The Artist in Residence Experience - A shot in the dark becomes a pinch-me-I'm-dreaming adventure

Sun through Petrified Log.jpg

It was about a year ago that I first applied for the position of National Parks Artist in Residence for 2017. And it wasn't long before that, that I first learned about the program and thought that it might be somehow worth a shot for me. I mean, what better way to spend some off-season time, before the annual chaos of tours, workshops, and shows, than to immerse myself in one of our nation's most beautiful and treasured places, for a whole month? But surely this was a long shot, a shot in the dark, a moon shot, or any idiomatic expression you'd care to think of indicating a very low percentage chance - Seriously, what nature photographer out there WOULDN'T want to do something like this? My application would surely end up at the bottom of a huge pile of uber-qualified and talented applicants from all over the world, experts in their various fields of art.

Fast-forward to September 1, 2016: I receive my initial notice of acceptance from one of the two National Parks I applied for:  Petrified Forest, Arizona.  I do the Dance of Joy.  I do some serious fist-pumping. More Dance of Joy, followed by more fist-pumping. Do I start to brag?  Did this really actually happen, or are they going to write back later saying they'd mistakenly sent out the acceptance email to the wrong applicants?  I keep things on the down-low, I tell only a few select people - and over time a few more - but absolutely NO POSTING TO SOCIAL MEDIA, because then it would be really embarrassing if it wasn't for real! 

Over the next few months, emails are exchanged between the Artist in Residence (AiR) coordinator and myself about my upcoming Residence, allowing me to finally believe it's a reality: What month I'd like to choose, what kind of project I will do, what kind of programs I'd present while there, and what I'd give back to the park at the end (as every AiR donates a piece back to their park).  OK, we can start to do some honest-to-goodness planning now.

And before you know it, it's late March 2017, I've packed the car, and I'm hitting the road, bound for the great American West!  An hour into the trip, I've already made my first stop, to pick up 110 pounds of red sandstone that would keep the right side of the car balanced. Just kidding, Allie, I couldn't have done this without you! You're the best!

Hauling ass across America and passing up juicy opportunities to visit the World's Largest Golf Tee, Wind Chime, Adirondack Chair, and Ball of Twine, we arrive at the Park on the fourth day of driving. 10 hours of driving a day is sooo much easier and more fun with a companion. 

Upon formally checking into the park and getting my bad-ass car magnets that say "Petrified Forest Artist in Residence", I get to visit my lodging, which promptly dispels any of my notions about the austerity of the AiR lifestyle. The "casita" is plush, with a full bedroom/office, kitchen, patio, and climate control. There's even still some food left in the fridge from the last resident. To be clear, most of the time I go on a photo trip for myself, I'm sleeping in the car every night, and cooking meals on a tiny camp stove - so this level of creature comfort is equivalent to the Four Seasons in my mind. I'd never had it this good (and never will again). 

The point of being in a National Park, though, is outdoor recreation, so we don't spend too long enjoying the casita before heading out to do our first scouts and shoots. My initial impressions of Petrified Forest (PEFO) are that there's A LOT to see here. A month seemed like a long time to be in any one place, but now I'm wondering how much I'll still be missing out on at the end of my residence. Over the first few days, we've both made some shots we're proud of, though, so things are looking good. 

Since at this point Allie is due to go home in less than a week, we decide to head off to some other parts of Arizona for the next few days so she can get a more well-rounded experience of the state. After all, I would have most of April back here in PEFO all to myself. For more details on what we did that first week of adventure together, check out Allie's blog post.

Jumping forward in time to the day after Allie's departure:  I'm sad to see her go, as she would be the only person from back home to visit me on this once-in-a-lifetime experience, but I am also excited to 'formally' begin my Residence and live out that romanticized dream of an artist alone in the wilderness (but with the Thoreau-like touch of having convenient access to cosmopolitan comforts when needed). 

