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Reports from the wilderness

Posted: Thursday, December 16, 2010

It sounds like the set up for a study on creativity: Take three different artists - a painter, a poet, a director. Bring them to an intense natural landscape. Leave them there for a week to ten days, letting the landscape seep into their brains and bodies. Then watch to see how the experience gets translated through their art.

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In some ways the "Voices of the Wilderness" artist-in-residency program is a study in the artistic process - but it's also much more than that. It combines an intensely personal experience with the broad goal of helping to support the role of artists in the preservation and interpretation of the country's wild places. In that way, it is for them as well as for the rest of us, for the land as well as the people.

Established earlier this year by U.S. Forest Service ranger and local artist Barbara Lydon, the "Voices of the Wilderness" artist-in-residency program is based in the Tracy Arm-Ford's Terror Wilderness and is modeled on similar programs around the country, with modifications that make it specific to Southeast. For example, artists in the program travel by boat and kayak, participate in ranger duties, and are asked to forgo the comforts of beds and Internet in favor of sleeping bags and notebooks.

The program took on its first three participants this year - a painter from Wrangell, a poet from Juneau and a theater director from New York. All three reported that their expectations were exceeded many times over, both in terms of creative output and in the experience itself.

As part of the residency, each artist is required to share their experience in some form with the community; so far only one, Brenda Schwartz-Yeager, has done so, in an exhibit of new paintings now on display at Annie Kaill's downtown. They will hang through the end of December. The other two artists' presentations are coming up: Poet Aleria Jensen will give a Fireside Chat at Mendenhall Glacier Vistitor Center at the end of March, and director Leon Ingulsrud will lead a slideshow at The Canvas in January. The play he is directing, "The Blue Bear," opens Jan. 14.

Artists interested in finding out more about the program should contact Barbara Lydon at lydon_barbara@yahoo.com, or visit www.voicesofthewilderness.blogspot.com. Applications for the 2011 summer season will likely be due in April.

Here's a closer look at the artists' experiences.

Brenda Schwartz-Yeager, watercolor artist

Best known for her watercolor paintings of Southeast Alaska landscapes, harbors and boats, Brenda Schwartz-Yeager has had a close bond with the wild places of Southeast Alaska since she was a child. A fourth generation Alaskan, Schwartz-Yeager grew up on her family's commercial fishing boats and now runs her own charter business, leading small groups through the waterways she's traveled her whole life.

But familiarity with the area didn't stop her from being newly astonished by the landscape of Holkham Bay and Endicott Arm. The freedom to devote all of her senses to absorbing her surroundings as an artist only enhanced her appreciation.

"I guess I didn't expect myself to be so overwhelmed by the landscape," she said. "I just reveled in the beauty and awe of the place and was constantly provoked at any given moment to capture it in paint."

Schwartz-Yeager, mother of five, said the chance to devote her time exclusively to her art without the responsibilities of her charter business was a luxurious pleasure.

"It was like a dream come true," she said. "My prime job was to soak up this place and let it influence me."

Schwartz-Yeager filled more than two sketchbooks with ideas for paintings, often drawing as she sat on the water in her kayak, or peeking out from under the flap of her tent. About 15 finished paintings inspired by the trip now hang at Annie Kaill's, most accompanied by the initial sketch she made on-site and a map showing her location. About half are painted on navigational charts of the area, a trademark of her work, and many show evidence of human interaction with the landscape - a kayak, a person on shore, a piece of sea glass on the beach - expressing Schwartz-Yeager's interest in the overlap between human presence and wild landscapes. Like the rangers, Schwartz-Yeager is dedicated to helping the visitors she shepherds through the area balance their respect for and enjoyment of the ecosystem.

While on her eight-day residency in August, Schwartz-Yeager assisted the rangers in checking campsites for evidence of impact, collecting emissions samples, and visiting ships to inform passengers about the landscape, among other tasks, and said watching the rangers at work was a fascinating experience.

"Tim and Barbara (Lydon) have a contagious respect and love and stewardship of that wilderness area," she said. "I don't think anybody could spend a day - let alone a week - with them and not come away with some of that enthusiasm."

When she wasn't helping the rangers, she was intent on her art. Capturing the ice in paint was a particularly addicting exercise, she said.

"There's something about ice as an artist that keeps you coming back and trying to capture it," she said. "It's an incredible thing, and you think you'd be able to put it on paper, but it's really difficult.

She said she also loved the lingering low angle of light in the mornings and evenings, and the contrast of that peach-rose glow with the deep indigo ice. If she'd had an unlimited supply of paper - and time - she could have kept going indefinitely.

"I could spend a lifetime easily painting what I experienced there in a week," she said.

Leon Ingulsrud, director

A self-described "city mouse with hiking boots," New York-based director Leon Ingulsrud was a little nervous on his first night in the wilderness.

"I hadn't slept in a sleeping bag outside for literally decades, since I was a kid," he said. "And that was surprisingly nerve-racking. In the middle of the night, I would wake up and it would be totally dark and I would have this wild fear that there was a bear in the tent with me."

But fear was soon overwhelmed by awe and happiness and Ingulsrud quickly adjusted to the unusual setting and made the most of his time.

"I was overjoyed the whole time," he said. "I kept freaking out."

Ingulsrud's appreciation for the experience was heightened by the fact that he had just been released from the hospital, and had almost missed the trip entirely. Through the dedication of his doctor and the flexibility of the rangers, he was able to make it work on the very last week of the rangers' season, in early September.

