|Written By Anne Tschida, Biscayne Times Arts Editor|
So much about the Artists in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE) program is ideally contemporary and forward thinking that it’s hard to know where to start listing the reasons why.Along with hosting visual artists, writers, dancers, and musicians to work within the rarified atmosphere of the Everglades, which it has done since 2001, AIRIE has a broader mission: to raise awareness of the unique South Florida environment at a time when climate change finally has arrived at the forefront of conversation.
This year, AIRIE landed in a permanent home, which lifts the program to a new level with more exposure and a fixed location to present comprehensive exhibits that combine the arts with experts in various scientific fields.
The new space is called the Nest Gallery, funded by a Knight Arts Challenge grant, and sits within the Coe Visitors Center at the entrance to Everglades National Park, the largest subtropical wilderness in North America. And the space is gorgeous, with polished concrete floors and picture windows overlooking the park. But what’s inside is extra special.
The inaugural exhibits after its opening in April were a good example of AIRE’s integrated objective. Former resident Elisabeth Condon’s bright, semiabstract painted “field studies” were featured on the walls for the first exhibit, “Blooming World,” accompanied by historical maps and bird specimens chosen by executive director Deborah Mitchell.
The second included photographer Adam Nadel’s multimedia project “Getting the Water Right,” a collaboration with UCLA anthropologist Jessica Cattelino. The program also “required regional experts to communicate updated information for the accompanying audio essays,” relates Mitchell by e-mail. “On the front lines of water management, Nadel was able to convey critical issues to the public via his site-specific installations while in the wilderness of the Everglades.”
The new Nest, she says, “is important because it focuses on interdisciplinary exhibitions of contemporary art that connect with the ecology and cultural history of the Everglades, art-science collaborations, and inclusion of artifacts from the South Florida Collections Management Center archive — otherwise inaccessible to the public.”
In addition, the Nest can capitalize on the 250,000-plus national and international visitors who come through the center annually. Oh, and the interior of the gallery, Mitchell quips, offers “an intimate, air-conditioned, bug-free zone to host our creative educational workshop series.”
On one level, this art-based endeavor may seem somewhat peripheral to the daunting ecological challenges facing South Florida, from flooding and saltwater intrusion to shrinking wildlife habitat and polluted land and water. But AIRIE extends its tentacles to many realms. For instance, just this summer it received its first environmental grant from Miami-Dade County, for the purpose of educating public school teachers. For other exhibits and programs, AIRIE has picked up support from the National Science Foundation and the Florida Humanities Council, among others.
At its core, AIRIE is still an artistic exploration and collaboration. “We offer a fresh take on painting, drawing, mixed media, and writing,” says Mitchell, “while raising awareness for the environment, in the environment.”
So how are these eco-artists selected for a residency at AIRIE? As it is described for potential applicants, the residency isn’t for everyone. The artist — or writer or choreographer or composer — will need a passion about studying the environment, and be somewhat self-driven if they can deal with living alone in the literal wild for a month or so. For much of the year, that can be a pretty hot living. What they can bring for their stay is severely limited, and they can’t obtain or use organic materials from the park to create works.
National and regional jurors look over proposals, judging the link between the artwork and its connection to ecological concerns; and residents can come from across the globe. Artists, writers, and performers are asked to donate a work for the Park Collection, and are encouraged to continue outreach as a fellow. To date, AIRIE has hosted about 150 residents.
The roster for 2018 includes several Israeli artists, a Norwegian curator, and Miami choreographer Dale Andree (founder and director of the National Water Dance and Florida Waterways Dance Project), plus well-known sculptor and teacher Robert Chambers.
In the Nest Gallery, exhibits combining current residents, fellows, and invited guest teachers and scientists will make up the expanded programming.
The fall exhibit starting in October will be “About Florida Bay,” a group show of nine artists, including the internationally acclaimed Mark Dion, who will each interpret the stress that this important body of water has undergone. According to Mitchell, “artists strive to recapture the historical significance of this contested area while recapturing a sense of nostalgia and raising concerns about the future.”
Accompanying the fellows’ art exhibit will be an installation by Miccosukee tribal member Houston Cypress containing water samples, and original photographs from the estate of the “original Gladesman, Glen Simmons,” as Mitchell calls him. An additional educational element will include a “Sundays in the Park” series, in this case a gallery tour followed by a talk on wetlands biology and a workshop on woodworking with Dade County pine, by sculptor Nick Gilmore.
AIRIE’s expansion includes new members of the board and arts advisory council — and new president Valerie Ricordi, who has previously worked with MOCA North Miami and the Bass Museum, and who believes that AIRIE “is really serving a critical role now, as the concern over climate change and the related groundswell of activism grows.”
As dire as many environmental warnings are these days — and there is no doubt that South Florida, in particular, is being negatively affected by the minute — it is encouraging to see this particular groundswell.
“In the past 15 years, both artists’ and their audience’s awareness of ecological issues, especially with respect to coastal ecosystems and water rights, has increased tremendously,” says Mitchell. “In turn, artists’ need for programs like ours has grown. We are expanding to meet those needs by tailoring each project with the corresponding support team.”
AIRIE Nest Gallery, Everglades National Park Coe Visitor Center, 40001 State Hwy. 9336, Homestead; open 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., free; airie.org.