The Secret Lives of Parks

Expecting the Unexpected

Episode Summary

Photographers and artists helped make the case for America’s national parks. Today, a new generation of artists-in-residence keeps the vital connection alive in sometimes surprising ways.

Episode Notes

Host Todd Christopher explores the past and future of art in the national parks with Tanya Ortega, founder of the National Parks Arts Foundation, and shares works by former national park artists-in-residence including Matt Venuti, Rachel Panitch, Ben Cosgrove and Kurt Wheeler. 

Original theme music by Chad Fischer

Audio clips courtesy of the National Park Service 

Season One of The Secret Lives of Parks was brought to you by: 

Todd Christopher – Producer & Host
Jennifer Errick – Producer & Host
Ismael Gama, Jr. – Creative Content Specialist
Beverley Stanton – Online Producer 

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more at

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 3
Expecting the Unexpected


Todd Christopher: What if you could spend a couple of weeks doing whatever inspired you? Would you travel to your favorite national park, or maybe take that time to follow your creative muse? Can't decide between the two? What if you didn't have to choose? I'm Todd Christopher, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.

Todd Christopher: Pick almost any summit trail in Shenandoah National Park, and there are a few things you can count on. Like the sounds of Skyline Drive slowly giving way to the satisfying crunch of hiking boots. Or finding yourself in the company of Eastern hemlock, rhododendron, and mountain laurel. Or maybe even hearing the occasional croak of a raven or two. But if you had happened to be approaching just the right overlook at the right time the summer before last, you would have heard some ethereal, almost other worldly music. It just might have sounded like the mountain itself was singing to you.

Todd Christopher: That's the sound of an instrument called the hang. Imagine a steel drum shaped like a flying saucer, small enough to fit on your lap, and it's being played by a songwriter named Matt Venuti.

Matt Venuti: It just touches my heart so much to look out at this valley, for one thing, and just look at these beautiful, gentle, rolling hills that look like waves in the mist.

Todd Christopher: Venuti is just one of the many people who have taken a turn as Shenandoah's Artist-in-Residence over the past decade or so, a group that includes painters, photographers, musicians, and sculptors — even an artist who scorches fire drawings into wood and paper. They each spent three weeks living and working in the park and sharing their work with visitors in public programs.

Matt Venuti: It just hit me in a very, very positive, wonderful way, and it's inspired some beautiful music.

Todd Christopher: As unexpected as Venuti's music itself might have been, the link between the arts and the national parks should come as no surprise. It's a connection even older and stronger than memory. You only need to look at the petroglyphs and ancient rock art in places from Canyonlands, to Mesa Verde, to U.S. Virgin Islands national parks to see it. But there's also a more modern connection. In fact, you could argue that we owe the very existence of America's national park system to artists.

Tanya Ortega: There is a history of arts in the park that goes further back even than Yellowstone.

Todd Christopher: That's Tanya Ortega, an artist and photographer, and the founder of the National Parks Arts Foundation.

Tanya Ortega: The attribution of the national park system itself was attributed to somebody named George Catlin, who was from Pennsylvania and an artist in his own right.

Todd Christopher: Catlin was a self-styled portrait artist who, beginning in 1830, obsessively visited and painted members of nearly 50 Native American tribes, and he is widely recognized as the first person to express the national park idea. His vision was that there might be, in his words, "by some great protecting policy of the government preserved in a magnificent park, a Nation's park, containing man and beast, in all wildness and freshness of their nature's beauty." For many Americans at the time, that beauty remained unseen, and of course it took decades before that vision became a reality. But this was a time marked by the romanticism of writers like Cooper, Emerson and Thoreau, and the Hudson River School artists who painted landscapes bathed in an almost beatific light, and the public's fascination with America's wild places steadily grew.

Tanya Ortega: We've got this whole history and heritage of artists from Thoreau to Cole, Church — artists in where national parks would become, and artists in national parks that did become national parks, national monuments, national heritage areas.

Todd Christopher: What finally tipped the balance was the work of Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson, who brought the splendor of Yellowstone to life through their stunning sketches and photographs of that uniquely American landscape.

Tanya Ortega: When Congress saw that it was pretty much done. They had not seen anything like that between the sketches and the photography.

