color photograph of a person wearing a hat, brown jacket, and dark brown long pants leaning towards a camera on a tripod overlooking the grand canyon
GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, AZ - FEBRUARY 8: The canyon is viewed from at sunset from the South Rim on Feb. 8, 2019, in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Shortly after President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone Act in 1872 and created the country’s first nature preserve, artists began to paint—and propagandize—the landscape. The lands were portrayed without their original stewards, making artists essential to the declaration of American freedom existing both in the West and in opposition to Native peoples. Through artists’ visualizations of the West and America’s “crown jewels” of Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks, the country established a conservation movement and further assimilated Native peoples into white culture. 

A century and a half later, artists are still making work in the country’s national parks, monuments, and preserves, drawing inspiration from the land to express personal stories, educate visitors, and communicate what some feel is an inherent spirituality of the landscape. 

At more than 50 residency programs run by the National Park Service and dozens run by the nonprofit National Parks Arts Foundation annually, artists can spend two-to-four weeks transmuting the landscape of Indiana’s sand dunes just west of Michigan City, Indiana, or the 1,000-year-old petrified tree trunks that dot eastern Arizona. Program operations vary by park, with foundations often responsible for establishing the criteria of acceptance and logistics of the programs. No publicly available database shows how many artists have utilized the programs.

Some contemporary artists are working far from, or even against, the origins of the residency programs they’re participating in by challenging structures of racism, settler colonialism, and climate denialism that feed the U.S. political economy. In doing so, artists experience and create visual reminders that liberatory practice must happen wherever we find ourselves, especially in systems built in opposition to that liberation. 

Visualizing the West, leaving the Hudson River School painters behind

Before cameras were widely available and used for artistic rather than documentary purposes, painting was the main way of sharing what Western landscapes and national parks looked like with the general public. A group known as the Hudson River School painters were some of the earliest white visitors to Yosemite and other national parks, deployed to capture scenes of great and sublime—nearly Godly—beauty. Essentially, the West and its lands were both the subject of and a metaphor for American politics: A wilderness existed outside of U.S. territories, and laying claim to it was their Manifest Destiny.

When photography technology allowed for images to be reproduced and widely distributed, photographers like Ansel Adams played a significant role in perpetuating the concept of the wilderness and the political ideology of conservation. According to Jarrod Hore, author of “Visions of Nature: How Landscape Photography Shaped Settler Colonialism,” these photographers took up a dual role. They simultaneously documented the “expansion of settlement, the conversion of many [Native] people’s lands into farmland, the expansion of railways, the deforestation of forests, [and] the removal and displacement of Indigenous peoples,” while also popularizing the idea of national parks. 

Hore traces the concept of the “wilderness” to the late 19th century when the national park system was founded. “Wilderness” implies a place without people, effectively erasing the history of Indigenous stewardship of the lands—and Indigenous existence since time immemorial altogether—and supplanting a settler-colonial structure on the land, one that objectifies the land as either as a resource to be exploited or as a possession to be conserved.

Or, as one scholar wrote in the Public Land & Resources Law Review in 2007, the Secretary of the Interior in the late 1880s “felt the new national parks should be managed to preserve ‘wilderness,’ in his mind defined as uncut forests and plentiful game animals. Because Indians hunted animals and set fires, preservationists came to view them as incapable of appreciating the natural world.”

In these romanticized portrayals of landscape, painting and photography expressed nostalgia for a time that never happened. Soon, national parks were converted into administrative sites where viewers could affirm a kind of national identity and achieve their Americanness, a settler-colonial structure in place.

It’s a kind of racism, which, having first taken place in the imaginations of the country’s photographers, later grew into more permanent changes in the environment through the extraction of fossil fuels. Climate change, the earth’s response to its own warming, has led to uncontrolled wildfires and exceedingly harmful droughts across the West in the past decade. In turn, the destruction enabled by the American belief in individual consumption and ignorance of the value of Indigenous land stewardship practices has perpetuated the ideals that led to the creation of the National Park System and prevented governments from substantively addressing climate change.   

Art in practice at national sites

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, a poet and essayist from the San Gabriel Valley in California and founder of the community Women Who Submit, participated in an artist residency program at Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in 2017. Over three weeks, Bermejo produced 20 poems, most of which reflected on the “strange and scary” background of the park—a mostly white space that glorified war. 

“My practice is about questioning,” Bermejo said. “The poem has to be a point of exploration and discovery. That’s why I think [poetry] is good for bigger questions about the world because you’re not going in [and] saying, ‘I know’ … It’s more like, ‘I’m in this space, and I’m trying to understand it.’ A good poem does that. It doesn’t explain; it discovers and moves.”

Bermejo grew up going to national parks in California, like Redwood and Sequoia national parks, and loved the work of transcendental writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. She even researched John Muir, one of the writers credited with the creation of Yosemite National Park. But in the past decade, Bermejo has learned more about Indigenous displacement, how the park system came to be, and what her role should be as an artist in reflecting on and respecting this history. 

