerous rare and endangered species.

“There’s a very slow-moving current flowing through the Everglades, which is a flat landscape with some swamp environment,” said AIRIE's Angela Betancourt. “It’s an incredibly diverse ecosystem that’s important for all of Florida.”

Inspiration is not in short supply in the exotic Everglades. “Immersed in the middle of this natural environment where it’s quiet and peaceful and dark at night, artists have time to silence everything else in the world and connect to this landscape on a deeper level," she said. "It inspires their art — and not just their art, but how they view the world, themselves, and how they engage with their medium."

To display art created by residents, AIRIE manages a gallery in the park’s welcome center which is open year-round for exhibitions and events.

As part of their residency, fellows also participate in a series known as AIRIE Asks.

“The artists talk about their experiences, and they have incredible stories of transformation that are oftentimes hilarious and always moving and touching,” said Betancourt.

“One man came from an urban environment, a big city with noises and cars and people everywhere, and he had never been in nature in that capacity," she said. "There’s something transformative about being in nature. We’re proud to have artists working here and bringing fresh perspectives to the table.”

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime Denver arts writer and the curator of Art & Object’s Denver Art Showcase.

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