Todd Christopher: And so, thanks largely to the efforts of artists, the nation's — and indeed the world's — first national park was created when Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law on March 1st, 1872. Many more followed, and by 1916, there were nearly three dozen national parks and national monuments within the oversight of the Interior Department. Trouble was, they lacked clear and consistent management, and that left those magnificent places at risk. And it is at that point that the industrialist Stephen Mather, who was so concerned about the state of the parks that Interior Secretary Franklin Lane invited him to tackle the problem himself, went back to the same playbook. He recruited his longtime friend, the writer, Robert Sterling Yard, to create a book that showcased the majesty of the parks. They distributed more than a quarter million copies of the book, a lavishly written and illustrated volume called The National Parks Portfolio, including one to every member of Congress.

Todd Christopher: It's no coincidence that the Organic Act of 1916, which established The National Park Service, was signed just two months later. Mather and Yard, it should be said, followed that with quite an encore. Just three years later, they founded the organization known today as the National Parks Conservation Association, which has been protecting the parks for more than a century and makes this podcast possible. But we were talking about art, and its relationship to the parks may have changed over the decades, but it never faded. From the WPA posters of the 1930s, to Ansel Adams' iconic mid-century photography, to the minimal realism of Charlie Harper's work, and even the recent digital revival of the See America campaign, the arts and the parks have remained inseparable. Tanya Ortega explains why she thinks the connection endures.

Tanya Ortega: The thing about art is that it has no specific demographic. Everybody can respond and understand any kind of art in a way that is inspiring, whether it's music, whether it's paintings, whether it's virtual reality art. I mean, Hockney was going to Yosemite and doing things on the iPad when the iPad was “new” — I said that in quotes.

Todd Christopher: That would be British artist, David Hockney, whose works hanging on the walls of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Tate in London. Three years ago, his Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), sold for $90 million, setting a record at the time for the highest price ever paid for a living artist's work.

Tanya Ortega: I mean, Hockney — that's pretty great, and people look at what he was doing and go, “Wow!” These contemporary art media are a part of the parks, and are a tool to this inspiration and to interpretation.

Todd Christopher: The National Park Service interprets the arts in a wide array of park units. For starters, there's the living musical heritage of New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, or the literary legacy preserved at Carl Sandburg Home and Eugene O'Neill National Historic Sites, or even the timeless sculptures at Saint-Gauden's National Historical Park. As you might expect, all of these sites have hosted resident musicians, writers, and sculptors. But artist residency programs have been rising in popularity across the entire park system, from Denali to Death Valley to Dry Tortugas, where the artists can draw upon the inspiration of these incredible places to create new works. And the results are often as wonderful as they are unexpected.

Todd Christopher: Inspired by a charming secluded waterfall, the violinist Rachel Panitch wrote this lively tune, Menu Falls Jig, during her residency in Zion National Park.

Todd Christopher: At Isle Royale National Park, artist-in-residence Ben Cosgrove wrote an introspective solo piano piece called Grace Harbor, named for an inlet on the remote island.

Todd Christopher: And when saxophonist Kurt Wheeler visited Capitol Reef National Park as an artist-in-residence, he composed several jazz numbers, including this one called Sulphur Creek, named for the stream that carved an enchanting canyon in the park.

Todd Christopher: Since the 1960s, artist residencies in national parks have grown from a select few opportunities to dozens of programs that span the country and include everything from historical parks and urban settings to vast wilderness parks. The residencies are often tailored to each park, but generally last two, three or four weeks, and provide the artists with lodging and opportunities to share their work with park visitors.

Todd Christopher: Tanya Ortega knows a thing or two about all of this. She began working for the park service in 1988, spending time as a ranger and doing artistic interpretation in Yellowstone. Nearly 20 years later, she founded the National Parks Arts Foundation, an organization that has supported hundreds of programs and currently sponsors residency opportunities in sites ranging from Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park to Gettysburg National Military Park. A lifelong artist and park lover, she saw the potential for such programs to expand and enhance the interpretation of national parks.

Tanya Ortega: I knew I was an artist from the time I was six years old. That's kind of a given. How much art I'm able to do? That's a different story in itself. I started with the Youth Conservation Corps and was able to see the difference between what the Park Service did, what concessionaires did, what the SCA did, what groups like yours did, the NPCA does. Making that distinction was a real part of being able to say, "Wow, these parks are really for everybody, and there's so many different ways to interpret these." So I went to these parks that I just loved, that I grew up with, ones like Chaco, Grand Canyon, and basically knocked on their doors and said, "I would like to be an artist-in-residence. Here is my work." And I was like, "What do you need?" Because I know that the parks need something too. I wanted to give back to the parks for giving to me.

Todd Christopher: Ortega realized that an independent group facilitating arts programs could benefit not just artists and the park-going public, but the National Park Service as well. And in 2012, the National Parks Arts Foundation became a non-profit organization.