For Bermejo, the poems she made at Gettysburg posed a challenge to American history rather than reified the glory proposed by the conservation movement. In the years since that residency, she’s learned how the conservation movement, coupled with the impacts of climate change—one heralded and the other under-addressed by the federal government—ends up “hurting these places because of the way we’re not letting natural things happen anymore because we’re trying to keep them frozen in a space [and time],” Bermejo said. 

For Mark Chen, a photographer and educator, his residency at Grand Canyon National Park is an opportunity to expand awareness of time for visitors. Chen aims to capture the mystery of how the natural world came to be by balancing the profound and the everyday. Through his photographs, which capture the movement of light against the backdrop of ancient rock formations, Chen experiences a “uniting [of] the heavenly and earthly for the first time, after they travel through time and space to us, that meeting at this brief moment when you and I are alive.”

In the artistic world, opinions differ as to what the purpose of art should be—whether it’s a mode of expression or tool for communication. Chen is clear on his aim: to educate viewers about the beauty and vulnerability of the natural world. 

“My goal is to provoke thoughts and to change behavior,” Chen said. In a country where only 57% of adults believe that climate change is caused by human behavior, Chen wants to help visitors understand what is lost when we don’t take action. 

Moving viewers emotionally, through photography or the combination of time and light, is a way of aiding scientists in their work, Chen said.

“Scientists need artists to speak for them,” Chen said. He explained that numbers don’t move people, and the facts and empirical data intended to warn people of the consequences of their actions can alienate them from the science that might help. 

In this way, a residency at a national park—in a country with one of the highest per capita pollution rates—offers a way to push back against the status quo. An ingrained denial of climate change, its impacts, and the actions that can be taken to ameliorate them might shift after a viewer sees the landscape in a new way that would not have been possible without a camera. 

Moving past the origins of national parks and sites 

White artist George Catlin was the first public advocate of a national park system in his1841 book, “Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indian.” At the time, American artists were attempting to develop an artistic practice that differentiated theirs from European romanticism and other styles: What they found were the landscapes of the soon-to-be American West, as well as its Indigenous stewards. 

Native peoples and tribes of the West were viewed with a particular racist exoticism, treated as objects, and rendered into the signature form of painters like Catlin, who, according to some, wanted to document Indigenous peoples as a service to an Indigenous archive. Nonetheless, Catlin’s paintings reified settler-colonial arguments of the “wild” and “civilized” and that these concepts could be mapped onto Indigenous peoples and tribes. And Caitlin’s history—rather than the many histories of those whose images he painted—is the history that’s widely known. 

For Cornelius Tulloch, a painter, photographer, and creative director of AIRIE, the Artists in Residence in Everglades program, time spent in residency can be a way of uncovering histories that settler-colonial structures tried to bury. Whether it’s Florida’s history of solidarity-building between Black and Indigenous peoples, how prolific Black painters in the mid-20th century created an archive of Black art, or how a Saltwater Railroad led enslaved people to freedom, AIRIE has allowed artists to bring history into the present and use it to inspire the future.

“So many artists were exploring this in so many ways and creating this tie to the landscape that many of us never fully had prior to the residency,” said Tulloch, who participated in AIRIE’s program before coming on as its creative director. “Even those of us who grew up in Florida … didn’t have that relationship built or understanding of access to that information.” 

Tulloch says that art is a unique medium with which to begin conversations because it can seduce the viewer into a subject matter, present a problem, and propose a solution all in one go. Such is the case with Lola Flash’s self-portrait of them dressed in a jumpsuit, handcuffed in the middle of the Everglades. Or take Francisco Masó, who made his own painting pigments out of parts of the landscape, like where the Civilian Conservation Corps contracted Black people and people of color to pick wild cotton and pull bull worms out of the plants in the Everglades during the 1930s. 

“As residency coordinator … I saw the power of storytelling that the artists were doing and [saw] artists as educators,” Tulloch said.

Ultimately, Tulloch said that he and other new leaders at AIRIE have been allowed to shape the residency into a place for rethinking the relationship between landscape and identity—how colonial structures dictated how identities were shaped, as well as how artists can create opportunities for reorienting identities. It’s a project that wouldn’t have happened without AIRIE, he said, and might not have been “happening with just the Park alone.”

“How do we create the outdoors as a place of belonging?” Tulloch wondered, the question which has also served as the guiding aim of the past two years of AIRIE’s operation. “And what does that mean?” 

Art shapes our perceptions and experiences of the world around us—and perhaps more importantly, the world within us, our beliefs, biases, ideals, and political affiliations. American settlers recognized that power, harnessing art over centuries to shape public opinion about land and who had a destiny or right to it. Now, artists who’ve experienced the legacies of the harm brought by settler-colonial governing structures—harms particularly acute for Indigenous and Black peoples—are inserting themselves into the places and structures that were built intending to exclude them.

“I think that’s why we have been getting so many artists who have wanted to build this relationship with the environment [they may have been excluded from previously] … where they now feel like they’re able to build that purpose,” Tulloch said.

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.