When art and science merge in Alaska – the story of an artist in residence in Denali

Spoiler alert - there are a lot of bears

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Follow along as YA contributor Celia shares her journey into the heart of Alaska as an artist in residence in Denali.

There are many reasons to travel, but for an artist, the chance to gain inspiration and experience is often why we choose to venture out into the world. There’s nothing quite like the start of a new adventure. That excitement, the feeling of a stomach full of butterflies, drives me.

Overcome by these feelings as I was about to embark on a new adventure in Alaska, I was ready to begin.

My plane touched down in Fairbanks at sunset, which is to say, at midnight. I was relieved to find the rental car company still open in my blurry state. Yet all I can remember was being told no raw fish in the car and no gravel roads. Noted.

My first day in Alaska passed by in a blur of shopping for provisions, to-do lists, and checklists. Before I knew what hit me, my hire car was full of groceries, art supplies, and outdoor gear. Now all I had to do was drive the two and a half hours inland to begin my stint as Artist in Residence in Denali National Park for the 2019 summer season.

I have a camera, a sketchbook, a can of bear spray, and ten days where it won’t get dark. Let’s go!

artist in residence in denali

Imposter syndrome hits hard

I am an artist. There, I said it.

For some reason, that sentence is never easy to write or to say out loud for that matter. I’m a “fake it until you make it” person when it comes to confidence, and have had to catch myself repeatedly when suffering from imposter syndrome. In art, we are often our own worst critic.

Perhaps it’s because there is no one specific moment when someone tells you, “Congratulations! You’re an artist!”

Instead, it’s something you have to decide for yourself and then justify again and again. I dread the question, “What do you do?” more than any other. Sometimes I even practice saying, “I am an Artist and Naturalist.” Yes, I have two passions, two careers, and that usually leads to confusion and more questions.

I’ve found that having one foot in both the art and scientific world to be difficult at times, but ultimately beneficial. The natural world inspires me while creating art gives me a method of processing all of the information. Not everyone sees how these two things go together, but science has always depended on artists to present and record them.

When a place like Denali offers a chance to spend time there, with both my passions merging into one, I knew it was a match made in heaven.

artist in residence in denali

An artist residency is something that some (most) people have never heard of.

It is merely a block of time set aside in a special place for an artist to create, explore, and make, away from the distractions of day to day life and the distractions of “the real world.” They often take place in remote, wild, and beautiful places, like Denali.

I’ve been following the National Park Service residencies since I left university. Over the years, I’ve applied to at least a dozen, but when applications for being an artist in residence in Denali came out, I knew it was the one for me, even though it’s incredibly competitive. 

This would be my very first residency.

artist in residence in denali

Getting inspired in Alaska

The National Park Service in the US has a long history of working with artists. As early as the 1870’s, painters were the first to depict the beauty of the American West, followed by photographers such as Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams. The beauty of nature inspires artists, whose art, in turn, inspires a desire to protect that beauty. Talk about pressure and some large shoes to step into.

Some residencies are themed to help the work of multiple artists throughout a season be cohesive. This is how I found a residency that was perfect for me. Denali National Park had put out a call for artists that were looking to focus on wildlife. 

Now was my chance to prove just how well my art and love of wildlife went together. My medium of choice? Blown glass.

artist in residence in denali

I am primarily a glass artist. I blow glass using the traditional furnace techniques, as well as creating glasswork over a torch.

Glass techniques have developed over the last 3,500 years. People are perhaps most familiar with Venetian glass, in which glass is gathered on the end of a long metal pipe. Through temperature control and tooling, you can create anything you can imagine. 

One of my favorite things about glass making is that no one is naturally good at it.

Artists talk about glass skills in years of experience rather than classes. Just like a musical instrument, the more time you can dedicate to practice, the faster you’ll improve. In the beginning, you break more than you make.

