During May of this year, I was selected to be an Artist in Residence at Catoctin Mountain National Park. Many of our National Parks have their own AIR programs- each is a little different, as they are all administrated separately by the parks or by associated organizations. The Catoctin residency is managed by the Catoctin Forest Alliance. I was given lodging for two weeks in a cabin at the historic Misty Mount camp ground, and given free reign to make work based on my experience at the park. In exchange, I donated one piece from the residency to the park.
It has taken me a bit of time to get the work from the residency scanned and organized to post online, but it seems fitting that I finally get it all up the day after the 100th anniversary of the National Parks Service. This Saturday, August 27th, there will be a 100th anniversary celebration at Catoctin, and I will be attending to drop off my donation painting, and to talk a little about the AIR experience.
I’ve tried applying for several AIR programs over the past two years, and this was my first time being selected as a resident artist. I was glad that Catoctin is fairly convenient drive from home- it seemed like a good introduction to the residency experience. I wasn’t sure what it would be like being mostly alone in the woods for two weeks. I was able to visit home twice during the residency. I spent a lot of time alone, but also met many wonderful rangers as well as the volunteers who serve as hosts for Misty Mount. During my normal life as a freelancer, I spend a lot of time to myself, and enjoy my solitude, but going days on end without much personal interaction is certainly a different experience. I did have internet access on my smart phone, and cell phone service, which provided a bit of company- it is difficult to imagine a more remote AIR experience where even these things are not available, although I hope to do one some day. I had a lot of time to work, to think about my work, to think about life, to read, and to experience nature.
It also rained almost constantly for the duration of the two weeks, which made working as a plein air watercolorist very challenging. I took advantage of any break in the rain I could. Sometimes, I painted while sitting inside the hatchback of my vehicle, or under overhangs at various park buildings. Even with an overhang, the humidity makes watercolor difficult. Using the heat in the car to help dry out paintings helped a little. So this element was frustrating, because I constantly felt like I could be getting a lot more work done, and working a lot better, without the additional challenge from the weather. I felt a bit beaten down at times. A couple of times, I retreated inside the visitor center, and painted the taxidermy owls on display.
However, despite the weather, I learned a lot. In most of my previous plein air work, I tend to focus on man made structures, or the contrast between these structured elements and the natural world. I’ve found completely organic scenes very challenging to paint. It’s easy for the forest to dissolve into an overall texture. One must make very conscious decisions about creating a focal point through intentionally controlled contrast and selective detail- just mindlessly painting what’s there quickly leads to total chaos. By the end of the residency, I felt like I’d learned to handle this type of subject matter more successfully.
In total, I painted around 30 pieces, but they weren’t all successful as finished pieces. Here is a selection of the best work.