When Rhode Island painter Kathy Hodge headed up to the Chugach National Forest to participate in the Voices of the Wilderness artist residency program last summer, she expected that she might be artistically inspired by the landscape. But she didn’t foresee how that landscape would root itself in her consciousness in other ways. After spending a week with U.S. Forest Service wilderness rangers Barbara and Tim Lydon, and helping them to perform their duties while kayaking through fjords in Prince William Sound, Hodge developed a deep appreciation for the area and the rangers' work there.
“Their love of the fjords of Alaska was contagious — now I am hooked,” she said.
Hodge, who has participated in eight other artist residency programs around the country with the National Park Service, said the Voices of the Wilderness program was a significantly different experience for her because of her work with the rangers.
“I did interact with many of the rangers in the National Parks and learned a lot about park stewardship (during other residencies), but my week with Barbara and Tim was total immersion.”
The artist-ranger pairing stands as the backbone of Voices of the Wilderness residency program, begun two years ago by former Juneau resident Barbara Lydon. The program enables artists to travel with and assist rangers as they go about their jobs – an unusual feature in an artist residency program, which are often independent or observation-based.
Lydon, who is an artist as well as a ranger, was inspired to design the program after participating in other residencies, including one at the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which also encourages active artist involvement. Part of the idea behind the Voices of the Wilderness program is that artists are well-suited to translate their experiences in the wild back to the public through their art, thus helping spur awareness of the value of public lands.
“I think that this is really important and impactful, spending time with the ranger -- and not just spending time but actually pulling invasive weeds or counting harbor seals, and finding out why we do those things, and how our public lands are being managed,” Lydon said.
Lydon said her field experiences have also been made richer by the artists’ presence, and that the personal connections are part of what make this program unique, she said.
“It’s just this beautiful symbiotic relationship where the artist learns from the rangers and the rangers learn from the artists,” she said.
Now in its third year, the program has grown from three trips in one area (Tracy Arm-Ford’s Terror Wilderness) to multiple trips in seven different wilderness areas, five of which are in Southeast. The sixth is in the Chugach -- Lydon and her husband now work with the Glacier Ranger District in Girdwood -- and the seventh is in the Western Arctic National Parklands. The program in Western Arctic, which involves a 10-day river patrol of the Noatak River, was created with the cooperation of the National Park Service, and represents the interagency cooperation in building the program that has developed over the past year. Lydon, project coordinator for Voices of the Wilderness, organizes the applications and outreach for all seven programs, but artist selection and program specifics are completed on a local level.
Lydon said in making interagency connections, and bringing in sporadic, existing programs, she hoped to streamline the process for everyone involved.
“I was thinking people are trying to get this going but it’s not that easy when you have to reinvent the wheel,” she said. “We have the same objective — we’re trying to promote wilderness and we don’t want to create competitions but instead celebrate wilderness -- so it just makes sense that we outreach together, with the same idea of this stewardship aspect.”
Lydon said all the groups she talked to are “super charged” about the possibilities.
The wilderness areas available to artists this year are Tracy Arm-Ford’s Terror Wilderness, Misty Fjords National Monument, Petersburg Creek-Duncan Salt Chuck Wilderness, Nellie Juan-College Fjord Wilderness Study Area in Prince William Sound, South Baranof Wilderness, West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness and the Western Arctic National Parklands. The deadline to apply for all seven is April 20.
Each program is different in both content and length, but all involve participation in “light ranger duties.” Lydon said artists should be prepared to camp in remote locations, but capability is more important than experience, and no one will be asked to do anything rangers consider dangerous.
“The bottom line is, we’re not going to be taking these artists, just as we wouldn’t take any volunteer, out into a situation where they feel unsafe,” Lydon said. “We give them the basic training and we always make sure that they are capable of what we are asking them to do.”
Painter Hodge said her lack of outdoor experience made her a bit nervous at first.
