The Art of Place: Artists in Residence at National Parks

By Morgan Mentzer
collage of three photos of artists Shin Yu Pai, Steven Walker, and Jym Davis

Clockwise from left: Jym Davis, Shin Yu Pai, Steven Walker. All photos courtesy of the artists. 

For more than 100 years, the National Park Service (NPS) has been cultivating creativity at its parks, preserves, monuments, and historical sites through 50 artist-in-residence programs across the country. Founded in 1916, this program has welcomed thousands of artists—including writers, photographers, painters, and musicians—to utilize the natural and cultural resources of the National Park System as a source of inspiration for their disciplines. Entwining nature, history, and culture within their works, these artists help the NPS re-imagine its sites and provide both visitors and staff with a new way of seeing the environment.

In celebration of National Park Week, we chatted with three artists—visual artists Jym Davis and Steven Walker, and writer Shin Yu Pai—who’ve previously participated in the NPS artist-in-residence programs. Davis has created masks modeled after endangered wildlife living in the park during residencies at Arizona’s Petrified National Park, California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park, and Idaho’s Craters of the Moon National Monument. In residence at the Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, Shin Yu Pai wrote poetry inspired by the site’s history. Steven Walker used his two residencies—at Iowa’s Herbert Hoover Historical Park and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore—to work on landscape painting. 

We spoke with the three creators by email about why they decided to pursue artist residencies at NPS sites, the challenges and surprises of their residencies, and the work they created while at the NPS sites.

NEA: What made you decide to pursue an artist residency in a national park site and why did you select the site you did?

JYM DAVIS: I wanted a residency experience that would connect me to park rangers, scientists, and park visitors, and not just to other artists. I specifically applied for national park artist-in-residence programs [at sites] that have beautiful but also strange landscapes. I was particularly attracted to the volcanic features at Lassen Volcanic National Park and Craters of the Moon National Monument. I look for places that reflect an otherworldly and mysterious feeling that I am going for in my artwork and photographs.

SHIN YU PAI: I was working outside of Little Rock in Conway, Arkansas, and was interested in doing a residency at a site that wasn't too far away from where I lived and worked. I structured my residency time so that I could take the residency over a series of long weekends. The Hot Springs area was a region that I had visited before and was intrigued by the local history around the bathhouses and labor practices. I'm interested in obscure places and their histories and wanted the opportunity to learn more about the town of Hot Springs versus doing a residency in a more rural, removed setting. Having now done a residency with the NPS, I'd be excited to explore other sites that might be further removed from civilization.

STEVEN WALKER: I've actually had two artists’ residencies with the national parks. The first was at the Herbert Hoover Historical Site and the second was at Indiana Dunes National Park. I picked both sites because at the time most of my work was centered around Ohio but I wanted to explore more of the Midwest and what it had to offer. Also, I wanted to highlight areas of the national parks that were not as commercially popular as others in the country.

NEA: What was most surprising about your residencies? What was most challenging?

DAVIS: I was very surprised at how much the national park landscapes affected the colors in my artwork. Before my residencies, I was only using black and white in my masks. The desert colors of Petrified Forest National Park found their way into my color palette, and I started using warm yellows and reds. The most challenging part of the residencies can be the remoteness. The closest medical aid or food supply could be a fairly long drive, so you need to be prepared. Traveling around the parks was also sometimes unpredictable. Roads may be diverted because of heavy snowfall, flooding, or wildfires. I learned to not rely too much on GPS, always carry decent maps, and ship all of my art supplies ahead of arrival.

PAI: I focused on trying to write place-based poems about the South—both Arkansas and Texas, where I had lived before. Often my work is very global in nature and geographically far-reaching. I think my time in Arkansas began to solidify a deeper interest in the local and the idea that I could be place-based or engaged in placemaking, even if not from or of the place.

All of the other residencies that I had undertaken were typically at residency centers like the MacDowell Colony, Soul Mountain, and Ragdale Foundation, and very social and communal in nature. There was usually a chef who cooked. The NPS residency differed in being a very solitary retreat that hinged on my ability to manage time carefully and be independent. I learned that I prefer a balance of the social along with a creative retreat.

