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Monday
Apr242017

2017 ARTIST-IN-RESIDENCE PROGRAM AT HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK

The artist-in-residence cabin at Gulpha Gorge, Hot Springs National Park, AR (that bright green shirt was my volunteer uniform)

In 2015, I spent three weeks on Grand Canyon’s North Rim as one of nine artists-in-residence. A friend had told me before we left California that no matter how much I read about it, I would still be blown away by Grand Canyon, and she was right—it was more impressive than I could have even imagined. I went with my husband and toddler daughter, and we roamed the ponderosa pine forests and wide meadows, hiking at the lip of the canyon and, once, down into it (my husband got a pretty good workout that day, hauling a small child on his back up the steep Kaibab Trail). Although the scenery was grand indeed, I chose to draw and paint another aspect of the North Rim that compelled me—the wildflowers and insect pollinators that had emerged after the monsoon season. And during my stay, I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of work I want to do, and what my point of view as an artist is. I found that spending three weeks in one place, and working on a project that reflected that setting, really inspired me and helped me focus (I still have projects related to the North Rim that I’d like to work on someday…). With this momentum behind me, I began applying to other National Park Service artist-in-residence programs almost as soon as we arrived home.

Redbud and mystery bug

One of the parks to which I applied was Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. I had never been to Arkansas, and didn’t have a good sense of what the scenery or terrain would look like (although I had driven through the southern-most states on a cross-country road trip many years before). A friend who grew up in Oklahoma told me, “Oh, it’s beautiful there! I think you’ll really like it,” and gushed about how lovely the area was. Since she is an artistic soul too, I took her word for it and applied… and was accepted. One small matter stood in the way, however; after I applied, I found out I was pregnant with my second child. The staff at Hot Springs was kind enough to let me defer for a year, and so in late March, my husband and I set off for Hot Springs National Park with a three-year-old and an eight-month-old in tow.

Fordyce Bathhouse, where Hot Springs National Park's visitors center is located

As I packed multiple suitcases and bags with clothes, art supplies, books, kid stuff and baby stuff, I wondered, “What am I doing?” More than one person had raised an eyebrow when I told them what we were planning. 

“How will you get any work done?” they asked.

“My husband will be there,” I answered, but I’m not sure either party was convinced.

After a long journey with a pair of overtired but obliging children, we arrived at our cabin at midnight, happily collapsing into bed. In the morning, I peered out the windows of our 1930s stone cabin and was delighted to see that although trees hadn’t leafed out yet, the dogwoods and redbuds were in full bloom. We loaded the kids into a rental car and set about exploring, driving along Bathhouse Row, admiring the Edwardian architecture and stately magnolia trees. Surrounding the town of Hot Springs (which, if you didn’t know, is Bill Clinton’s hometown) is a forested area made up of pines and mixed hardwoods; wildflowers had already begun to bloom and I couldn’t believe how many tiger swallowtails I was seeing. It seemed that we picked just the right time to visit.

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies

People have always visited Hot Springs for, well, the hot springs—water bubbling up from the earth at 140 degrees, unusually pure and without the sulfur smell that accompanies all the hot springs I’d ever been to. The stately bathhouses were built above the hot springs, and people came from all over the country to take the waters. Today, only a couple of the bathhouses are still in use, and one of them offers the old-fashioned bathhouse treatments that a person might have enjoyed a hundred years ago (including something called a “steam cave”, which I found too alarming to try). One bathhouse is the visitors center for Hot Springs National Park; another has a gallery of artist-in-residence works; yet another contains the only brewery found in a national park. A lovely promenade rises up above the downtown area, and trails lead directly from downtown into wooded areas. Filling stations dot the central part of town, where anyone can fill up jugs with spring water; as many times as we did it, it still surprised me when the water came out of the tap hot

The studio in the artist-in-residence cabin

Our wonderful contact in Hot Springs took me around to see the artwork from other AIR participants, and I was intrigued by what inspired each artist—the tile from the old bathhouses, a bridge between two stands of trees, smooth stones in a creek bed. While part of me thought perhaps I should incorporate some element of water in my final piece, there was something about all those butterflies I’d seen around that I found so compelling—that, and the flowering trees and wildflowers that were so different from what I see during spring at home. Like my experience on North Rim, I wanted to paint a collection of flowers and insects, in order to draw attention to the flora and (insect) fauna of an area mostly know for its human artifacts.

Moth specimens from the park's collections

With this goal in mind, we set out on hikes around our campground, and my very accommodating husband took hundreds of photos of flowers and bugs for me. Our contact, Brian, introduced me to the collections curator, and I was able to peruse the park’s wonderful collection of insect specimens—all collected during one summer in the early 1960s, and all in excellent condition. In between hikes, trips to a local botanic garden, and visits to Quapaw Bathhouse to soak in the springwater, I sketched wildflowers: eastern redbud, flowering dogwood, fire pink, birdsfoot violet, trumpet honeysuckle, spiderwort. And once I had photos of the bugs from the collections, I started drawing them too—swallowtail butterflies, of course, but also a big carpenter bee, a hummingbird moth, and, tucked down into a corner, the little dung beetle that one of the rangers convinced me was too cute to leave out.

Sketching bugs and blooms

It was a challenge to get all this done, with so many things to do in town and with two kids competing for my attention. My husband took the kids for 3- and 4-hour stretches during the day so I could draw, and the cabin had a dedicated studio space where I could work late at night after everyone else had gone to bed. Hot Springs turned out to be a very kid-friendly town, and we often had people stop us on the street to admire our kids (or our hiking backpack, which was a source of many conversations with strangers). So while it may not have been the most relaxing of times, I was able to put together a solid concept for a painting, research it as much as I needed to, lay it out and transfer it to watercolor paper, and begin painting. As I take rather a long time to complete a piece, I was pretty pleased with this pace of work. Perhaps it was the compression of work time that forced me to choose subject matter and get working, rather than indulging in the sort of worrying and overthinking that usually delays me. In fact, motherhood seems to have had this effect on me generally—there simply isn’t as much time to worry about doing things just right; if I’m going to do a thing at all (painting, cooking, traveling, writing an essay), I’d better get on with it right now before the baby wakes up.

Doing a painting demo at Ozark Bathhouse

The painting still isn’t done; as compressed as time was in Hot Springs, it’s moreso here, with work and friends and garden and pets. But the urgency to see all of the beautiful things in that particular corner of the world has eased, now that we are back home among the familiar. I’ll continue working on my painting and will send it off to Hot Springs when I’m done, so that it can hang in the bathhouse gallery with my peers’ work. Then I’ll start looking online, to see where I can go next.

The unfinished painting

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