Salida Ranger District's First Artist in Residence Program

by Chris Sukach, Public Affairs Specialist

Blue and green watercolor of Mount Yale on a topographical map of the same location.

A watercolor of Mount Yale created on a topographical map of the same location created by artist Jill Madden during her residency in the summer of 2021 with the Salida Ranger District. (Courtesy photo by Jill Madden.) See more Artist in Residence work here.

Last year marked the first of an annual Salida Ranger District Artist in Residence program. The immersive experience, which invited professional artists to spend 14 days in the natural surroundings of the national forest around Salida, Colorado, resulted in photographs, watercolors, wood block prints and paintings on topographical maps that offer viewers the chance to experience public lands in perhaps unexpected ways.

“A lot of times we’re very focused on policies and science and hard facts and basing decisions off that,” said Connor Maher, Volunteer and Partnership Coordinator for the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management’s Upper Arkansas Valley, who was also the lead for this year’s Artist in Residence program. “I think there’s a lot to be said for other sources of information or reasons to make decisions that aren’t purely based on facts. And I think art is one of them. It helps people view things in a different way.”

After receiving more than 30 applications from across the nation in everything from music, film, dance, photography and painting, reviewers invited four artists to spend time in the forest. The review team, which included Forest Service employees as well as artists from the local area, asked selected applicants to create pieces based off their experiences, focusing on the theme Before and After.

“Once we got a bunch of applications from very qualified professional artists, it was a lightbulb moment that there’s something here,” said Maher of the uncertainty that accompanies any new project or venture. “Part of it was just the potential and excitement of it that it actually panned out.”

Jill Madden, a landscape artist who also paints scenes onto topographical maps, was selected to participate the district’s inaugural program. In addition to painting Mount Yale onto a topo map of the same location during her residency, she also hosted an outdoor class near Ptarmigan and Cottonwood Lakes for those in the Buena Vista, Colorado, area.

“The sketching workshop was really great as it connected me with some locals and would be well worth doing again,” said Madden. “It was great to see different generations coming out to interact.”

Melissa Markle, a documentary, editorial and brand photographer who was also chosen for the program, spent some time in the Buffalo Peaks Wilderness Area on the South Park Ranger District with Salida District Wildlife Biologist Stephanie Shively and Colorado Natural Heritage Program Wildlife Biologist Scott Schneider, where they were conducting research on a breeding site of the state’s endangered boreal toad. 

“She photographed metamorphs piled up on a little island of moss with tadpoles surrounding them in the water,” said Shively of a group of tiny boreal toads Markle shot during their visit. “One of the cool things about that photo is it shows that there might only be a square foot of land where all these metamorphs can develop across thousands of acres.”

“I definitely enjoyed the short time I had in the district,” said Markle. “Meeting up with some of the amazing people doing research for the betterment of the environment and wildlife was humbling and encouraging.”

Robin Bundi, a watercolor artist who painted mushrooms that popped up during the summer rains of her residency, also helped crews repair some trails during her time on the forest.

“Although they weren’t being used anymore, water was deepening channels where the path used to be. To create a landscape where grass and plants could take root, we dug rocks into the channels,” said Bundi. “I worked on a piece of what the future channels will look like; one where wildflowers blossom among the rocks.”

Salida Council for the Arts president Ken Brandon, who was also on the review committee for this year’s program, said the Council would like to be even more involved in the program by possibly hosting workshops and exhibitions or social gatherings during future residencies.

“My impression of the Forest Service’s Artist in Residence Program was very favorable, and I enjoyed meeting with a couple of the artists,” said Brandon.

“He was a great guide into the art world of Salida,” said Bundi of Brandon. “I got the opportunity to showcase some of the pieces I created for the Salida Council for the Arts’ Creative Mixer. It was a great way to connect with the community and other artists.”

Organizers of the project were inspired to offer the residency program after a new district employee mentioned they had done something similar on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska. During their two-week stays, artists had the option of staying at either the Dawson Cabin on the Leadville Ranger District or the Bassam Cabin on the Salida Ranger District.

“The first week, my husband accompanied me to the Bassam Cabin in the Four Mile Management Area,” said Amy Grogan, a residency artist who specializes in wood block printing. “We were amazed such a large open meadow and aspen mixed landscape existed near the busy town of Buena Vista. We explored a different area every day.”

Grogan also noted subtle differences between the landscape of central Colorado and that of the more southern portion of the state.

“One observation I had is that the rock in this area is noticeably whiter, more chalk colored than in the San Juans where I am from,” she said referencing the mountain range that extends from southwestern Colorado into northwestern New Mexico. “It made the color palette different than what I am used to for my work.”

“We were very deliberate about making this program accessible to someone who hasn’t maybe ever experienced recreating on public lands or using public lands as their medium for their art,” said Ben Lara, Salida Ranger District Recreation Program Manager, about efforts to house and provide support to visiting artists during their residencies.

Lara said residency artists also shared with district employees techniques used in creating their art, which facilitated learning for the Forest too.

“We focus on the things we work on,” said Quinn Baur, Salida Ranger District Administrative Support Assistant, who assisted with the program. “We might notice the trail conditions or the metamorphs and seeing something from a non-technical perspective is a two-way street. I think it granted learning opportunities for both parties, which I thought was cool.”

“I think the other cool thing that happened with the program is, because we are tied to the community, it connects the Forest Service to the art community here in Salida,” said Lara of the collaboration that happened in order to make the residency possible. “Meeting these artists, understanding that the Forest Service is actually interested in art, I think that helps make public lands and the Forest Service relevant to even more people.”

The effort reminds Maher of a time when lands were first set aside for public use. Images created by landscape photographers like Timothy H. O’Sullivan, William Henry Jackson and Carleton E. Watkins in the mid-late 1800s provided a glimpse of the West’s grandeur to those who could not physically travel here. The photos also helped sway legislators at the time to set aside some of these lands for protection.

“Back when public lands were first being designated, most people hadn’t seen them and the only way they heard about them or saw them was through art,” said Maher. “And that was enough for them to put all that land aside or designate it. You don’t always have to see it. Sometimes the piece of art—the story that comes along with it—is just as good or better.”