Art in the Everglades
Written By Anne Tschida, Biscayne Times Arts Editor
UNEXPECTED THINGS CAN HAPPEN WHEN ARTISTS ARE IMMERSED IN NATURE, SOLITUDE, AND THE RIVER OF GRASS
Miami can be a hard, brash metropolis, despite its subtropical location. Although it is evolving as an arts center, the hectic city often seems to offer little respite for creative types who want to slow down and take time with their craft. But it’s also the only large city to be nestled between two national parks, which too few people take advantage of or even know about.
Artists in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE) was started over a decade ago, but only recently and after a Knight Arts grant has the program taken off, with month-long residencies for visual artists, writers, and musicians since 2012; a full board of directors; and, as of January, an executive director.
Works inspired by or created during these residencies were on display in the exhibit “Flight: Aloft in the Everglades,” which opened in June at the ArtCenter/South Florida. On a recent Wednesday evening, a number of the artists gathered there discuss their experiences. Most expressed wonder at the peacefulness of the Everglades, the cocoon-like atmosphere, with few roads, no city lights, and full moons so bright that no artificial light is needed.
For the exhibit, AIRIE asked its artists to consider the Everglades “through aerial views of suburban encroachment, birds taking wing, the ethereal nature of wind, and even the stark contrast of nuclear missiles housed deep in the wilderness.”
New York-based photographer Susan Silas is a recent AIRIE resident artist with works in the exhibition. Her particular interest is in photographing birds, including dead or decaying ones. A friend alerted her to the Everglades possibility, and she took it. Her residency was last August, when the only birds around, she says, were crows and vultures, creatures that love to feed off of carcasses.
“I’ve been to artist residencies in the past,” she says. “They generally supply the artists with a studio, sleeping quarters, and meals. In this case, the residency was supplying the park to explore and live in.”
In fact, the program includes housing at the Long Pine Key campground (seven miles from the park’s southern entrance) and access to Everglades National Park’s scientists. Artists bring their own food and, if they’re smart, lots of bug spray. “As a city dweller, it was a gift to spend a month in the park,” she says. “I wish I could have stayed longer or could come back again and push the project of working with the vultures even further.”
Local writer Nathaniel Sandler did his residency this past March and is also included in the current exhibition. He’d worked with the Florida Panther Protection Program and was familiar with the marvel of the River of Grass, but not entirely.
“I took a trip to Cuthbert Rookery that I’ll never forget,” he says. “It’s a place that’s illegal to go to unless you get a series of permissions from park officials. The wood storks and ibises nest there, flying back and forth, building nests or perching and squawking at one another in magical concert.” Sandler is working on “a piece of adventure fiction that takes place in the swamp.”
Previous resident artists have included composer and sound artist Gustavo Matamoros, painter Harumi Abe, video artist Naomi Fisher, and performance artist Ana Mendez.
Artist Deborah Mitchell has been incorporating images and experiences of swamps, prairies, and pinelands into her work, inspired by Shark Valley and fishing in Florida Bay, she says. In January she was appointed AIRIE’s first executive director.
“We hope to be one of the country’s most sought-after residencies,” she says, “offering artists and writers the privilege of spending a month in an endangered World Heritage Site.”
Mitchell hikes around with the guest artists in order to “understand how to best present their particular work to the public.”
She is convinced that both the environment and artists will win as the residency program grows. “Spending introspective time alone in any wilderness setting can be a transformative experience,” she says. “The River of Grass is ripe with opportunities to immerse oneself in ecological settings, which can foster personal growth. Out of that, professional growth can occur as one sheds the past and processes the creative experience in their own mediums.”
AIRIE helps nurture this both by providing artists with the opportunity to live in the Everglades and then presenting their resulting works to the public, she says.
Artist Christy Gast, whose work has been shown in Miami galleries, collections, and museums (she has a sculpture in front of the Bass Museum and was recently highlighted in a solo show at Locust Projects), also uses nature and the fragile environment as the basis for her video, sculpture, and performance. She has made videos in a pine forest near a decommissioned nuclear missile site in Florida, at the Herbert Hoover Dike at Lake Okeechobee, and in the stark terrain of Utah.
Gast has been involved with AIRIE for five years, although she has never been a resident (she’s on the board of directors). As someone who is interested in interaction with the environment, she wanted to bring the Everglades into the Miami conversation.
“I was meeting a lot of artists who wanted to work in the Everglades and didn’t know how to access it for a longer period of time,” she says. “So I offered to help make a connection between the residency program and artists working in Miami and beyond.”
As an artist who has worked in varied environments, Gast says that what strikes her most about the Everglades is water: “The changing water level makes the Everglades so dynamic throughout the seasons. And the Cypress domes are incredible.”
Many of the artists have different takes from their time in the River of Grass. For some, the solitary element (only one resident comes in each month) leaves the biggest impression — men and women alone with nature and their thoughts. For others, the abundance of wildlife, however subtle, makes them want to write or otherwise portray this singular world. Or simply the sounds, the heat, or the expanse of sky is most affecting, to be revealed in some creative manifestation in the future. That’s the mission.
AIRIE, says director Mitchell, “has gained the reputation of offering artists something intangible — our support to experience a fragile and at times mystical environment, which is closely connected to a vibrant urban metropolis.”
More information about AIRIE and its residency program can be found at: airie.org. “Flight: Aloft in the Everglades,” works from residents of the AIRIE program, runs through July 6 at ArtCenter/South Florida, 800 Lincoln Rd., Miami Beach; www.artcentersf.org.