Dana Levy’s AIRIE Experience

by Dana Levy for knightarts.org

Every morning of the first week of my residency in the Everglades National park, I got into my rental car and drove to a different part of the park: the 1st day I rode a bike around shark valley, the 2nd day I kayaked at Flamingo, and the 3rd day I took a boat ride at Thousand Islands and explored around Big Cypress.

I felt the need to see as much as possible at first, and then explore deeper whatever interested me. I observed nature, and people’s relationship to nature. I took portraits of rangers and others who worked in the area, asking them to hold up skulls of the animals that lived around them. It was always a good way to start conversation, after being alone so many hours of the day.

flowers-1018180-2-copyI find that I look at nature the way I look at art, I want to fully experience it, without being told how to understand it.  The rhythms, the compositions, the light.

My video works have been described as moving paintings, and this was a lot like living in one.

I drove home early one evening and thought – I wish to see a rainbow, even though it was a sunny day. Then, when I was nearly back at the house, I looked up and saw a sun-dog. This made me smile. It was like we were having a dialog, and the sun-dog was a reply. A yes.

I had a desire to illuminate everything with rainbows. To make everything look as surreal as it felt to me.

I brought the large crystal that creates small rainbows on the walls of my NYC apartment every morning, hoping to color the leaves of the trees, but it didn’t work effectively, so I had another idea. I asked Steve, the hydrologist I was introduced to through the park, who soon became a good friend and my assistant, to help me bring a generator out at night, which would allow me to use my video projector to project colors and glittery imagery I had in my video archives, onto to leaves and trees around the park. He agreed and was up for helping me with any creative project I had in mind!   He really was my guide in the park and the ways of nature; which as an all time city dweller, I knew little about.

L1019474Filming during the night was tough because of the mosquitoes. They were eating me alive through a 2 piece netted suit. But despite that, we stayed out for several hours out and I filmed the colorful illuminated vegetation, which stood out against the dark night.

It was past midnight when it started to rain and I decided it was time to pack up. As the rain stopped, I looked up and saw a faded full rainbow across the horizon. “It’s a moon bow” Steve said. “They are rare”. I projected my artificial rainbows onto the landscape and the landscape replied with a rainbow of its own. Another affirmation of my special dialogue with the Everglades.

As the days went by I felt more and more in sync with everything around me. My heart was wide open as were my eyes. I looked at vultures. They gather around death looking somewhat concerned, like people would gather at the sight of an accident on the side of the road. Yet for them, death meant food…life. I watched as they pecked at the large yellow dead alligator, showing no remorse.

I discovered Loop road on Day 4. Something about this road that made me feel like I had finally found what I was looking for. “This is it” – I thought to myself. I drove back up there 5 or 6 times during my residency- a 90 minute drive from my housing.

Something about this road thrilled me. It was so wild, but subtly. You had to observe closely and drive slowly. Alligators and snakes came out to road to meet the random visitors. Snake catchers walked with flashlights after dusk to catch snakes as their cold blooded bodies absorbed some warmth from the road they slithered on. Native Americans from the Miccosukee tribe lived on the first part of the road in large villas, drove big cars, and had their own security guards, all presumably thanks to the high salaries their nearby casino generated, (but I thought that these houses did not really look live in.) I learned that only in 1997, after a long court case against the park, did they get permission to build these houses on the southside of the narrow road, while the wild animals lived on the other side.

I met Leo at the Miccosukee Indian village. He sat in front of his collection small wooden animal statuettes that he carved so beautifully. He is a talented artist, who modestly described himself as “just a wood carver”. During his lunch break he took me to his home on Loop road. A sign he carved with the name of the clan he belonged to, Bird Clan, hung in the entrance. I liked Leo instantly. It felt as if we were old friends. He told me stories about alligators coming to his front door, and his grandma’s traditional native lifestyle, whose portrait he would get tattooed on his shin the very next day in Miami.


































Further down the road lived Dave and his wife Carol. They had been living on Loop road since the 70s, they had grandfathered the property. A friendly couple. “Have you caught many Pythons?” I asked Dave. “Pythons? I don’t catch ‘em I shoot ‘em” Dave replied.
“Show me the gun” I said, and he went inside to bring it. I guess the talk of pythons made me want to experience more fully the threat that I felt lingering over loop road, and a loaded gun on the table did so effectively.

Then I met Lucky who had a place down the road, who took nude photos of nude women outdoors in the Everglades.  I admit I thought he would be a sleazy guy who made women strip for him. But, he was a happily married, warm man who explained that women paid him to take their portraits. “Why?” I asked. “because women want to have a history of themselves, as their bodies change through the years. Some of the women I shot from when they were in their early 20s until they were in their 70s. I take the best portraits when my wife is around directing them”. He held up a portrait of a nude woman lying on an airboat.

Later I read about the early white explorers of the Everglades, and Steve told me more about water rising he has noticed as a hydrologist.  This inspired me to create a scene of a sunken explorers studio…or maybe it was the artist in residences studio that had sunken? To create this set, I gathered furniture from the Florida City Salvation Army store, cheaply bought antiques at garage sales around, and loaned some from an antique store in Homestead. Steve and his friend Tad helped me bring it all into the swamp at 2 am one night.

When we arrived to the film location, Tad pointed the flashlight onto the swamp. All the shiny yellow eyes of the alligators suddenly appeared throughout the swamp. “No big ones, except for one over there, which is far, so are safe”, declared Tad. I was astonished how coolly the two men just walked right into the swamp carrying the furniture and artifacts while I gave directions from the road.

When I got into the canoe to start filming, I fell into the alligator swamp. After a moment of panic, I was happy about this, because now we were all wet! All night we filmed up until 10 am. Besides the artwork that may result, it was a very powerful experience. Sitting in that canoe all night with all the unidentified noises and movements, brought me closer to wilderness than I have ever felt.