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Artists find inspiration in nature and history of Everglades National Park


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Artists have long taken to the outdoors to do their work. Now an artist in residence program organized by the National Park Service puts a new emphasis on that important synergy.

Jeffrey Brown visited the Everglades National Park in Florida to see how artists in residence are creating and sharing their work in nature.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: The sights and sounds of Florida's Everglades National Park, a vast wetlands preserve that first opened in 1947, home to wondrous birds like the great egret, insects, including the lubber grasshopper, and yes, alligators, though with the waters so high during our hot summer visit, none showed themselves.

It's also home to something else, art.

Would you come out here every day kind of looking for what?,

Cornelius Tulloch, Artists in Residence in Everglades: Yes, so, really just looking for anything in the environment that really inspired me, looking more so...

Jeffrey Brown: Not hard to find, I guess, right?


Cornelius Tulloch: Not at all, you know?

And I think that's the beauty of being out here, is that you're in collaboration with nature.

Jeffrey Brown: Cornelius Tulloch spent a month here in January as part of a program called Artists in Residence in Everglades, or AIRIE, that's brought more than 190 artists to the park since its creation in 2001.

He grew up in Miami, just about an hour, but, in some ways, light years away, and had been to the park only for a school field trip. Now he wanted to use his art, which includes painting, architecture and photography, to capture what he came to see as a hidden history.

Cornelius Tulloch: This idea that, like, even within this natural environment, there's people who have lived through this space, that there's history, and although we may not see it now today in this kind of state of its ecology, but that history still lies here.

Jeffrey Brown: Daily moments in Everglades National Park today, transformed through color and lighting into scenes meant to suggest a lost presence, especially a little-known Black presence of workers and settlements in this area in the early part of the last century, and what can't be shown, from an earlier time, the so-called Saltwater Railroad, a version of the Underground Railroad, in which enslaved Blacks fled south to Florida, through these marshes, to boats that would take them to freedom in the British-held Bahamas.

Tulloch, whose father is Jamaican, was himself learning of this for the first time.

Cornelius Tulloch: That was something that surprised me. How did I not learn about this, you know, living in Florida, being in these spaces so nearby, and never hearing that my entire life?

Jeffrey Brown: They were going to the Caribbean.

Cornelius Tulloch: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: To places where you also have connections.

Cornelius Tulloch: Yes, yes. That transatlantic route backwards, I think that had a lot of power to me, especially as someone who's half-Jamaican.

And you can only imagine. We have the boardwalks to walk through and different things. What was this like for slaves or people moving through this landscape when you're in the pitch black dark? There's no, like, exact place for you to walk or go through.

So I think, in my images, I also tried to evoke this, a sense of like what it would feel like to traverse through this environment.

Jeffrey Brown: The American wilderness has been a subject for artists since at least the early 19th century, Thomas Cole's paintings of the Hudson River valley, Albert Bierstadt's Valley of the Yosemite, Thomas Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

These and other iconic images presented the natural wonder of the land and, in some cases, helped lead to efforts to preserve it through the creation of national parks. But they also often left the indigenous and other inhabitants out of the picture, erasing part of history.

Today, the National Park Service itself oversees artist residency programs in parks all over the country. And many artists are finding ways to widen the lens. The newest artist in residence at Everglades is Maya Freelon, who refers to herself as a found object scope sculptor.

She lives in North Carolina and was making her first ever visit to this park.

Maya Freelon, Artists in Residence in Everglades: I love working in a natural environment, one, because the wind plays with you too. I love how it dances and plays, but I also love how people react to something seemingly so fragile.

Something that my grandmother taught me.

Jeffrey Brown: The something so fragile is tissue paper, which she uses to create her own version of a quilt, made in collaboration with others.

She recently held a workshop at the park's visitor center.

Maya Freelon: Rip it in half.

Jeffrey Brown: It begins with tearing up strips and wetting them, letting the different colored papers blend into each other.

Maya Freelon: Yes, something is happening under there.

Jeffrey Brown: When they dry, the group comes together to glue their individual pieces into what becomes a 20-foot quilt.

Maya Freelon: She told me the stories about making something out of nothing and making a way out of no way.

Jeffrey Brown: Freelon says she learned from her grandmother, reworking the African American quilt-making tradition.

Maya Freelon: She tell me that the seam side is the one that is down, so you have one flat side. But I decided, as a sculptor and an artist, that the seam side out was much more interesting, delicate and beautiful.

OK, gently lift it up.

Jeffrey Brown: For her, coming here was an opportunity to help expand and diversify the residency program.

Maya Freelon: I love that their initiative to reach out and connect with African American artists to diversify what's happening here, but also to help expand the knowledge of this area.

Jeffrey Brown: Her tissue paper quilt sculpture will, the winds allowing, hang in trees along Long Pine Key Lake.

For his part, Cornelius Tulloch now has a new role, as the artists in residence program's head of culture and content.

Cornelius Tulloch: Not only connecting the artist to the landscape, but connecting the artist to the audience, to other people to show them all these great, amazing things that artists are doing in the park. This story needs to be told.

Artists are uncovering and finding this information, but helping them to convey that through whether it's social media or video or documentation of this experience that they are getting in the park, even like this, these type of conversations, to let people know that these are being had.

Jeffrey Brown: New ways of bringing together nature and history through art here and at national parks around the country.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Florida's Everglades National Park.

Judy Woodruff: So uplifting.

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