I would not be able to bring any of that equipment with me into a national park, so instead, I prepared some glass objects I thought would lend themselves to the landscape. Not knowing how exactly I was going to use them, I did know the park would inspire if I were prepared.

Of course, while loading up my rental car on the very first day, I heard a sound every glass artist fears most: “tink.” I’d broken one of my pieces of glass, and you better believe I sat down in the parking lot and cried for a bit.

artist in residence in denali

When science and art blend beautifully together

By the time I arrived as an artist in residence in Denali, I had traveled to just over 50 countries and all seven continents. Travel is in my bones. 

While I had fallen in love with Southeast Alaska over three different summer seasons, I had never been inland. 

My nerves upon arrival meant that I forgot most of what I read on the first day. Still wondering if I was perhaps a fraud in some fashion, I was relieved when my coordinator expressed her delight in not having to teach me how to use my issued can of bear spray. After all, my love for wildlife and background in environmental education meant that I had many times found myself playing dead on stage in front of 1,000 people while talking about bear safety.

See! I told you my two passions go together! And there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t see a bear too.

artist in residence in denali

The Denali Highway is a 92.5-mile-long gravel road – sorry car hire company!

As the artist in residence in Denali, I was given a very official-looking decal that permitted me to drive in. I wasn’t staying in one of the campgrounds, but rather in one of the maintained historical cabins within the park. Upper Toklat Cabin was my home for ten days.

Located at mile 53, it’s a dry cabin, meaning there is no running water.

artist in residence in denali

After I unpacked that first day in the cabin, I caught myself looking around and thinking “now what?” I had no obligations or framework, yet there was so much I wanted to do. 

I’m not sure about you, but when I arrive in a new place, there seems to be this over-hanging feeling of pressure to be immediately capitalizing on every single second of the limited time you have. That feeling is usually closely followed by one of overwhelming guilt as clearly I should be better at this by now right?

So, I did what I do best, I packed my backpack. I went armed with a sketchbook, my camera, the can of bear spray, and I struck off into the park. I also carefully stacked my glass into my backpack, still not sure what I’d need it for, but better to be prepared, right?

artist in residence in denali

No trails to follow, literally 

One of the things that makes Denali so special, is that it is a trail-less park. Meaning that you can choose to explore just about anywhere, crashing off through the tundra.

This seems counter-intuitive to some from the point of conservation, but the reality is, that by spreading the human traffic out across the landscape, our impact becomes much more similar to the abundance of wildlife that roams these lands.

I knew this going in, but I don’t think I truly appreciated it until I arrived. There was no checklist of trails I could use as a crutch. Instead I had to just choose a spot, get up the courage to tell the driver I wanted to get off, and then feel everyone’s eyes on me as I stepped off the bus and into the food chain.

artist in residence in denali
Photo by Emily Mesner

Before arriving as an artist in residence in Denali, I had imagined this would be an incredible solo wilderness experience.

I quickly learned that it’s the people themselves that add to the park’s overall magic. During my time in Alaska, I rode along with wildlife techs, hiked with rangers, and met fellow creatives, all of whom helped fuel my inspiration just as much as the beauty of the land. 

This was incredibly important to me as I realized that my original artistic vision was changing.

The glass I had brought, were clear glass silhouettes of animals, roughly the size of a sheet of paper. Originally I had thought to capture photos of the glass animals with their living counterpart, a play on our expectations of wildlife watching. But after I arrived in Alaska, I realized I would never be close enough to the wildlife in question to make those compelling images.

I had to figure out a new angle.

artist in residence in denali

Wilderness reminds us of our vulnerability

One day as I was walking along, gazing in wonder at the beauty of the land, it occurred to me that with the right perspective, I could use the silhouettes to frame the majesty of the landscape. My idea evolved, hopefully conveying that when it comes to wildlife sightings just knowing the animals are there is enough. 

To test this, I decided to take a walk along the Toklat River bed, looking up to check for bears. There were none, just a couple caribou in the distance. I got to work setting up my wolf silhouette and taking one last quick look around, before I laid down to get to work.

