A place for artists on public lands

The connection between art and the American landscape offers new ways to advocate for lands.


Dozens of artist’s residencies have sprouted on public lands across the West. Most are hosted by national parks, national forests and wildlife refuges, but research stations and even conservation groups also offer programs. These grassroots efforts foster important connections between people and place at a critical time. 

The link between art and the American landscape runs deep. Early on, artists such as George Catlin and Thomas Cole helped create a national identity by celebrating the wildness of American lands and contrasting them with the far-tamer European landscape. The connection was well established by 1872, when Thomas Moran’s paintings and William Henry Jackson’s photographs helped inspire Congress to designate the world’s first national park at Yellowstone. 

Soon after, John Muir’s prose brought vivid images of Yosemite, the giant sequoias and Alaskan glaciers to the public mind, sparking further conservation efforts. Later, Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson bridged art and science, introducing readers to lands and oceans and voicing prescient warnings about extinctions and pesticides. 

An artist ruminates on his work in the Grand Canyon.
Denis Brothier/Flickr user

Today’s residencies offer a chance to further the tradition. And amid an unfolding climate crisis and a plutocratic rise to power that threatens public lands health, the inspiration of artists is more important than ever.

In 2015, Frederick J. Swanson wrote in Ecosphere about the growth in artist’s residencies, describing examples at parks and research stations from Antarctica to Oregon to Alaska. He noted benefits that included building support for public lands or scientific research and innovative collaborations between artists and scientists.

Swanson and others have also observed the important role that artists can play in an era of change. When writers or artists portray receding glaciers or threatened species, they spark fresh ways to engage the public. And when they use stunning imagery to reveal the interconnected processes that result in wildfires and other natural events, they help agencies convey modern conservation messages. Smart residency managers already nudge artists toward these goals. 

Residencies also offer broader connections to the land. To celebrate its 2016 centennial, the National Park Service offered over 50 residencies nationwide. Ongoing programs include stints at Crater Lake, Zion, Glacier and Petrified Forest national parks.

National forests participate, too, including a long-standing example in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness. In a common model, artists are treated to a stay in a remote cabin, where they’re free to tap their creativity among wild rivers and deep forests, with bears and wolves and other wildlife as their neighbors. Each artist donates a piece of work, for outreach or for sale by the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation in support of local trail maintenance. Each also hosts a public “extension,” a workshop or other event, providing added publicity. 

Conservation groups also turn to artists for assistance. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance has long engaged painters, writers and photographers to celebrate the Colorado Plateau and its need for protection. Other examples include the Idaho Conservation League and Oregon Wild, which hosted a children’s art contest surrounding the West’s most famous traveling wolf, OR7, as he roamed into California.

A break-out program in recent years is Alaska’s Voices of the Wilderness residency, a combined effort by the National Park Service, Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that offers nearly a dozen annual residencies scattered across Alaska. They range from the Chugach and Tongass national forests in the south to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the north. 

More than its grand scope, the Voices program is notable for its commitment to exposing artists to public-land stewardship. Participants spend part of their time alongside biologists, rangers and others, pulling invasive weeds, gathering marine debris, or contributing to climate-change research. As one program manager in Prince William Sound put it, “We believe the way people care for the land is every bit as inspirational as the land itself.” 

This stewardship component can be transformational, leaving artists with deep intellectual and emotional connections and long-lasting loyalties to place. The results are visible on the Voices of the Wilderness website, where poems, prose, paintings, sculpture, music and film celebrate lands across Alaska.

That kind of inspiration is what these programs seek. Because as history shows, if artists emerge inspired by a landscape or important event, huge cultural and political shifts can follow. And we need that promise for any number of reasons — from renewing public interest in science and getting kids to go outside, to encouraging citizens to oppose the sell-off of our public lands and resist leaders who deny climate science. 

So dust off your portfolio, artists, and apply this winter for your dream residency in support of public lands.


Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes in Alaska.

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