“I was a little apprehensive about how I would do, since at 55 years old I had rarely kayaked, hardly camped and never visited Alaska,” Hodge said. “I was also a little apprehensive of bears, especially when we went into the woods, but I was confident in the ranger’s instincts and I never had doubts about my decision to go.”
Hodge prepared for the trip by hitting the gym and taking kayak lessons, learning how to make a “wet exit” — how to get out of the kayak if it’s upside down — just in case. But one of her biggest challenges proved to be something entirely different — no-see-ums, which she kept at bay with a headnet (and luckily they only dropped by for a day).
Hodge said completed half a dozen studies in gouache during her stay, and took lots of photos to use in developing her work at home.
Julie Denesha, a documentary photographer from Merriam, Kansas, also participated in last year’s Voices of the Wilderness program, traveling to Endicott Arm and Holkham Bay in Tracy Arm Ford’s Terror with Juneau-based rangers Liz Gifford and Sean Rielly. She said she also had hesitations about applying.
“I distinctly remember standing at the post office, with my application in hand, wondering if I was prepared for an artist residency in the wilds of Alaska,” Denesha said.
“My greatest fear was being the weakest link that would somehow put the other members of my team in danger.”
But once on the trip, her fears were offset by her confidence in Gifford and Rielly. Like Hodge, Denesha said her interactions and experiences with the rangers was a huge part of what made the trip so rewarding.
“I was incredibly grateful for every minute I had in the Tongass, and I wouldn’t have had the chance to experience it as intimately as I did without the help and guidance of the rangers I traveled with,” Denesha said.
Denesha, who has had her photos published in the New York Times, Newsweek and The Economist, among other publications, focused on the effects of climate change through her art, gathering images that documented the rangers’ activities in the field -- such as boarding tour boats to provide education and monitoring emissions -- as well as many images of the natural world.
“Seven days traveling in the Tongass is not a long time. But it is difficult to spend any amount of time around glaciers, to see how far they have retreated in the last hundred years, without concluding that the world is changing rapidly,” she said.
On her return home, Denesha created a website about the program, Guardians of the Tongass (tongassguardians.com) that features her photographs, links and other resources.
Last year’s participants also included Irene Owsley, a landscape photographer from the Washington D.C., area, and Marybeth Holleman, a writer from Anchorage. The women were scheduled to travel to Tracy Arm on separate trips, but hit it off on the first day and ended up sticking together, soon hatching plans for a collaborative project that featured Holleman’s writing and Owsley’s photographs. One of those products, a joint article, can be seen at the 49 writers blog (49writers.blogspot.com/2011/08/writer-as-wilderness-ranger-guest-post.html). They also have an article coming out in Canoe & Kayak magazine.
Voices of the Wilderness residencies are open to artists and arts professionals in all media. This year’s applicants include composers and musicians, Lydon said, as well as many writers and poets. Artists pay to get themselves to their departure city, such as Juneau or Anchorage, and the Forest Service takes care of the rest of the transportation, as well as food and most supplies.
Because one of the goals of the program is to share the beauty of these wilderness areas with the public, artists are expected to donate one piece of artwork to the Forest Service for use in publicizing public lands.
Landscape photographer Owsley, for example, plans to donate two 60-inch panoramas, Lydon said, while Holleman will contribute an essay that the Forest Service may use for promoting the program or the area, and Hodge will donate an oil painting. Participating artists also agree to at least one public presentation (in Alaska or elsewhere) within six months — such as a lecture or workshop or performance.
“The reason why we’re having the artist go to these places and take them back to say, Kansas, is so people can realize, hey, these places are special and worth protecting, climate change is real and it’s happening, and I’m here to tell you all about it,” Lydon said.
The artists’ enthusiasm for spreading the word seems to be coming pretty naturally, as Alaska wins them over, one residency at a time.
“I knew it would be exciting, but I didn’t know I would feel such a tug to go back,” Hodge said.
“I’d go back in a heartbeat, if I could.” Denesha said.