As the National Park Service rolls out its Find Your Park centennial celebration, artists continue to play an important role in the reflection of value the Department of the Interior hopes to encourage.
This summer, visitors at many parks and monuments throughout the U.S. will find an artist working to depict the significance of 50 residency programs in places such as Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska, the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in Iowa, the stone-lined fields at Weir Farm National Historic Site in Connecticut, as well as sites in the Southwest, such as Mesa Verde. Artists are provided with lodging in trade for the opportunity to create works of varied mediums on location for two to four weeks.
The program acknowledges the power of an artist’s ability to communicate the nuance of land, people, artifacts and cultures. The NPS recognizes the historic role artists played in establishing federal public policy that supports protection of magnificent natural landscapes, wildlife and significant cultural presences.
Preserving the natural wonders was first suggested by George Catlin, a painter and memoirist remembered in American history for the native Indian portraiture he produced as he traveled across the great American prairie in the 1830s. Today his work stands as a critical record of the individuals and culture he witnessed at the time of his travels.
In his book, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, 1841, he published his observations and called for “some great protecting policy of government” to preserve the native people and their culture.
“I would ask no other monument to my memory, nor any other enrollment of my name amongst the famous dead, than the reputation of having been the founder of such an institution.” His portfolio and journal conveyed sensitive testament to the native people and lifestyle at risk of disappearing under the pressure of relentless colonization. While his body of work was no more than a personal record, albeit well done and masterful, it was not politically motivated. But his work produced a personal and public response that expanded and influenced legislation, the political thinking at the time, evolving later into policies that created the National Park system.
In the 1890s another effort amplified his groundbreaking proposal to preserve and protect cliff dwellings, pueblo ruins, early missions, antiquities and objects of scientific interest in the public domain throughout the Southwest. That notion led to the Antiquities Act of 1906 which authorizes a U.S. president “to declare by public proclamation historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest” that existed on public lands.
The artist, the message
Today rock art protected at Mesa Verde and other ancestral sites in the region shows the narrative of a culture of people alive and thriving at the time the images chiseled in varnish, or stamped in painted handprints over stone, were made.
They provide thousand-year-old messages and aesthetic expressions of that time and place, a record of observation not unlike Catlin’s. The result of the artist’s work accomplished long ago is so powerful it is all we need to engage our thoughts about the ancient cultures at Mesa Verde.
Yet the artist who created the work with a picking implement in hand or a small pot of paint remains veiled in our imagination. The living artist has disappeared while the work has gained momentum and influence over time.
This summer two local artists, Joyce Heuman and Kit Frost, will join the historic ranks of artists in the parks who hope their work will bond in history, too, and represent the shared common interests protected by the NPS for generations.
The quietude of place
Watercolorist and 2016 Mesa Verde artist-in-residence Heuman explains, “It is a time to develop my personal relationship to the ruins, animals, landscape, colors and textures of this beautiful country. I truly believe the value for personal growth is limitless at the park.”
During her seven-year employment as graphic designer with the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center near Cortez, she was introduced to the value of the sites through work-related visits to the park.
“I visited often and gained a rich knowledge about the settlements there. The palette of earth colors in rocks, skies and soils … have their own particular beauty [as do] the people who lived there and animals living there still. The history, stories told, and life are rich indeed.”
Although she says she is not politically inclined, Heuman advocates for animals by representing them in their habitats. The recent debate in Western states over control of federal public lands puts wildlife at risk, she says. She questions how the animals would be protected if the lands were relinquished to state authorities. “Where would the operational / management funds be found that protect all that is currently under the care of the Department of the Interior?
“As an artist and advocate for animals in their habitat, I am a supporter of public lands. The question is how could the state manage existing lands and find the funding that maintains the responsibilities of the lands, including the animals? In general, I would like our public lands to remain with the federal government and to be awarded more funds to manage them appropriately.”
Heuman will offer a workshop to interested visitors. She will take them on a nature walk and hopes participants will want to draw in-situ. “They need only bring an interest in connecting to the landscape or historical habitat by drawing and looking closely at the subject. I will provide them with a drawing demonstration and supply all materials. Hopefully the experience will aid in [developing] their respect and connection to the park during this centennial season, perhaps open a personal creative channel and appreciation for the natural world for years to come.”
A walk in light
Another exploratory walk will be presented during the residency of local nature photographer Kit Frost. She plans to share tips and tricks for better point-and-shoot photography of the cliff dwellings. “I work with 35mm film and digital cameras, digital video, medium and large-format cameras. The workshop will ask participants to question what they are trying to say with the image, why they are on the walk and what stories they want to tell.”
Frost has answered those questions herself in the many national-park locations she has photographed. For her, the answers are found in the light and the time she spends under its influence in the environment.
“I believe that the photograph is not made by the camera but by the vision of the photographer. A residency at Mesa Verde will give me the commitment to refine that vision on location, scouting light, composition, and weather patterns, allow me to … create images that speak to the inspiring, changing light on the near and distant horizons, color and the power of weather … the daily rhythm of quiet moments exploring ruins, and chasing the light through the park.”
She lives four miles north of Mancos. The presence that Mesa Verde “and Point Lookout have [embedded] in my psyche. Mesa Verde is perfect for quiet contemplation of intimate and majestic imagery. Time there and access to sites, plus the location of the [hogan], are the keys to the kingdom, a gift that allows me to totally immerse in photography, enjoy the solitude and immensity of our national treasure, Mesa Verde.”
For information on workshop dates for both artists, check the Mesa Verde website.
Heuman will be working in residence Sept. 19 – Oct. 2.
Frost is scheduled to work the week of Oct. 3 – 16.