Artist in Residence in the US National Parks System: An Interview with Lyn Hart
I had the pleasure of interviewing tapestry artist Lynn Hart about her experiences at three residencies with the US National Parks, Artist in Residence program. I have to say that some of her answers were unexpected.
1. You’ve done three residencies all with the US National Parks system. Can you talk about why you chose to do those residencies in particular?
I was originally inspired to seek out artist residencies after reading about Tommy Scanlin’s residency experiences in the Southeastern U.S. on her blog. An online search for residencies where I live in the Southwest immediately popped up a residency opportunity at Grand Canyon National Park. I didn’t know our National Park system sponsored such a thing and I was immediately drawn to the idea of it for several reasons: I love the Canyon (I’ve hiked it & rafted the Colorado); I’ve visited and/or hiked in over two dozen National Park entities and the idea of experiencing one of these places in a different way was very appealing to me; it was within driving distance… a pretty important factor since looms (even smaller traveling ones) and yarns are not the easiest things to transport.
After being awarded my first residency I enjoyed the experience enough that I wanted to do others in the Southwest, for all the reasons mentioned above and also because I love desert environments, which are varied and plentiful in this part of the country.
2. Has doing these residencies done anything to assist you in marketing and/or promoting your work? If so, in what way?
Not really. At first, I thought it would because I was under the impression that my works would be displayed by the Parks with my name… but that has not been the case. Over time, during my residencies, I learned several important things that I had been quite naïve about. Most Parks do not have the space to display artist work; so far none of the tapestries I created for the three Parks have been displayed. Sadly, most artists’ work is in storage as part of the Parks’ permanent art collection. When an AiR (artist-in-residence) is doing their public programs in the Park, they are allowed to hand out business cards, but although I did do this (along with business postcards), nothing came of it. Artists may not sell their work or actively solicit to sell their work during their residency; this is related to the complicated federal system rules & regulations that exist in the Parks. All the services we enjoy in Parks—buying gifts, lodging, dining—is strictly licensed to concessioners who have won government contracts to provide these services.
3. What did you learn from doing the residencies?
In addition to what I’ve already said above, there are many more facets to experiencing a National Park residency. A huge factor is the ability to be self-sufficient. All the residencies were for a one month period and two were in very isolated locations with the nearest non-Park conveniences such as gas stations, grocery stores, supermarkets and reliable internet services over an hour away. At times I also had no cell phone service. Many Parks have high visitation rates and are understaffed due to decades of underfunding by the government… so once you “check-in” you are pretty much on your own, with the exception of meeting with the Park employee who is assigned to assist you when you conduct your public programs or activities they may have planned for you to experience. The artist is expected to at times wear a Park uniform… you are considered a Park volunteer.
It isn’t a hotel-like vacation in any sense and lodgings may be very rustic, which was fine for me because I happen to like rustic more than posh! I stayed in what was categorized as seasonal employee or volunteer housing during two of my residencies, which were unfortunately pretty dirty; I actually had to do quite a bit of cleaning when I arrived before I was able to feel comfortable. I also had to bring my own food, linens, and of course clothing and art supplies in enough quantities to last me a month without bringing too much or too little.
The food aspect was an interesting issue to deal with since I am vegan; even though Parks do usually have restaurants, the food is quite expensive, not of the best quality, and very unlikely to be vegan (or accommodating of any other special dietary needs)! Artists who don’t or can’t cook for themselves would not have an easy time in a Park residency.
Planning is key in doing a long residency and preparations need to be started well in advance. I also learned that unless the Park provides the artist with a private residence that also has space in which to create a temporary studio, the residency can be a very unpleasant experience. One of my residencies involved staying in shared housing; I had my own bedroom, but bathroom, kitchen and living areas were shared. The other individual living in the house was very unpleasant, which at times made things extremely stressful. The only thing that made it bearable was that the other person was only there for four days each week, and I was determined to stay since I had dreamed for a number of years about experiencing that area by living there.
This year, I actually applied for and was rewarded another National Park residency, but after learning the housing was shared and the only available space to set up a “studio” was in my bedroom, I declined the opportunity.
4. Has doing those residencies helped you in any other way?
I learned a great deal about myself as an artist and how I work. I saw a pattern emerge with the residencies; the first week was all about settling in and dealing with any issues such as those I discussed above; the second week I started experiencing my new environment in much deeper ways; by the third week I was completely immersed in my experiences. I found that I am not an artist who makes copious amounts of sketches, photographic images or tapestries. My approach is quite minimalistic in output, instead focusing on observations, feelings and gaining a sense of place, all of which finally lead to coalescence of an idea that I begin to design for a tapestry.
Another realization was that while I was grateful to be chosen as the AiR that did not mean I had to ingratiate myself to the Park by always wearing the volunteer uniform when I went out and about; wearing the uniform attracts the public to you like a magnet, who think anyone wearing one is a Park Ranger. Solitude, when you can find it in a busy Park, is a very necessary aspect of a residency. In fact, there was an interesting mix of feeling like I was living in a fishbowl at times with the number of people that visit Parks each day and at other times like I was the only person in the Park. Learning to take those feelings in stride was a very interesting and valuable part of the experience.
5. Are there other residencies you are considering? If so, why?
I might consider another National Park residency in the future, but I would actually like to find residency experiences here in the Southwest area without the requirements of public presentations and work donations. A shorter time frame of residence might also be enjoyable. I have been researching options by looking online and hearing or reading about other local artists’ residency experiences.
6. What was the application process like?
For the National Park residencies, you are basically applying for a volunteer job with the Interpretive division of the Park. A resume with examples of work, an essay describing my intent–what I felt I would gain and what kind of public program I would conduct–were all required. Some Parks actually have “themes” they have defined and they wanted to know which of them I would address and how. I also had to agree to create a work after the residency for donation to their permanent collection. One Park’s AiR program was affiliated with a local university’s art department and I had to agree to give a public presentation for the university’s college of art professors and students as well.
7. Have you applied to any other residencies? If so, what were those experiences like?
No, I haven’t… yet!
8. Is there anything else you would like to say about your experience with your residencies that relate to marketing and promotion?
I personally don’t feel that seeking a residency for the purpose of marketing and promoting one’s work is what a residency should be about. It is about refreshing one’s perspectives and inspirations and escaping from the everyday distractions that keep one from actually making art! If there happens to be an opportunity related to the residency, such as a post-residency exhibit or group exhibit of works, great! But marketing and promoting shouldn’t be the main reason for a residency.
9. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Even though some of what I described may seem and sound negative, I have to say I do not regret a single experience in any the residencies I’ve done so far. I have shared the very same thoughts with other artists who have asked me what the experience was like because I believe going into a new situation with eyes wide open makes for a better experience. A National Park residency is a very different kind of artistic opportunity. Most visitors to NPs only stay for a few hours or at the most a couple of days. To have earned the gift of an entire month to live in and encounter three extremely special and beautiful places on a deeper and more personal level is a very special honor, one that I will always treasure.
In fact, to my surprise, when I was awarded my first National Park residency, I discovered that tapestry actually has an edge over other visual art forms… for once! I have been told at every residency by the rangers overseeing the AiR programs that finding “new and different” artists can be a struggle. They are flooded with applications from painters and photographers, so they are always seeking something unique in what an artists has to offer. To my knowledge, myself and Rebecca Mezoff are the only contemporary tapestry weavers to be selected as AiRs for our National Parks.
If anyone else is interested in this kind of residency experience, I highly encourage you to go for it! However, be aware that not all Parks host AiR programs. Visit the National Parks Artist-in-Residence Program for more information.
Lyn’s work can be seen on her website: Desert Song Studio.