Tanya Ortega: I decided that this should be a non-profit and we should work with the National Park Service and structure something that did a couple of things. It took the work off of the plate of the NPS staff. We were able to fund it independently from various means. We were able to do something that the parks had wanted and bring it all together. I brought it all together, made a non-profit, and made it open so that anybody can apply for these.

Todd Christopher: That approach, she says, can lift up more voices and carry some of the burden for park service staff.

Tanya Ortega: We try to fund the artists themselves, and we try to get a broader view, more diversity. And that's why the park service calls us for the programs. Parks are protecting the park, and that is an incredibly important job. If we can take some work off of their plate and do this for the parks, then we've fulfilled one of our goals, and they can do their job of protecting the sacred places even better.

Todd Christopher: One thing that distinguishes their programs is their understanding of the artist's needs and perspective.

Tanya Ortega: We try not to ask too much of the artist. The reason for that is art itself cannot be pressured, not just the logistic part of it, to happen in any kind of time period. We let artists tell us and tell the parks what they are able to offer.

Todd Christopher: It is that freedom that creates an environment for the remarkable to happen. And Ortega is thrilled by what she's seen.

Tanya Ortega: I love that the parks right now are opening up to the other art media.

Todd Christopher: She tells the tale of a resident artist at Gettysburg, whose work pushed the boundaries of the ordinary park experience.

Tanya Ortega: He made a virtual reality program where you could deliver the Gettysburg Address as if you were Lincoln, and it attracted so many people. So many people, even of the younger generation, understood what this virtual reality was. I mean, can you imagine? Can you imagine walking in place and walking up to the podium, doing the whole thing? It just gives me chills to think about it. And it was so popular with the group that did come, that he had to do it again and again and again. And he created something that had not been done before with the new media.

Todd Christopher: And maybe that's what makes all of this so compelling. We go to the parks in part, because they seem to be unchanging. And in our imperfect human condition, we can take a kind of comfort in the billion year old rocks in the walls of the Grand Canyon and the regularity of Old Faithful. But part of us comes to the parks because we are also expecting the unexpected. The chance encounter with wildlife, the flower in the desert, the meteor streaking across an impossibly dark sky, the sunset too beautiful for words. These are the small moments that stay with us because it's all too big to hold onto. But isn't that exactly why art moves us in the first place? So where better than the parks to experience it or to create it?

Matt Venuti: I would come through the park and just dream about being able to stay here and be able to make some videos and record. So I looked up Shenandoah National Park artist-in-residency and I found that you have one.

Todd Christopher: That's musician Matt Venuti again.

Matt Venuti: People love to be around artists. They really do. Whether you're a musician or a visual artist, they want to see what you're up to. If you feel shy about that, or don't like that, that's fine too, from what I understand, depending on the artist-in-residency. So I would just say, find the place that inspires you the most and fill out the application.

Todd Christopher: Tanya Ortega also reminds would-be artists and residents that there are resources available to them, but encourages them to take the initiative.

Tanya Ortega: Don't limit yourself. Get a hold of us and maybe we can... We can't advise because we're not anybody's agent, but I can definitely tell my story of knocking on doors. There was nobody behind me when I did it saying, "Why don't you just make this happen?" Maybe they can listen to some podcasts like yours and get inspired to reach out to us and apply to our programs.

Todd Christopher: One thing is for sure, these days, we all could use some lifting up. But troubling times have a way of ending in artistic expression. And for that, Ortega is optimistic about the future for arts in the parks.

Tanya Ortega: One of the things that came out of this last year is people were forced to be with themselves and to reflect and say, what is important here? And a lot of people are saying, my art is important. The whole history of the parks is inspiration from Thoreau to Cole, all of these people. It's proven itself. Get out into nature, get out and be inspired, get out and see the beauty in just taking a walk, doing nothing, appreciating the simplicity of nature, of the parks.

Todd Christopher: And whether we are artists or just those they inspire, that is good advice for us all.

Todd Christopher: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode 3, Expecting the Unexpected, was produced by Todd Christopher. More at Original theme music by Chad Fisher. Audio clips courtesy of the National Park Service. Our pilot episodes were brought to you by the small but mighty team of Jennifer Errick, Bev Stanton, Ismael Gama, Jr., and Todd Christopher. Help us to keep them coming by sharing, subscribing, and—

Tanya Ortega: Wow, that's pretty great.

Todd Christopher: ...adding a review of The Secret Lives of Parks. For more than a century, NPCA has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, we are the Nation's only independent, non-partisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. Learn more and join us at