10 Years of Drawing Inspiration from the Everglades

BY TOM AUSTIN

SPECIAL TO THE MIAMI HERALD

Artists long have looked at the Everglades with wonder. Over time, realistic portrayals of its spectacular landscapes — including the photography of local Clyde Butcher — have given way to contemporary abstraction and performance art inspired by the River of Grass and the modern pressures facing it and, metaphorically, the world beyond.

A decade ago, the artist Donna Marxer created the Artist in Residence in-Everglades (AIRIE) program in conjunction with the National Park Service and Everglades National Park. In return for a month of free rent in a cottage near the Anhinga Trail, housing provided by Everglades National Park, the AIRIE artists — known as Everglades Fellows — donate a piece of work from their residency to the AIRIE collection, owned by Everglades National Park.

Over the course of the past 10 years, the AIRIE artists have included Marion Belanger — who won a Guggenheim grant for her work in the Everglades — and painter Kathy Wright, who snagged a Pollock-Krasner fellowship. A decade of artists bringing their visions to the Everglades has produced the exhibition Ten Years of AIRIE, currently on view at the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center Gallery in Everglades National Park. The exhibition includes a wide range of media, including poetry: the board chairman of AIRIE is Anne McCrary Sullivan, a poet and author of the book Ecology II: Throat Song from the Everglades.

Lisa Elmaleh, a South Florida native who currently lives and works in Brooklyn, used her AIRIE residency to take stunning photographs of the Everglades, some of which wound up in Harpers magazine.

Elmaleh’s piece in the show is called Slash Pines, a stark black and white photograph. “Slash Pines are so majestic, so slender, and kind of impossible trees,’’ she said in an interview. “What always draws me back to the Everglades is its mysteriousness. At the same time, the possibility of its demise, that tension, is very scary and very real. Saving the Everglades is an important thing to focus on, not only for artists, but also politicians.”

AIRIE’s new president is local artist Christy Gast. Though she has never had an AIRIE residency, Gast has used it as the foundation for some of her own work.

In 2010, Gast created a video installation, “ K — AN IRONIC TERM FOR HERSELF ‘Herbert Hoover Dyke,’ at the de la Cruz Collection Contemporary Art Space, which also commissioned the work. For the performance aspect of the piece, Gast cast herself as a Neo-jazz age tap dancer, and tapped around on top of the Herbert Hoover Dike, creating a song of percussion for the Everglades. The dike, which surrounds the perimeter of Lake Okeechobee, is for Gast “an enigmatic public works project,” she said, “part of the social structure that tied into the social art form of my tap dancing.” Another inspiration was Zora Neale Hurston’s book Their Eyes were Watching God, which examined the ruinous flooding after the Herbert Hoover Dike gave way during the great 1926 hurricane — a disaster echoed in New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina.

In her new role with AIRIE, Gast has the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which recently awarded a $30,000 Knight Arts Partnership grant to expand the program and increase the connection between AIRIE and the Miami contemporary art scene. The Knight grant recognizes that “artists and art lovers are great ambassadors for the beauty of the park’s rare ecosystem,” according to a website release.

Under Gast’s direction, the AIRIE artists selected for 2012 include several contemporary artists whose work is decidedly challenging. The March 2012 AIRIE residents are a married couple, Dana Sherwood and Mark Dion. Sherwood recently created a mobile museum called Lafcadio’s Revenge, a handbuilt cart bearing “forgotten” histories based on the work of New Orleans ethnographer Lafacadio Hearn. Earlier this year, Dion’s installation The South Florida Wildlife Rescue Unit: Mobile Laboratory, 2006. was shown at the Miami Art Museum, where it is part of the permanent collection. The work is essentially a panel truck, tricked out as a support vehicle for an imaginary governmental organization, charged with the task of saving wildlife.

In his new show, Mark Dion: Troubleshooting, opening at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa on Jan. 13, Dion creates drawings, prints and epic installations — all ecologically-themed works concerned with “the discrepancy between perceived knowledge and scientific inquiry” as well as the fragile Florida Everglades, according to the museum’s website.

The December 2012 AIRIE residents are Trong Nguyen & Rebecca Reeve, another married couple. Reeve, a British artist, has exhibited at La Biennale de Montreal (2011) and the Freies Museum Berlin; she has most recently been working in Cuba, using flashlights to illuminate and explore domestic interiors, then photographing the spaces.

Nguyen was featured on Bravo’s reality TV show Work of Art, and works in a variety of media, including performance art, painting and video. Raised in Orlando and a current resident of New York, Nguyen has never been to the Everglades and is looking forward to doing something that’s as “broad and generous as the Everglades itself. Or, if it’s too big of a thing to deal with on that level, I might take a narrower approach, like mixing Everglades water into my paints,” he said. “I like to do adaptive installations, and as a contrarian, I might embed artificial elements into the natural state of the Everglades. It’s such a rich environment for an artist.”

Visitors to Miami’s Bakehouse Art Complex can see the work of photographer Deborah Mitchell, whose work often depicts the Everglades. Currently Mitchell is serving as a curator for an exhibition, The Preserve: Uniting Nature and Culture drawn from the Big Cypress National Preserve artist-in-residency program. The exhibition features 15 artists, including Ailyn Hoey and Mark Goodenough.

Next July, the residents of the Everglades, storied Florida Crackers, will be immortalized as artists in their own right by the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood. The museum is screening the documentarySwamp Cabbage as part of its regular Hot Topics Discussion Series. The film, created by Hayley Downs and Julie Lara Kahn, is drawn partly from Kahn’s previous art installation at Locust Projects and TransEAT/ Food Culture Museum, formerly in Wynwood. The show encompassed videotaped interviews with Crackers, photographic portraits, and the artistry involved in Everglades cuisine and handicrafts.

The Swamp Cabbage screening and discussion should add to the emergence of the Everglades as a generator of art. To Jane Hart, curator of exhibitions at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, it’s a natural step, “The movie…addresses the residents of the Everglades in a respectful and genuine way. I think it’s sensational that more and more contemporary artists are working with this amazing environment, a natural wonder we’re all lucky enough to have in our own backyard.”

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