Artists draw inspiration from environment

HOMESTEAD, Fla.— Last April, painter and “environartist” Donna Marxer found herself a lone human in a world where alligators, white pelicans, endangered Florida panthers and over 40 species of mosquitoes reign.

She was attempting to translate this world of hardening muck, sawgrass prairies, murmuring crickets and hardwood forests onto the canvas and into a language that humans could understand.

Marxer was successful.

During her three-week stay at Flamingo Station in Everglades National Park, she produced 11 works that captured the “flamingo-pink dawns” of these bird-filled, mangrove-dotted wetlands.

Marxer’s rare opportunity to live and work in the Everglades was offered through the Artists in Residence Program in the Everglades, a program that she created. She also served as ARIE’s first resident artist.

“In my 45-year career as a painter, I have always used nature as a springboard, from realism to abstraction and back,” Marxer said.

The Everglades’ Anhinga Trail offers many scenic locations for hikers and artists alike (Staff photos).

ARIE promotes this same Thoreau-like approach to the artistic process, in which an artist is expected to draw inspiration from his solitary commune with the blooming red swamp hibiscus and the sweltering Florida wilderness of Everglades National Park.

But the Everglades are no Walden Pond. The steamy, marshy, mosquito-spotted terrain does not conjure up the same languor of Thoreau’s New England summers.

According to Alan Scott, Pine Island District interpreter at Royal Palm Station in the Everglades, it is precisely the park’s unique characteristics that make the Everglades an ideal place for an artist who wants to chart territory that has not been previously explored in art or literature. He said these same characteristics also make the Glades a valuable ecosystem in need of conservation efforts in which artists can play a vital role.

ARIE offers visual artists and writers an opportunity to live and work in the only subtropical wilderness in North America. Offering two-week to month-long residencies at any of three locations in the national park, the program aims to create a mutually beneficial relationship between the artist and the park. The artist’s heightened experience of nature is expected to further both his own artistic purposes, as well as public awareness of the park’s importance.

“This park is an extremely endangered park. This was the first national park that was established for its biology. We are not just protecting scenery or history. We are protecting habitats and all the things that live in them,” Scott said.

As a native Floridian, Marxer said she has personally witnessed the deterioration of the Everglades.

“I could see what was happening to the Everglades and could see the disappearance of wildlife. I know that there are birds that are just gone and that the wood stork is endangered. I became very disturbed and very concerned,” she said.

These concerns prompted Marxer to start a letter-writing campaign to get the artist-in-residence program, which started at Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire and was already underway in 27 other national parks, started at Everglades National Park, as well.

In March 2002, Everglades National Park will house the first of five residents participating in ARIE this year. The artist, a poet from the Indiana University, is currently carrying out his residency.

“I was told that if you get three people in the first year, then you’re in good shape,” Marxer said. “We got five.”

A nine-member advisory board—consisting of experts in literature, photography, and the visual arts— selected the five participants. Marxer, a board member, said the board will review applications on an annual basis.

Each artist, upon being chosen for a residency, agrees to donate a piece of art to the park. Writers grant Everglades National Park one-time publication rights.

Sharing these artworks is a way in which artists become advocates of the park, Scott said.

“Because these people are artists, they can share what they learn and love about the park in ways that will often motivate others.”

Each artist is also asked to make one public appearance during his residency, which can take the form of a lecture, an exhibition, or an “art walk,” among several others.

“An art walk is for people who want to take cameras or draw. You accompany them and they will see things that they have never seen before because they are in the company of an artist,” Marxer said.

There are several other opportunities for the artist, who resides either in ranger housing or at a campsite, to contribute to and interact with the community.

“We have a program named Glades Glimpse, which is an educational program that we do for 20 minutes every day. The artist could do one of those and share a little bit of his perspective of the park with visitors,” Scott said

He or she is also free to come up with an original activity to share with the public.

The Royal Palm area of Everglades National Park offers two inspirational areas for walking.

“The person we will have here in March is a writer and we talked about having workshops for both visitors and staff. I know the staff would be very interested,” Scott said.

In addition to benefiting the park, Marxer attested to the advantages ARIE offers to the artist.

“You get an experience that you would not be able to have any other way.”

Although the majority of Marxer’s work is political —often taking the form of what she calls “postcard paintings,” which show a postcard of an idealized landscape inside of a ravaged landscape—she did not do any political paintings during her residency.

“When I go someplace, I allow the environment there to dictate to me what I’m going to do,” Marxer said. “While I was in the Everglades, I was so dazzled by how beautiful it was that I did not do anything that had the political significance of the postcard paintings, although I did before I left and when I came back. While I was down there, all the work I did was of a romantic nature.”

For artists interested in mood and lighting, the Everglades certainly provide rich material, Scott said. “One of the advantages of being a resident is you see the subtle things that go on in the morning or when the sun is setting and everything is quiet. You get to see how alive the place is, and all the animals that live here. You get out here and it’s just you and nature. It’s a completely different experience to anything you may have had before,” he said.

Although the program is just beginning, Scott said that there is a greater demand than the park can accommodate. “We printed about 300 brochures and applications and they are all gone. I also get about one or two emails a week regarding the program.”

Despite the demand, ARIES’ organizers are trying to keep the program down to three to six residents a year.

“We don’t want to turn into ENRON right away,” Marxer said. “We want to keep it contained in what we can handle, otherwise we could blow the whole thing.”

ARIE’s organizers have high hopes for the program.

“I have a feeling ARIE is going to put programs like this on the map,” Marxer said.

Scott echoed her sentiments.

“It will definitely be a great thing. We’re starting off small, but it’s going to be a very popular program. The people who work in the park really don’t know how to manage this yet, but it’s going to be a part of what we do on a daily basis. When that happens, we will probably develop some housing and some studios just for the program.”

After the five artists complete their residencies, the park will own six works, including Marxer’s. According to Scott, the park plans to have the works framed and will set up a place to display them.

Until then, a giant collage of art produced by students from a Homestead elementary school that recently visited the park will be displayed in the visitors’ center. If the collage is any indication of nature’s inspirational effects, ARIE will be more successful than even its creators could ever imagine.

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