I had not been on my stomach long before I heard the sound of galloping hooves and cascading river stones. Oh god!

I had moved around so much in setting up, that my bear spray was now out of reach. In panic I rolled over and swung up with my camera for all I was worth. My sudden movement was enough to send the thundering caribou careening off in another direction. With my heart pounding, I moved my bear spray closer to me wondering if it would do me any good against a caribou, resolving to bring back-up for when my art made me vulnerable.

Usually art doesn’t make you feel that way until you show it to someone else.

artist in residence in denali

That was just one of the many amazing moments I had with the locals in Denali. One night I stood barefoot in my PJs, meeting one of the park’s most elusive creatures.

As I sat on the porch of my cabin with a bowl of soup, I looked up just in time to see a creature pad silently past the end of my driveway. In my excitement, I nearly dropped my dinner, grasping for my camera. Forget shoes. I made it to the road just in time to see it crest a small rise where it would soon vanish from sight. I raised my camera and hit click. The sound of my shutter made the lynx stop and glance back at me.

There was nothing to do but stand there and stare back. I continued standing there long after it walked away. 

I knew the reason I was lucky enough to have this moment was that I was alone. As I stood there looking at the spot the lynx had vanished, it struck me how much I wished someone else was there to see it too. How much I wanted to share the experience, the excitement of it all.

Then I shook it off and laughed at myself. The irony of wanting to share this was exactly why I was in the park! I walked back to the cabin to sketch it out, elated even with painful rocks under my bare feet.

artist in residence in denali

Lessons from the Alaskan wilderness

As an artist in residence in Denali, each day seemed to last a week. My week there seemed to last a day.

I journaled every single day while in Alaska to ensure I wouldn’t forget anything. Still, there are those moments, like with the lynx, that stand out above the rest in my memory. Having the freedom to experience moments like that and recognize how special they are, was perhaps the most valuable thing I took away from my experience in Denali.

A great thing about being given time to focus on creativity is that it allows you to branch out. Perhaps you can try things you may not do otherwise because they are intimidating.

artist in residence in denali

Making art and traveling aren’t so different.

The hardest thing to do is to start. “Every artist was first an amateur,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson once. I don’t consider myself a writer, and certainly not a poet, but there along the riverbed I sat down, opened my sketchbook, and wrote.

“Beware the guilt of the midnight sun, for the landscape never sleeps.

The light fades and it grows, time only shows,

how much there is left to see”

artist in residence in denali

While in Denali I broke every piece of glass I had so carefully packaged and brought with me. The first broke while packing. Then the next piece broke but I blame on a caribou. Finally, they all broke through rush and excitement.

Then I realized that it only hurt the first time. Every subsequent “tink” was merely acknowledged with a slight eye roll followed by the same thought, “I can make it work.” My time in Denali left me feeling re-energized. I felt validated and extremely optimistic about whatever would come next.

As my residency came to an end, and I left the park, I was filled with this wonderful sense of accomplishment. I was so teary while handing in my road permits that the kind woman at the checkpoint asked if I was ok. Replying, I assured her that I wasn’t ok; in fact, I was great.

Have you been to Denali? What inspires you to create? Do you have a parallel passion for art and science? Would you be an artist in residence in Denali given the chance? Share!

artist in residence in denali

artist in residence in denali

artist in residence in denali

artist in residence in denali

artist in residence in denali

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11 Comments on “When art and science merge in Alaska – the story of an artist in residence in Denali

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  1. “Instead I had to just choose a spot, get up the courage to tell the driver I wanted to get off, and then feel everyone’s eyes on me as I stepped off the bus and into the food chain.” -> What an absolute star of a sentence!

  2. Thanks for sharing, your glass pieces fit the landscape so well. It was fun to read about your experiences since I was an AIR in 2016, and was lucky enough to see a lynx too. Such a privilege to incorporate such an amazing place into our work.

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