Monday, March 18, 2013

Wild Artist Residencies.

(Photo: Ranger Solan Jensen paddles near surfacing humpback whales in Holkham Bay. c. Irene Owsley.)

I've just returned from the annual Associated Writing Programs conference, this one held in Boston. It's a massive gathering - 12,000 writers, editors, publishers, and agents. Heavy on the writers. One of my panel presentations, on "Wild Writing Residencies," mercifully took that roomful of writers out of the sterile Hynes Convention Center, off the busy streets of Boston, and into wild places where artists can find what one keynote speaker, the poet Derek Walcott, said all poets must first cultivate: silence.

A poem comes out of silence first. In all the arts you have to recognize the real silences that arrive.

Four of us spoke from our experiences with artist residencies in some of America's wild public lands. Gary Lawless spoke about his time as Artist in Residence (AIR) in Isle Royale National Park, a wild island full of moose and wolves. Nancy Lord spoke about her time in Denali National Park, where she was finally, she said, called to write poetry for the first time in her life. Mimi White spoke about falling in love with the Schoodic Peninsula of Acadia National Park. And I spoke about my AIR in Denali National Park and in the Tracy Arm Ford's Terror Wilderness of the Tongass National Forest.

These residencies are part of a long tradition of artists in America's public lands, going back to Roosevelt's New Deal Works Progress Administration - between 1933 and 1943, hundreds of artists were gainfully employed in our national parks. Today these residencies (no, we're not paid) recognize art alongside science as a way of interpreting, understanding, and creating awareness of these wild places. A necessary, vital thing.

They're different from other writing residencies in that you don't just hole up in a cabin and work on a project you've brought with you. Instead, you immerse yourself in the place, and then create art from that experience. Then you donate one piece of art (in my case, an essay) to the national forest or national park for their use.

How do these programs enhance an artist's work? Inspiration, most certainly. For me, a major inspiration was collaborating with other artists. In the Tongass, I was paired with photographer Irene Owsley, and she and I have gone on to work on several collaborative efforts. In Denali, I have worked with artist Rika Mouw on a joint project for the National Park Service. And it was these collaborative projects, these artists, who inspired this blog.

But of course the benefits of such unmediated, uninterrupted time in a wild place are much more subtle. With such time, I could sit and observe the pattern on rock in front of Sawyer Glacier; I could notice the gray skin of a harbor porpoise breaking the milky blue of glacial silt waters; I could bend down to view the quality of sunlight from within a whitish gentian on the slopes of the Alaska Range.

As panelist Gary Lawless said -

A symbiotic relationship is created between the artist and the wild place.

The benefits come from diving deep into a wild place, from relearning the vocabulary of interracting with the more-than-human world. A vocabulary we all once knew, and need to relearn for our own, and the wild's, survival.

On the wall of the AIR cabin in Denali was a quote by Edward Abbey, one of the writers who was instrumental in inspiring my own life's work:

If we could love space as deeply as we are obsessed with time.

It's just a phrase, not a complete sentence, but to me that makes it all the more perfect, because these wild residencies left me open-ended and awake.


  1. Necessary and vital - yes! I've done personal writing retreats in wild places but you are reminding me that going solo is not the only way. Residencies in our public lands - what a great opportunity to receive, give, and be part of a tradition. Thanks also, Marybeth, for sharing a bit of AWP. A gathering of 12,000 - oh my!

  2. Marybeth,
    Great blog--glad I've finally checked it out. I thought our AWP panel was a great success. Sorry we didn't have more time to hang out--what a madhouse conference it was, so much to take in and think about!

  3. Thanks for reminding me that silence is necessary and at the root of poetry. I have often said that myself, but your blog made me hear it and I think it was the context in which you placed it--our wild places. Thanks for that and for dreaming up with Nancy our Wild Writing panel at AWP. Mimi