Two local artists will blend past and future in art and words during their park residency
“It’s exciting to be returning to the poetry of ancient memory.”
This is what Sonja Horoshko (a Free Press contributor) said excites her about her two-week stint as an artist-in-residence at Mesa Verde National Park, taking place Sept. 29 through Oct. 12. Horoshko and Navajo painter Ed Singer are the most recent local artists selected for the Mesa Verde Artists-in- Residency Program.
Inactive since the 1970s, the current artist-in-residence program was “revived” by Frank Cope in 2006 for Mesa Verde National Park’s centennial celebration. Cope, who is in charge of maintenance at the park, is also a painter. Based upon his own experience working at the park, he took it upon himself to reinvigorate the program, believing it would not only promote the park, but also enable artists to develop their careers by sharing their interpretations of the park experience.
Under his guidance, the program developed five two-week residencies a year: two in May, two in September, and one in October reserved for local artists. Artists from all over the country have enjoyed their stints at the park, living and working out of a centrally located rustic hogan.
Roland Lee, a painter from Utah who held a residency in 2011, blogged, “What a fantastic experience it was to live in a wonderful Hogan on the very mesas inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans.”
One of the rewards of the residency is the opportunity to be in the park alone. Artists are allowed to access backcountry sites after a rigorous orientation and must carry radios when they are in the park’s remote areas.
“It’s just a fabulous program – it’s a lifechanger,” said Jan Wright, volunteer coordinator of the program. Indeed, for Wright – a watercolor artist from Mancos – her own residency in 2012 catapulted her into her current position. Cope ran the program from 2006 to 2012, which featured residencies by artists from all over the country. In 2013 the park shifted management of program away from Cope’s maintenance department, which it had outgrown.
Wright continued: “Mesa Verde Museum Association was very generous and took over ownership of the program – as long as I would be the volunteer coordinator. I was a Mesa Verde volunteer anyway, so I decided I’d step up. I didn’t know at the time I’d become the coordinator.”
The Mesa Verde Museum Association is responsible for developing and promoting educational and interpretive materials about Mesa Verde. One of the ways they accomplish this is by operating various bookstores in the park and online, as well as publishing guides and scientific monographs. All the books, calendars, games, toys, posters, jewelry and apparel sold in their stores are subject to staff review to ensure that the merchandise is educational and/or interpretive in nature.
The annual artist-in-residence program fits right in, and has been extremely successful the past two years.
In 2014 over 60 artists from all over the country applied for the residencies, and in 2013 there were 65 applications. Wright selects four jurors, who review the applications shortly after the January deadline and award residencies for the upcoming year to the top five artists. Three of the jurors are artists themselves, from different disciplines. The fourth juror is a representative of the park, such as an interpretive guide or ranger.
Over the years resident artists have worked in a wide variety of modalities – including quilters, sculptors, writers, photographers, educators, journalists, glass-makers, potters, printers, flute-players, dancers and composers.
Wright explained that not just well-established or professional artists receive the residency. Artists of all ages, ethnicities, and levels of experience are encouraged to apply. All residents donate one original work to the park and present a public program at the end of their second week.
Along with a sample of their work, the application process requires artists to submit a statement of purpose, which details what they expect to gain and a plan for their public presentation. Of course, jurors examine the quality of the work, but most importantly, they look for something unique about the proposal. Horoshko and Singer’s ideas are striking in this regard. Their project consists of crafting letters to their grandchildren, Reid Aleksandre Korber, in Denver, and Keon Monty Edwards (Diné) in Tucson, who are both under 2. The letters will include written narrative messages as well as place-based sketches, and are deeply personal in that each artist, working independently, will record their im pressions of the park, and communicate directly to their grandsons.
This is the first time jurors have selected a collaborative project. Horoshko and Singer epitomize a distinct kind of dichotomous artistic relationship: male/female, Diné/Caucasian, and painter/writer. These tensions, combined with their shared experience of being grandparents, serve as inspiration for their work.
Singer explained, “We have our similarities and common goals and ideas, but there are a lot of differences in how we do things, and the ideas that we have. It will be an interesting project. I can’t wait to see the finished work.” Horoshko agreed. “Ed’s contribution is informed by his Diné experience and mine by my biligaana education.”
The pair, who met in 2008 through their participation in a group show at the Center for Southwest Studies in Durango, have never collaborated in this manner before. Singer, originally from Tuba City, Ariz., is a painter, but works in “almost every two-dimensional medium.” He said, “ I don’t ever remember not being an artist. I always remember drawing, and trying to paint.”
Horoshko said the idea of writing letters germinated after she recently read a letter from her deceased father. “Any time any of us keep a record, and look back at it, is a very singular experience,” she said. “The postmarked letter is a deeply personal, almost extinct form of communication today. I want Reid to know certain things about Mesa Verde and I’m keeping him in the foremost of my mind.”
Horoshko said she she feels it’s time, in her life, as a grandparent, to “train them, show them, and then they will learn as adults how to care about these issues.”
But the project encompasses more than just a personal record of the couple’s days spent in the park. The history of Mesa Verde’s journey to national-park status includes American and European letters home and articles. The site was first seen (by Caucasians) by Mancos rancher Richard Wetherill and Charlie Mason in 1888. A few years later both Frank Chapin and Swedish explorer Gustaf Norkenskiold wrote about their discoveries in first-person narratives.
Over 100 years later, Horoshko believes her work follows in this tradition, noting that “our contributions as artists support the mission of the Park Service overall. I want our grandchildren to come here as adults someday and find little change from the contents of the letters they hold in their hands.”
Mesa Verde is home to the richest archaeological record in the United States. Indeed, Montezuma County has more archaeological artifacts per square mile than any other place in the U.S., and protection and preservation of the archaeological record is of utmost importance to Mesa Verde. The ancestral Puebloans who built and inhabited the cliff dwellings left their record via artifacts, petroglyphs, pottery, and pictographs, and archaeologists continue to preserve, research and interpret the material culture of the original inhabitants.
Yet contemporary indigenous people do not always get a chance to experience and express their thoughts about the park.
Singer hopes that his contributions will make a difference in this regard. “It will be like projecting something into the future of what the present park is. It is stewardship. When our grandchildren are adults the sacrifices, what Native Americans gave up in treaty rights, will come back. We gave up these lands – a lot of land – to be preserved and protected, not exploited. We will see how the U.S. government is doing 20 or 30 miles down the road.”
Both Singer and Horoshko are excited about the chance to spend two weeks at the park. The program allows artists special chances to see the park, perhaps as those who lived there originally did.
Wright said the artists can access Wetherill Mesa when it is not open to visitors. They can also choose to go to backcountry sites, at times when visitors, again, are not there, like sunset or sunrise.
About her own experience, she said, “I play native flute and being able to play my flute within the cliff dwellings and be alone there was just true magic, really magic.”
Wright is also excited about Horoshko and Singer’s project. She said their proposal rose quickly to the top of the application pile, because, “It was a way of also giving back to the park. Instead of just doing everything electronically, they said, ‘Let’s return to painting and sending paintings and prose to our children, and grandchildren.’ We’re really thrilled.”
Singer expressed his sentiment differently. “My goal is not to leave there with finished paintings, but to get ideas and to explore the unknown. I’m gonna just jump into the unknown,” he said. “The unknown, what will I find there?”
A free public presentation of Horoshko and Singer’s work will be given Thursday, Oct. 9, at the Farview Lodge library, in Mesa Verde.