WALKER: For me, I noticed that my eye for beauty changed with each day as opposed to several months. As for challenges that I faced, I found that I often pressured myself to produce more while I was on the grounds.  Looking back, I probably should have taken more notes and [done more] sketching with less actual painting.

NEA: Why do you think it’s important that artists have the opportunity to do these types of residencies at national parks or other historic sites?

DAVIS: Artists are seeking the same things that most park visitors want. We want to step outside of our little bubble and experience something transformative. Artists translate that awe-inspired feeling into creative expression, and hopefully, that work has some value for the greater public. I also believe artists can help the public see national parks in a new way. I learn so much and grow as an artist during my residencies, but I also want to give back. At every park, I hold art shows and demonstrations. It gives national park visitors a chance to see how the natural world can be channeled into creativity. Artists can be excellent ambassadors for our national parks.

PAI: Sometimes artists need protected time and physically inspiring places to make new work and to see their work anew, to have creative breakthroughs. Residencies in national park sites are a wonderful way to deepen a knowledge of and relationship with a place. These days, I feel more attuned to sites that deal with complex histories—I'd love to be in residence at a NPS site related to Japanese-American internment. Here in Seattle we have the Wing Luke Museum, a pan-Asian diasporic museum that tells the story of Asian-American immigration. The site is an NPS affiliate.

WALKER: Like myself, I think that most artists are distracted with the day-to-day distractions of life. Being an artist in a residency program really helps one keep their focus on their art and little else. This is also important for our country to help document the lands any way that we can because the landscape can change at anytime.

NEA: How has the NPS artist residency transformed your art practice? Is there something you’ve discovered/realized/embraced that you might not have without the residency?

DAVIS: My national park art residencies have really transformed everything about my art practice. Most of my artistic inspiration now comes from either wildlife, fossil finds, or the natural forms. There is a sense of timelessness in the landscape, and that seeps into the artwork that I make. I could not spend significant time in a landscape like Petrified National Park, which contains 225-million-year-old fossils, and not have that place affect the artwork that I make. I now primarily focus on modeling and photographing my sculptures and masks within a natural environment, and this comes from my experiences in the national parks.

PAI: My practice was not transformed by the residency, just deepened. During my residency, I wrote poems about places like Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas and Enchanted Rock in Texas. As a woman of color, I did not ever feel at home living in the South, but being in an environment that highlighted my natural surroundings did perhaps put me in closer touch with the aspects of place that could help me feel connected to a landscape and geography.

WALKER: With each residency, I went back home more energized than when I left. I realized that as an artist these residencies/retreats are necessary for my growth as well as my family. I come back home with a greater appreciation for my wife, my daughter, and my surroundings.

NEA: Can you talk about the artwork that you donated at the end of your residency to the park and why you chose that specific work?

DAVIS: During my national park artist residencies I create sculptures and masks that are inspired by the animal life in the park. I always donate an animal mask that is most representative of the national park [I’m working in] or a wild creature that is threatened and in need of particular conservation awareness. At the end of my Big Cypress National Preserve residency, I donated a mask of the Florida panther, a highly endangered animal living in South Florida. At Craters of the Moon National Monument, I donated a large pallid bat mask. Bats are also threatened by diseases carried by humans into caves. Petrified Forest National Park got a pronghorn [mask] and Lassen Volcanic National Park got a mule deer [mask]. Most of my artwork donations are now on permanent display in the park visitor's center and so they have an educational and artistic life beyond my residency.

PAI: I donated a poem about the history of African-American workers in the Hot Springs bathhouses and the discrimination and racism that they faced.

WALKER: I'm usually not interested in painting an area that has been painted or documented over and over.  For my residency at the Herbert Hoover Historical Site, I painted a red barn that was on the site but didn't get much foot traffic. My sleeping arrangements were nearby, so I often got to partake of its beauty during my final hike of the day. As for the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, I painted Michigan Lake at sundown. It had a different color palette than any other area of the site.

Visit the National Park Service website to learn how to apply to be an NPS artist-in-residence