Singular focus: Photographer and Mesa Verde artist-in-residence Gregory Spaid specializes in the ‘lone tree’


Artist in residence Gregory Spaid will teach a photography workshop on Thursday, May 26 at Mesa Verde. He photographed the London Plain Tree on Governor’s Island, NYC, 2015. Photo by Gregory Spaid.

Each January, the Mesa Verde artist-in-residence program reviews dozens of applications from national, international and local artists who are hoping to create writing, visual art or music compositions while living at the park.

This year was no exception. The jury committee met in March to scrutinize 60 proposals, ranking each for professionalism, experience, project feasibility and medium diversity. It is a rigorous, competitive process.

This year, four 2016 artists accepted the two-week appointments at the park, where they will work and live in a 1933 stone hogan located in Braves Village on Chapin Mesa. They are Ohio photographer Gregory Spaid, environmental writer/podcast producer Bronwyn Mauldin from Los Angeles, and local artists Kit Frost and Joyce Heuman.

President Theodore Roosevelt set aside Mesa Verde in 1906. Since then the National Park Service has preserved and protected nearly 5,000 known archaeological sites there, including 600 cliff dwellings, and 3 million associated objects in the park’s research division. Mesa Verde was the first designation established to protect the works made by ancestral, indigenous people in the U.S.

Seventy-two years later, UNESCO designated the park a World Heritage Center, identifying it as a spectacular opportunity to provide the public with an understanding of Native American life prior to the arrival of Europeans.

The program, sponsored by the Mesa Verde Museum Association in collaboration with the park service, does not provide a stipend for food, supplies, transportation or work associated with the two-week stay. Cell and internet connections are not accessible there, either. But the renovated hogan is fully and comfortably furnished, and although it is within walking distance of the museum and Spruce Tree House, it is essentially off limits to tourists. It offers the solitude that nurtures creative work.

In return for the residency award the artist provides the Museum Association a digital image of the work informed by the time spent at the park.

The park service is also commissioned with protecting wildlife, birds, and other natural resources found at Mesa Verde. Photographer and Kenyon College Professor Gregory Spaid, arrives in May to address a singular aspect of this more nuanced mission, a solitary tree in the park. Although he won’t know for certain until he’s on-site, he says it’s possible the tree as subject matter for his lens may be found in the remaining charred areas from the fires that burned 28,750 acres of the park during the past 14 years.

“It’s hard to unwrap the reasoning behind my concentration on the solitary tree as subject matter,” he says, yet credits his past portfolios of rural American high desert and the Great Plains as the breeding ground for his awareness of their iconic beauty. Vast, spare, uniform landscapes stretch between rural towns where corporate farming has changed the narrative of place between settlements. Looking back over his prior work, Spaid sees the consistent presence of the lone trees in the wide, deep distances.

In a telephone conversation with the Free Press, he explained that the trees “are like special events in those landscapes – not too many where industrial farming is circling around between the towns. Their presence finally insisted I pay more attention to them. I am just now starting to figure out how to make sense of them in the images I produce.”

His work is often bisected with focus. Where the foreground spotlights texture and pattern found in the bark and leaves of a London Plain Tree, as an example, the cityscape, or sky, behind the tree will drop out of focus.

It is by no means a simple or stereotypical image. The subtle, dynamic tension between foreground and background obliges a viewer to abandon rigid conventional perception in favor of discovering finer details that rejuvenate the human relationship to the tree. The viewer is treated to a powerful, small-scale, jewel-like approach to telling the environmental narrative of our time and place.

“Because I teach in academia, I am aware of the influence of the 19th century French Academy, the conservatories, and how they dictated the most important things a student should learn,” he says. “That system created an increasingly obscure and inaccessible body of visual art that in turn developed the smaller and smaller audiences echoing out of art centers today, such as those found in New York, Chicago, Paris.” He adds that he has been pushing his work in a direction that will make the subject matter more comprehensible to a wider audience.

“Almost everyone is aware of our relationship to trees,” he adds, “but in a deeper sense they give [us] metaphors for wildness, resilience, balance, endurance, vulnerability, fragility, shelter, grace, grandeur and majesty. They give a sense of scale in the environment, measure time in units that help us think far into the future and deep into the past. And there is growing scientific evidence that they keep us healthy, lower our stress, and even promote faster healing.”

Tree research done since 1984, he explains, has even influenced hospital design because it shows that post-operative stays for patients with a view of a tree through the window are shorter than those of patients who see only a blank wall.

Spaid will meet the public during a workshop on Thursday, May 26, where he will offer advice on how to photograph at twilight or in low light. “There are some simple steps that can be taken to enhance the quality and visual drama in an image when the light in the sky is deepening and fading. The techniques I will present can be used with phone camera, simple point-and-shoot cameras or more sophisticated digital single-lens reflex cameras.”

From April 2016, Arts & Entertainment.