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For Inspiration, Everglades National Park Inserts Artists Deep In The Swamps

Naomi Fisher

Discussions of South Florida artist enclaves and art incubators typically reference places like Wynwood in Miami, FAT Village in Fort Lauderdale, or downtown Boynton Beach. Rarely do the Everglades enter into the conversation. Artists in Residence in the Everglades (AIRIE) could change that. 

The program brings a different professional, working artist each month to reside in the Everglades National Park. They're designated as Volunteers in the Park and live and work in a cottage/workspace in Long Pine Key. Each artist is given room to explore the park and draw inspiration from the natural surroundings. They also get plenty of solitude. 

"It facilitates an immersive experience in the Everglades," said Christy Gast, president of the AIRIE board of directors. 

Twelve artists are selected each year. They represent a variety of mediums, with everything from painting and sculpture to poetry, music composition, and dance. One of the goals of the residency program is to put artists' boots on the -- sometimes muddy and mosquito-infested -- ground to impart a more meaningful understanding of the Everglades. They then can go on to act as ambassadors for Florida's imperiled "River of Grass."

The program, launched in 2001, has expanded its outreach in the last year or so, fueled by a $30,000, three-year grant from the Knight Foundation. AIRIE receives some contributions from other private supporters, but with the U.S. National Park Service providing the housing facilities at no charge, (artists are responsible for their own food and other supplies) costs are kept to a minimum. Gast said about 120 artists have cycled through the program and each one shares their work with the public in some way, shape, or form.

This month's AIRIE artist is Naomi Fisher. A  Miami native, Fisher has earned international acclaim for her work in photography, video, painting, and drawing. She's also a co-founder of the BFI (formerly known as the Bas Fisher Invitational) which operates WEIRD MIAMI, a project that uses bus tours to highlight the "eccentricities that make Miami special."

Fisher was unavailable for an interview at press time, as she spends her days walking in marl prairies and other remote locations that have poor cell phone reception. Last weekend, she took a break from researching and exploring her newest project to host a public screening of videos she produced while in residency at Oleta State Park in 2009, Myakka State Park in 2010, and Vizcaya Museum and Gardens in 2011. 

The screening was held in the Long Pine Key Amphitheater in the Long Pine Key Campground area in Everglades National Park. The reception included campfire-themed refreshments and guests could choose to camp overnight at Long Pine Key. The evening screening -- in a spot typically reserved for educational presentations led by park rangers -- forges new ground for AIRIE, which strives to "get creative about the kinds of programs" it shares with the public.

"It's really special to have an artist in that space," Gast said of the Long Key Amphitheater screening.

Meanwhile, back in "civilization," the Locust Projects in Miami currently is showing a piece created by February's AIRIE residents Wade Kavanaugh and Stephen B. Nguyen. "Drawn From the Everglades" is a large-scale installation inspired by the artists' time in the wilderness. But don't expect paintings of ibis and sawgrass: the "Everglades-ness" of this work is a bit more subtle.

"It's an undulating sculpture that fills the gallery," Gast said of the piece. 

"Drawn From the Everglades" continues through April 26 in Locust Projects at 3852 N. Miami Ave.

Artist residencies for 2013 have been filled. The application for 2014 residencies will post in April with a deadline of June 1. Interested artists are encouraged to monitor the AIRIE website or its Facebook page. The AIRIE website advises interested parties that "a National Park residency isn't for everybody." The commitment is reserved for "serious professionals" and those "who care deeply about the environment."

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