I proceed to carve out a nice little niche for myself, and design a sustainable working/living schedule.  Most of the time when I go on shoots, they are about a week or 8 days long and I can push myself to do three major shoots every day - dawn, dusk, and late night - for about three days in a row, followed by a day where I skip dawn just to catch up on sleep, and then I can repeat the cycle for three more days. But I knew that for this unconventionally long period in the desert, I'd be healthier and happier if I stuck to more a "regular" schedule. So here in PEFO, I decide to focus on two major shoots every day - dusk and night - and save the mornings for waking up at normal times and having real breakfasts, and then spending the mid-days working on processing the images from the day before. 

I should mention that the general public is forced to leave the park at 7pm every evening during this time of year, to keep vandals from disturbing the geological formations and ancient petroglyphs (inscriptions carved in stone), so the ability to access the park on a nightly basis is a privilege granted only to the Artist in Residence.  Lucky me!  So you can bet that I was going to capitalize on that perk as often as possible. 

My routine proves very effective over the remainder of my time in residence, and there are precious few things to distract me from this daily cycle. I think about all the things back home that would steal my attention on a daily basis and make it seem like I have no time in my life:  

  1. Email
  2. Cats
  3. Netflix
  4. Things that need fixing around the house
  5. Social life

All of those things are absent here in my casita life, and because of that I am... PRODUCTIVE!  The lack of connectivity is the biggest factor, I find. The days go on forever when you don't go online, it's really amazing.

So over the next few weeks, I live an efficient, fruitful, well-rested, and well-nourished life, on my way to making some of the most well-thought out and creative material of my career. With my two-shoot-per-day philosophy and my special permission to go out at night, I focus on low-light landscape photos and videos illustrating the diversity of scenery, geology, and ancient history within PEFO, and making time lapse movies that capture the process and experience of making my still images. 

My go-to places within the park are Jasper Forest, and Blue Mesa, and I found myself spending many nights in those two spots.  In my opinion the natural ecology and geology of PEFO can be divided into two main "looks" - the "forests" of petrified logs, and the badlands comprised of multi-colored layers of rock. Jasper Forest is the largest and most isolated of the petrified forests, and Blue Mesa is the most dramatic of the badlands areas, so naturally there is a lot to explore among the two sites.

And here and there, I find ways to add my personal touch to other frequently photographed subjects within the park.

Relatively late in the game, I become enamored with one of PEFO's newest wilderness areas, Devil's Playground. It seems that people have barely scratched the surface of this place, because I managed to produce a couple of pictures of subjects that even the park staff have never noticed before. 

One of my personal struggles throughout this residence turns out to be something that few people would expect. Most of the time, people laud Arizona for how "dry" the heat is, but in my case, the dryness of the high desert leads to constant dehydration, ashy skin, chapped lips, and at one point a sinus infection!  So partway through, I feel a serious need to find moisture, and escape to grand falls to see actual flowing water.

But adversity breeds toughness, right?  While a few weeks isn’t nearly enough for this New England boy with tropical blood to adapt to the high and dry of the Arizona desert, the benefits have surely outweighed the minor irritations.

Has the Artist in Residence experience been everything I hoped it would be? Absolutely yes! Have I loved Petrified Forest enough to take a group back here with BlueHour next year as part of an Arizona photo tour? For sure!

The mission of the Artist in Residence is to create awareness and appreciation for a National Park. I believe that with my images and videos, and my stories, both written and told, I am accomplishing just that. But the mission is not yet complete: Let me bring you back here and show you around one of America’s most distinguished landscapes so you can see and experience for yourself, and fall in love with a place that few still know about.   

From a personal standpoint, this Residence has made me a better, more thoughtful artist, and a more mindful person overall. And while I have since gone back to my normal life of cats and Netflix, and my work day is once again dominated by email, the essential lessons I’ve learned from my time as AiR will always be with me:  Live simply, put your heart and soul into every day, and share generously what you’ve discovered.