Coming from a soaring metropolis like New York City, I thought I understood beauty in the majestic: light sparkling off windows a thousand feet high, the space between skyscrapers the commas in an architectural narrative, verticality as grace. I was wrong. In late August of 2016, flushed with nerves and excitement, I took my first steps into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had eagerly scrawled my signature at the bottom of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s Rocky Top Trail Maintenance Crew volunteer contract, not knowing, really- anything. Our first day passed quickly, hiking up to Inadu Knob, setting up camp; the dirt already jammed deep under my fingernails would remain there for the next eight days, a muddy blur as I quickly sketched as much as my tiny notebook could hold. After dusk, our crew ventured to a small overlook tucked on the opposite side of the trail, sat shoulder to shoulder; darkness came, deepened to a pitch black, and beyond logic fell even darker still. Then, the stars appeared.
The night sky unfolded before us; Orion raised his bow, the little dipper poured into the big. Our crew leader nudged my shoulder; I shifted my gaze in his direction and it was suddenly, incomprehensibly, flooded with the incandescent light of the Milky Way. My prior understanding of monumentality, of the endless scope of nature, expanded beyond my wildest imagination; I needed to see more, as much as humanly possible. For the next eight days, each morning started on the overlook as the sun rose over the scaffolded ridges, every night ended with an explosion of stars.
In 2017, I returned to the Smokies again, as a member of the ATC’s SWEAT crew. The hiking was more strenuous, the work harder, each day bookended with summits of both Rocky Top and Thunderhead mountains. In the evening, we sat exhausted, sharing dinner and trail conditions, unpausing conversation with the rotating roster of hikers staying alongside our camp at Spence Field shelter. There was a pair of 20-something hairdressers traversing the entire park, a father and his two preteen daughters, a large, overwhelmingly boisterous family that completely filled the shelter; none of them like us, and none of us like each other. There was less stargazing, more storytelling, the passing on of experiences, and a collective sense of how time on these grounds turns those disparate into a community.
After my first visit, I walked away holding the magnitude of these mountains, these trails, inside for myself. I was in awe, and filled with a terrific sense of gratitude and personal responsibility towards this park. The second, I left with a profound determination to share this experience with as many people as possible, to continue to grow this mountain community, to prompt others to follow the white blazes of the Appalachian Trail, or any of the 900 miles of trail in the GSMNP, to chase the glow of the sunset, to sit in the shadows of the trees. I remain still in awe, now coupled with a determination to foster interest in and a collective ownership of our natural lands, specifically the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
With this residency, I propose a two-part project: a collection of illustrations and prints based on the interweaving narratives of the park itself, bound into a handmade portfolio or book, and the execution of participatory, hands-on art making workshops and exploratory public walks providing visitors with the tools, methods, and inspiration to document and share their collective GSMNP journeys.
Although formally trained as a draftsman, sitting through hundreds of hours in life drawing courses and studio sessions, in the past few year my work has been heavily influenced by the concept of deconstructing and depicting narratives through a nontraditional lens. Through a combination of watercolor, ink, and linoleum block print illustrations layered within the construct of a handmade book, traditional narratives can be seen in a new light, while unconventional stories feel familiar and accessible. The inclusion of botanical illustration grounds these narratives in the natural world, and provides an element of human connection, depicting the normally shielded structure of parallel internal systems: skin covers muscle as bark encases the heartwood of a birch tree.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be the ideal setting to expand my visual vocabulary to the more than 10,000 species of flora and fauna present in a such a lush, vibrant deciduous forest, as well as learn the narratives of the park itself. Living, and making work, within the boundaries of these thriving natural lands would provide a constant source of inspiration, solitude, and sanctuary. Using a combination of photography, sketchbooks, and journals, I’d document the multitude of species and biologic interactions on daily hikes and overnight trips, pioneering across as much trail in the park as possible.
These sketches and photographs would be the basis for a bound book documenting life and change in the mountains, specifically how each species interacts symbiotically or parasitically with another, sparking newness and growth, telling the story of life under the canopy of the forest. Consciously or not, every visitor who steps into the park observes this biological narrative, profoundly influencing the way they themselves subsequently tell the story of the trails, the mountains, this park. This residency would also provide the ideal opportunity to speak to park visitors, volunteers, and staff to hear their own stories and observations, allowing me to weave together the natural narratives with the human one. The completed book would consist of unique oversized illustrations and prints that together read as a cohesive text, but can also be removed from the binding to stand alone as individual prints.
As an Artist in Residence for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I’d bring a preternatural love for these mountains, this breathtaking park, but also over a decade of professional experience in designing creative, engaging hands-on art workshops and curriculum. Presently, I work as a visual arts teacher for the New York City Department of Education, in a public school serving elementary aged students diagnosed with severe autism. As an educator, I’m constantly looking for ways to share information and empower others to make meaning, to grow, and learn.
The public workshops offered as part of this residency would be designed to prompt visitors to create their very own “botanical sketchbooks” as a way to illustrate the enchantment of being in nature, and providing a method to tell their own story. This project is grounded in the sense of collective community that the park promotes, and frequent involvement with rangers, day hikers, families, and thru hikers would be integral to its foundation. Handmade books and journals can take a wide variety of forms, and can be simply created through an arrangement of folds; no special paper is needed, a sketchbook can be made from anything that will accept ink or pencil. Participants would be encouraged to think creatively about resources, and in line with the principles of “Leave No Trace,” emphasis would be on using recycled materials, often those found in the park itself. In line with my personal art practice, a multitude of methods to create handmade books would be presented, as well as techniques and tips for art-making and sketching in nature. To further engage visitors, exploratory walks to build observation skills and gain experience documenting the natural world would also be planned.
Handmade sketchbooks for use when hiking or camping in the park would also foster as sense of visitor reflection; it would encourage visitors to pause, to consider the shapes of leaves, the light coming through the trees, to trace the curves of Clingman’s Dome, to note a deer silently observing near Derrick Knob shelter. These sketchbooks would also be a tool to encourage discussion post-visit, to prompt new visitors to take their first steps onto the grounds, to discover the park for themselves. There’s a power in documentation, and a sense of authority over it’s source; this project, workshops, and walks would also be designed to promote ownership of our natural lands, specifically the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, from Cades Cove to Mount Cammerer, and subsequently a sense of responsibility for its care.