Past and Present Hockaday Artists-in-Residence Answer the Call to the Wilderness

Writers from the Artist Wilderness Connection Program reflect on their experiences for the program’s 20th anniversary celebration

By Cathy Li
Artists Gini Ogle and Francesca Droll partnered in the Artist Wilderness Connection (AWC) program in July 2017. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this summer, the AWC program grants artists time in a remote forest service cabin, affording them an opportunity to draw inspiration from their wilderness surroundings and practice their craft. Photo courtesy of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation

In an interview with the environmental journal Split Rock Review, writer Michael Garrigan said there is more to wilderness than the natural world; “there is spirituality and identity.” 

“If you were to ask what has shaped me most both as a person and spiritually, I would have to say the river,” he said.

Another writer, Max Owens, said in an interview with the Beacon, “Time in nature has been a huge influence on my writing. In one way or another, most of my writing comes back to a central question: What’s the nature of our relationship with the natural world?”

These two artists have more in common besides exploring the natural world through art. Both are alumni of the Hockaday Museum of Art’s artist-in-residency program, the Artist Wilderness Connection, which was born 20 years ago out of a partnership between the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, Swan Valley Connections and the Flathead National Forest. Every summer, the program affords two artists the chance to spend one to two weeks in remote forest cabins in July, August, or September. After their experiences in the backcountry of the Flathead National Forest or the Bob, the selected artists share aspects of their wilderness residency with the public, either through a public presentation or a workshop.

Promoting and preserving the wilderness has always been integral to the Hockaday Museum of Art’s mission, organizers said. Indeed, visitors familiar with the 120-year-old Carnegie Library building that houses the museum are familiar with its flare for featuring local Montana artists, as well as its role in enriching the cultural life of the communities ringing Glacier National Park.

Alyssa Cordova, the executive director of the Hockaday Museum of Art, said the unique, secluded environment compels artists to make artwork inspired by the surroundings in the wilderness.

Owens, the writer, spent a week at Shaw Cabin in the southwest corner of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, exploring the nearby drainages, mountains and trails, while documenting his discoveries via StoryMaps, an interactive digital storytelling platform. Garrigan stayed in Spruce Park Cabin, in the Great Bear Wilderness, working in solitude on his poetry and body of written work.

“The two weeks I spent at the Spruce Park Cabin were, and I don’t put this lightly, life-changing,” Garrigan said.

The Hockaday Museum of Art in Kalispell. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Last month, the museum celebrated its 20th anniversary of the Artist Wilderness Connection Program with free admission to its reception and exhibit. The anniversary coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964, a federal land management statute crafted to protect federal wilderness, including creating and permanently preserving the Bob Marshall Wilderness. The event was sponsored by the Glacier National Park Conservancy and the Kalispell Walmart, with Bias Brewing donating local craft beer. Live music by Donnie Rifkin set the tone for the evening.

“One of the reasons for doing this exhibit was to bring back the artists for a reunion of sorts,” Cordova said.

Visitors, as well as recent and past participants of the program, sat for a presentation by painter and muralist Griffin Foster, and then flitted around for reception, all the while taking in the vast catalog of works on display.

The exhibit featured over 50 artworks, from journals to sculptures, all of which were collection donations from participating artists since 2004. Myni Ferguson, one of the first recipients of the residency, was in attendance.

River Theology,” a Garrigan poem, hung on one of the walls. Though he was not in attendance, his voice was; like the 13 other artists who recorded their reflections, the audio recording of Garrigan’s voice was broadcast to the audience.

It can be easy to miss the many written works in the showcase. However, for many artists, regardless of their craft, writing was incorporated into their practice, like journaling or note-taking for their creative process.

Garrigan, who also teaches writing, said, “I say this almost every day in my classroom in one way or another: writing is an expression of who you are and what you believe. I think it’s incredibly important, necessary in fact, to be able to express yourself and to participate in conversations regarding the big ideas.”

Regardless of form, Artist Wilderness Connection artists are answering the central question that Owens initially posed, including Owens himself. What is the nature of our relationship to the natural world?

“Art is a window into a way of understanding that which is too large or too complex,” he said.

The anniversary show opened on June 28 and will run until Oct. 26. The Artist Wilderness Connection residency is pausing applications this year for the exhibition. Applications for 2025 will open on Oct. 15, 2024. Find out more about the application process here.

More information about events and exhibitions at the Hockaday Museum of Art can be found on hockadaymuseum.com.

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