Friday, January 28, 2011

Homestead's Artist in Residence: Mel Mann talks about the process (Part 1)

Mel Mann talks about the application process for
Artist in Residence program at
Homestead National Monument of America (Part 1)

During my time at Rocky Mountain School of Photography (RMSP) I realized that simply seeing something different was only part of the artistic journey, that bringing meaning to the vision is an integral part of connecting the viewer to the story of the image. It was with that challenge in mind I decided to apply for one of the artist-in-residence (AIR) spots offered by the National Park Service.

I learned about the program from a 2009 RMSP classmate, did research on which parks were offering (around 29 in 2009), selected a few I wanted to learn more about through my camera and began the application process. The AIR programs offer an individual the opportunity to immerse in a park’s environment, history, community, etc. in ways that casual visits just can’t satisfy. Most programs provide accommodations in the park that run from one to three weeks during different parts of the year. Rarely is a stipend provided although some consideration may be made for materials required for the final work; the contribution of an original piece to the park on a non-exclusive, royalty-free basis is usually part of the program requirements. Other aspects usually include public presentations or involvement in park educational activities where the artist’s work enhances the public’s experience.

What did I need to apply? Most of the parks required submission of an artist statement outlining what the artist expected to gain from the residency and how the park would benefit from their work. All wanted to see samples of your work but rarely more than six images, usually printed or on CD. And of course they wanted an artist resume outlining experience, prior residencies, awards, shows, etc. The descriptions of the requirements made the whole process feel daunting – who was I to want to be considered among all the other wonderful artists from all media who would certainly apply?

Remember the first time you prepared for a portfolio review or decided to show some images to an audience or simply put together an album for friends? If you’re like me your feelings run through a cycle that starts with “I’ve got so many images to choose from,” moves quickly to “Wow, most of my stuff is just crap,” transitions to “Is this all I’ve got to show for all these days/months/years of making pictures?!” followed by “Why did I get into photography in the first place?” and lands on a very few pictures you hesitantly decide might be good enough to share. It was with these feelings I finally picked images for my AIR applications, put together a very brief resume, wrote up an artist statement and bundled them all into envelopes destined for the various parks I’d selected.

Most parks have enlisted local artists to judge the applications along with staff members of the park, balancing the interests of portraying the park’s features with a sense of the type of artists who will benefit the most from the experience. It’s easy to think of such a panel of steely-eyed critics as a formidable barrier but in reality they are looking to help artists as well as the park. Many of the artists on the panels were in the AIR program at one or more National Parks. The judging and announcement times are all outlined in the application process and I found their responses to be right on schedule.

Several rejections later (all by gracious letter encouraging me to apply again later) I got a call from Allison La Duke, the AIR coordinator at Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, NE informing me I’d been selected for one of their 2009 artists, and wanting to know when I wanted to schedule my time there. Outstanding! Not only did I get selected but by one of the parks at the top of my list (I’m still learning about the Great Plains) and one near home as well. I selected two weeks in the spring and a week in the fall so I could get different perspectives on the park and started planning my summer.

[Photos by Mel Mann; taken during his residency.]

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