In the spring of 2011, on a lark, I applied for and subsequently received an artist residency at Zion National Park. For 28 days I lived in a small cabin within the park (the former visitor’s center and the oldest structure in the canyon) where I spent each and every day photographing the park, editing my work, or reading one of the many monographs or photographer biographies I brought along. It was my first experience as an Artist-in-Residence (AIR), and its opportunities and intensity forever changed my life.
Zion was the first of four national park artist residencies I would complete between 2011 and 2014, the others being Glacier, North Cascades, and Joshua Tree. Each varied in the details, but the programs were similar: I lived for four weeks inside the parks in provided housing and was left alone to pursue my work as I saw fit. For that honor, I was required to give one or two public presentations and donate a photograph to the park (along with all rights as required of artwork being added to the collection of the US government). I did have to purchase all of my own food and provide my own transportation, but I would have had to do that, anyways.
Sounds great, right? Well, there are a few catches. First, while the houses/cabins were modern(ish) with electricity, heat, and plumbing, none that I lived in had cell service, Internet, or television. Radio reception was spotty, at best. That meant a lot of time by myself, with myself. You can imagine the horror. I did have my music and books, of course, and could drive to the real world for supplies and company (no, I do not mean hookers. Well…not EVERY time). However, on more than a few occasions being alone fell into the void of loneliness. It sucked, but it was a necessary part of the experience. When I would be down, I would either walk or drive to a lodge or town for a wee little taste of sweet cell service. Not every night, mind you, but sometimes.
In order to grow as an artist, we need to know more about ourselves and how our work relates to us, as individuals. That requires introspection, and introspection requires time. Alone! What we discover won’t always be pretty, but it will be important. At least it was to me.
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The vast majority of national park AIR programs give the artist free reign to create. Aside from following all park rules, there are no rules. Artists played a huge role in the creation of our system of national parks, and these AIR programs are meant to help celebrate those accomplishments. The work we create will help continue that tradition. The park gets not only an original piece of our art, but can take advantage of the attention derived from any subsequent pieces. We get an opportunity to learn and to grow as artists. Win win.
I wish everyone could have the opportunity to experience being an artist residency, especially at a national park, but the fact is that there are not all that many available, especially considering the number of artists in the world. The competition is fierce and, to make matters intriguing, photographers are competing against painters, sculptors, writers, choreographers, dancers, actors, producers, performance artists, videographers, audio artists, singers, song writers, and poets. Among others. That can be daunting.
So, who is an artist residency for? Serious artists who want a unique and intensive opportunity to grow. You don’t have to be a “professional artist,” whatever that means, or full-time, or someone well-known. However, you will need evidence that you are both serious and skilled: publications, exhibits, awards, teaching, articles, etc. These, of course, are not indicators of quality or artistic merit, but do help the jurors differentiate the weekend craftsman from the dedicated artist. It might not seem fair, but it’s not totally unfair, either.
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Aside from my four AIR opportunities, I have helped (judge and) jury a handful of others. Those experiences have given me some unique insight, and it isn’t all good news for photographers because, without a doubt in my mind, their entries were some of the weakest in the pile (not just MY observations). Most of the photographic portfolios were derivate, some were technically weak, and many lacked a consistent theme or concept. But the biggest problem was that photographers assumed, because these were national park AIR programs, that the jurors wanted to see grand landscapes. Pretty scenics. Vistas. But, most of the jurors and/or park officials have seen those types of photographs before. So, they get lost in the din and often dropped in the first round of cuts.
Photography is easily the most ubiquitous and approachable of all the arts. It is commonplace. So, we need to show work which will help us stand out not only from other photographers, but from artists of all disciplines. We need our portfolios and statements to be not only unique and strong, but concise and consistent. Show a point of view. Show the judges who you are. Make yourself vulnerable . . . and rise above the din.
What to do/consider during the application process:
1. Create a portfolio with strong, unique, and personal work. Don’t try to guess what the judges want to see. Be yourself. Avoid typical landscape images. Portfolio size requirements vary.
2. Write a statement of purpose: What do you intend to do, why, and how will that affect you, as an artist? Emphasize how the experience will help you grow, artistically. You will not be bound by your photography plans, but you WILL need to have a plan.
3. Consider whether, or not, you are willing to live alone, secluded, without phone, Internet, or television for up to a month (family members or guests are usually not allowed). It is much tougher than it seems. Be prepared to explain this during the written application and subsequent interview, if you make it that far.
4. There is no single clearing house for all participating national parks, though most of the information can be found easily online. Not all the info you will find online is up to date, so be sure to check with respective parks. While winter seems to be the peak deadline period, application deadlines occur throughout the year at various parks. Some parks have multiple application periods, so keep looking throughout the year. Apply to as many as interest you.
5. THIS IS NOT A VACATION. It can be quite intense and immersive, and much more difficult than it seems. Family, friends, or guests are either discouraged or outright banned. The quickest way to be rejected is to use the word “vacation” either in your application or your interview. I cannot emphasize that enough!
6. Can you get away from your regular job and/or your family for the duration of the residency (usually 2 to 4 weeks)? Will you want to return to them at the end of that time?
7. You need to have a car. While the parks will provide you with a place to live and work, park personnel will not be able to drive you around the park or shuttle you into town for supplies. Self-sufficiency is vital. I know of one accepted artist from NYC who, it was discovered, did not have a driver’s license. She thought she could take a cab from the airport (it was 160 miles away) and just walk around the park.
8. You will not be paid for your residency, so have enough financial stability to live for the duration (2 to 4 weeks, usually) without income.
9. Be sure you have all the gear, including backup gear, you will need for a month. A second camera body (I broke a camera in Zion and had to drive 12 hours home, one way, to get a spare), extra batteries, chargers, etc. are important. Sitting idle for a couple weeks awaiting a repair is a waste of a great opportunity.
10. Don’t be discouraged by rejection. We all get rejected. Learn from it. Some of the parks see 100 to 200 applicants for one or two or three slots, so it can be rough. Just keep at it.