For artists in residence, wilderness is setting and subject

Andrew Travers
The Aspen Times
Wilderness Workshop artist-in-wilderness Michelle Podgorski at work in the woods above Marble.
Sarah Johnson/Courtesy photo |

Along with paints and brushes and the like, a select group of artists are adding hiking boots and topographical maps to their studio materials.

The Carbondale-based conservation watchdog nonprofit Wilderness Workshop is bringing five artists into the woods this year through its artist in residence program, drawing applicants from the Roaring Fork Valley, across the U.S. and around the world.

On a recent morning, shortly after dawn, North Carolina painter and Wilderness Workshop artist-in-residence Michelle Podgorski set off on a rugged, rarely used trail in the hills above Marble. With a workshop guide and this reporter in tow, she studied a map in search of a lily-strewn lake and an old U.S. Forest Service station.

Arriving at the lake after about an hour, Podgorski sat among sage brush with a watercolor palette and paper. In a morning silence punctuated with the birdsong of swallows and the splash of jumping fish, she made a watercolor sketch of the lake, reflecting in its water a mountainside pocked with aspen and pine groves.

The residency brought Podgorski to a Marble-area cabin owned by Karen Teague. Based there, without running water or electricity, she spent a little more than a week walking and painting — making color studies of aspen leaves, sketching tree knots and scenes such as the idyllic mountain lake.

Podgorski arrived with a 15-painting goal in mind, but quickly realized she’d surpass it. She’d completed three paintings by the end of her first full day in the cabin, where there was little else to do but read and hike.

“Solitude is an interesting thing,” she said. “It definitely does change the work because I can focus a lot more.”

Founded in 2008 to honor watercolorist and wilderness advocate Dottie Fox, the Artist in Wilderness program has brought multiple artists — working in a variety of media — to ranches and remote cabins in and around the Roaring Fork Valley. Participants are chosen by a jury of artists and collectors. This year, five artists will work in residency, including Carbondale abstract painter Ellen Woods and Ohio-based painter Steven Walker.

“Art and wilderness have quite a lot in common if you just open your eyes,” said Wilderness Workshop boardmember Mary Dominick-Coomer. “Art is all around us. The initial idea was, ‘Why not have an artist in the wilderness and capture their impressions?’”

Artists are free to do what they like with their time in the wild. The nonprofit requires participating artists to donate one piece of work to be auctioned off for Wilderness Workshop’s benefit. The first auction of Artist in Wilderness works included 14 of their pieces and took place in the summer of 2014. It raised about $70,000. (Artists also must license additional works for Wilderness Workshop materials, such as notecards and posters.)

The auction functions as both a fundraiser and a unique kind of outreach, aiming to bring art collectors who might not otherwise interact with a wilderness advocacy group into the fold and to see the value in protecting public lands.

“It’s quite different from going on a hike or taking part in a political movement to save the Thompson Divide,” Dominick-Coomer said. “We hope that (collectors) continue to support us because they like Wilderness Workshp and not necessarily because they like buying art.”

In 2008, the program received six applications. This year, as word has spread, it received 36.

Among the work that caught the eye of the Workshop this year was Podgorski’s “Directional Pruning” series. These watercolors depict trees, limbs and trunks that have been cut and shaped to maneuver their growth around human infrastructure, such as power lines. She left the power lines out of the paintings, leaving only oddly shaped and deformed trees for the viewer without context.

A Connecticut native who now paints and teaches in Charlotte, Podgorski is deeply interested in depicting the interaction between humans and nature. It led her to paint the manicured lawns and meticulously arranged shrubbery of suburban Connecticut as a teen. And it led her into the forest here to find an abandoned Forest Service station. It’s what fascinated her about a large old piece of metal rusting in an otherwise pristine meadow high above Marble.

Back in Charlotte, she’s painted trees that line the heavily polluted South Fork River, focusing on the way the poisoned water shows itself as it cycles through scars of the trees. Those paintings are often abstracted, showing the scars in isolation without the tree and the forest.

What does she want viewers to take away from such work?

“I don’t see my work as presenting a political agenda,” she said. “ I want to represent nature in a powerful way. Even though the subject matter is how humans impact nature, I think that at the end of the day I want people to see that nature is more powerful than us. Despite whatever we’ve done to it, it will still thrive.”

Podgorski often works from photos when painting — she snapped them constantly in her wanderings around Marble. Early in her career, she would often diligently reproduce those images in paint. But she’s moved toward more impressionistic, sometimes abstract, interpretations. She often works in large scale on massive scrolls of watercolor paper that roll from ceiling to floor.

“I take what I learned in that image and the subject matter and expand it from there,” she said. “(The paintings) are based on what I’m seeing right now and my experience of it and my memory of it.”

She plans to show the work made and inspired during her residency at a solo exhibition at Raleigh’s Artspace in December.

During her time in Marble, she made mostly small watercolor sketches like the one she completed beside the lake. She hoped to bring that work back to Carolina and make large-scale paintings from them. Among the ideas hatched during her time here was painting a nearly life-sized aspen tree on a 10-yard length of paper, inspired by a tree beside her cabin.

“I’ve probably stared at that tree for eight hours already,” she said.