Ingulsrud applied for the artist-in-residency program to familiarize himself with the setting of his current project, "The Blue Bear," a play based on the memoir by Lynn Schooler opening at Perseverance Theatre next month. "The Blue Bear" describes Schooler's experiences with his good friend, Japanese wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino, as they explore and search for the elusive blue or glacier bear throughout Southeast Alaska.

"It's the story of two men that not only happens in Southeast Alaska, but it's almost a triangular relationship. There's intense - love is almost too weak a word, it's too easily used, but these two men's relationship to this environment is profound and amazing."

Ingulsrud's exploration of his art was a bit more abstract than that pursued by Schwartz-Yeager and Jensen, and involved in-depth philosophical discussions with ranger Tim Lydon and others about the meaning of wilderness and man's role within it.

"(Talking with the rangers) was much more of the process than I thought it was going to be," he said. "They knew the book really well, and in various situations they would quote things to me, or they would point something out and say, "That's what Lynn's talking about.' It was just like having these four really smart dramaturges in the actual environment."

The Lydons also offered him another real-life example of the intense bond with the land that Schooler expresses in his books. On the last day of their stay, he said, ranger Barbara Lydon was on the verge of tears because they had to leave the area.

"That direct love for the place is a huge part of 'The Blue Bear,' that kind of connection to a place," he said. "It was really moving. I would never claim to have a tenth of that depth of feeling, but I definitely have it. If there was a piece of paper I could sign that would guarantee that I would go back there, I would give up a lot to get back."

One of the ways the experience heightened his perspective and fed his approach to the play was in his ability to see the land underneath and between the manmade environments where he spends his time, even in New York, and in his awareness of the interconnectedness between wilderness and human culture.

"When I came back to Juneau, how I looked at this place totally changed," he said. "In a weird way I could see Juneau without Juneau, could see more clearly what it was. And that sensation stayed with me even when I went back to New York. It was a really clear day flying back, (and I could see) the slow accumulation of how cities took over the wilderness. And just the idea that New York is not a separate dimension from wilderness. It's on top of it, or it's intermingled with it. It's a more intensive version of that tent."

Ingulsrud said helping the rangers in their tasks reinforced the idea that there is a better way to understand the relationship between man and nature.

"I can't shake the feeling that it's not about getting rid of all the buildings, nor is it about destroying all the trees, but there's something in the middle, where there's a different kind of equilibrium than the one we've got."

He doesn't worry about trying to translate all these big ideas directly into his work in the theater. They'll come out through specific details - this line, this scene - and inform his intuitive feel for the play. For him, art is not about solving mysteries but embracing them, an exploration that in many ways is mirrored in an appreciation of the natural world.

"I think the best art is art that is so mysterious that looking at it is like looking at the stars," he said.

Aleria Jensen, poet and essayist

Like Schwartz Yeager, Aleria Jensen is a fourth generation Southeast Alaskan who has spent a lot of time in the Tracy Arm-Ford's Terror area. For several summers after college, she worked as a naturalist on a few of the smaller boats that cruise the fjords, and later visited the area as part of her work as a biologist with NOAA Fisheries. Her role as a biologist is often inextricably integrated into her art, with the same feelings of awe and appreciation feeding both aspects of her life.

The first morning of her nine day trip this past July, she was thrilled to discover a minus 3.6 foot tide in Holkham Bay.

"(There was) absolutely incredible intertidal life, from whelks and anemones to sea cucumbers and sunflower stars," she said. "I was in heaven, wandering the tideline with my notebook, drenched by squirting clams. That scene will always stay with me."

She was also inspired by the rangers' choice of campsites: one near the Dawes Glacier, where she remembers "awakening to blue ice, falling asleep to thunder," and another on Bushy Island, where she camped without a tent.

"I can't remember the last time I wasn't zipped inside the nylon shell of a tent, camping in Southeast, anticipating rain. This night was magical, stretched on flat rock sloping into the sea, under a sweep of clear sky."

The poetry and prose Jensen worked on while on the residency trip are exclusively nature-related, and tie in to her desire to help raise awareness of the need to protect the wilderness area. She said she was especially interested in learning more about the management challenges faced by the rangers, and felt that the duties she was asked to perform, from reading visual emissions of cruise ships to pulling invasive weeds, were integral to the artistic experience.

"I was really blown away by the number of mandates the rangers juggle to uphold the standards of the Wilderness Act - in this case, across 635,179 acres, by kayak!" she said.

The Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, helps determine the management system for the country's 106 million acres of wilderness, some of which is governed by the Forest Service. In Tracy Arm-Ford's Terror Wilderness, the job is made more complex by the fact that the Forest Service has jurisdiction only over the Tongass and the intertidal areas of the water - not the water itself. Jensen said the rangers have done an incredible job of working with the cruise companies and others to work cooperatively in taking care of the area and not taxing the environment. Among other duties, the rangers board boats and give presentations to passengers, as well as collect data that helps determine the extent of human impact on the land and creatures who live there.

"(The rangers) are an incredibly dedicated bunch - (it was) very inspiring to watch them in their element," she said.

Jensen said another huge positive for her was being given so much room - physically, emotionally and creatively - to roam.

"For me, in a vast space like that, my mind is able to open and unfold, as though it's stretching after spending too much time stuffed into a dusty cardboard box."

Jensen said she scribbled in her Rite in the Rain notebooks at every opportunity and is working on a series of poems and essays. She also made a bit of time for reading, dipping in to Lynn Schooler's second book, "Walking Home," as well as writings by John Muir and poet Mary Oliver.

"I wanted to be with other voices celebrating the wild," she said.

If she hadn't felt the unmistakeable pull of motherhood, drawing her home to her toddler, she might have been tough to convince to board the boat for home.



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