This is one of many True Story interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting, amazing, challenging things. This is the story of Jessica Bryant and her time as an Artist in Residence in the National Parks.
I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, MN and earned a BA in American Studies from the University of MN. I’m 36 and I spend most of my “work” time painting landscapes in watercolor. My second job is managing my two school-age boys. My work is my fun, but I also love music and play piano and bagpipes. I am the musical director/instructor for our local fire fighters’ pipe band. I love traveling, exploring, hiking, and adventuring in whatever ways I can manage.
Are you a full-time artist?
Yes, more or less. I was very dedicated to art in high school, exhausted the art program, did a year of independent study, lots of art shows and awards, etc. I was also focused on academics. I had both art and science teachers pressuring me to pursue their fields, and in the end felt the need to prove myself intellectually. It wasn’t a fully conscious process, but I ended up with a BA in American Studies and a plethora of drawing classes under my belt. For a number of years after graduation art grew more distant from my immediate life, though I continued with a small number of commissioned pieces. In 2007 I waded, and by 2009 had dove, back in with watercolor as my primary medium.
How would you describe your art?
I am a landscape watercolor painter working in a realistic style to capture a place and time in a manner that conveys the sensory and emotional experience of the subject. I use the watercolor medium differently than many, preferring to work more dry and using a full range of values from very light to very dark and everywhere in between.My goals in painting realistically are not to copy what a photograph can do, but to bring a subject to life in a way that photographs cannot. I can choose how much of a painting will be painted true to life, and how much might need to be manipulated to more accurately describe the feeling of a place. I can play with lighting, mood, subject placement, and more to create a vision that evokes my memory of place more accurately than my photographs.
For those of us who don’t know, what does a position as an ‘Artist in Residence’ entail?
It can vary quite widely. Last week I was the artist in residence at a local arts magnet school, working to paint a 40 x 6 foot exterior mural of a local natural area that the students visit regularly. For this project, I spent the school days working with students, teaching and painting, but going home at night. In the National Parks, an artist-in-residence is literally in-residence, living in on-site park ranger or AiR specific housing. Amongst the National Park Service units that offer AiR programs, there is variety in their offerings. At Badlands, whose program is particularly generous to artists of my temperament, the artist is required to provide a local school program and donate a finished work that is mutually agreed upon. Artists live in park ranger housing near the visitor center, and stay for about six weeks.
How did you find this position? What was the application process like?
My family and I spent one spring break visiting Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon National Parks. While hiking in Grand Canyon, we stumbled upon the gallery space they maintain for the pieces donated by past AiRs. The idea piqued my interest and once we returned home I researched the various programs offered by parks. After much mulling I applied for the position at Badlands National Park. Their program details appealed to me more than most other parks, as did the landscape. As a lover of both deserts and prairies, Badlands is perfect. The application process required digital samples of work, recommendations, a letter of interest, and resume. Applicants are required to be of reasonable fitness and independent abilities in exploring the park. Once you submit your materials, you just have to wait and hope you get that phone call inviting you to go.
How does your art benefit the National Parks system?
At the very least, every AiR’s work benefits the park system by providing an interpretation of the park for visitors who encounter the displayed work. I hoped to do more, and pursued an exhibition at the Dahl Art Center in Rapid City, which is located at the edge of the Black Hills and just 80 miles from Badlands. With the park being in Rapid City’s backyard, I found myself keen to offer local residents an opportunity to see into some of the more isolated and remote locations within Badlands that I was fortunate enough to experience.Most of the locations represented in my upcoming exhibit lie within the South Unit of the park, which is located within Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. These lands hold historical and cultural significance beyond their aesthetic appeal. Landscapes represented in my exhibit are not readily accessible and I look forward to exposing local visitors to some of these hidden and incredible places. The South Unit lands area also noteworthy in that they are poised to become the first Tribal National Park, a separate entity from Badlands NP. The Washington Post published a good article on this last June.
Tell us about an average day when you’re doing ‘in residence’ work. How does it differ from a normal work day when you’re at home in Idaho?
Because every day is different and residencies can vary, I’ll describe my favorite days during my times in Badlands. I love spending the majority of the day outside, exploring the park. Most often this is with long day hikes, but sometimes there is an opportunity for me to tag along with park rangers and go out in an ATV or truck. The latter have been my exposure to the remote South Unit, with a couple chances to also hike there. Regardless, I love being outside for the day, self sufficient with food, water, supplies for the day as well as enough to survive if circumstances change. Coming home at night I will download photographs, cook dinner, meet up with a couple friends and reflect on the day.Another common day is to stay in and spend it privately, painting to music. My housing at the park has fantastic views on all sides; and I work next to the windows, opening them if weather permits. At home in Idaho, a typical week day is around six hours of painting in the studio book ended by a mix of the mundane: getting kids ready for school, bringing them, picking up, cooking, cleaning, paying bills, etc. I also am involved in a number of other activities from weekly life drawing with a group of artists to helping out at the kids’ school to teaching and leading a pipe band (bagpipes and drums). I have a much more simple and relaxed life while in-residence, which affords a different style of thinking while working.
What are the benefits of doing ‘in residence’ work? The drawbacks?
There are myriad benefits. Traveling for residency offers an isolated physical and mental space that I can’t duplicate at home while caring for my kids and negotiating everyday life. While I am away, I reconnect to myself and become more ‘me’ in a way. My first residency experience caused a bit of an epiphany, and I have managed to retain the more artistic mental space I was in, even while at home. It’s been great.Residencies vary, but I very much enjoy teaching as well as working with kids, both of which I’ve been able to do as part of my experiences. Career-wise, residency work can open up new opportunities and can connect you to others who enjoy your work that you would otherwise not have encountered. The only real drawback for me is that the time away from family can be a little challenging in some aspects, and there’s always a fair bit of work to catch up on life when I return home.
What advice would you give to other creatives who are interested in doing ‘in residence’ work?
Know yourself, your desires and needs, and do your research. Make sure the facility hosting the residency is reputable and make sure you are aware of their requirements as well as what your living situation will be. Once you have the logistics worked out, go and have fun!
Thanks so much, Jessica! I think it’s so important to see real life examples of people making a living in the arts. Are any of you guys full-time artists? How are you making your money?