By Trong Gia Nguyen, AIRIE
We arrived at the AIRIE residency late Sunday morning on November 25, over two weeks ago. So apologies for this belated post, which comes right after Art Basel week in Miami, where I worked organizing a room exhibit at the satellite fair Aqua, and also helped a colleague man his booth at Art Miami. It was a fun-filled, draining week, and I am happy to be back in the swamp. Since there is no Internet in the park, and slight smart phone reception (thanks Sprint!), this delayed transmission is coming to you courtesy of the local –by that, I mean 30 minutes away– Starbucks in Florida City.
NOV. 25-DEC. 2
We drove the turnpike south before sunrise in an old Chrysler minivan I’d just bought in Orlando the week prior. We segued off onto Old Dixie Highway, past a mega shopping outlet, past numerous strip malls, took a left on 192nd, picked up a few groceries from the Robert Is Here fruit stand, flew by some farm lands and the Alligator Grill, made a right at the big Dade correctional facility, past more farmlands and blue skies, and finally made it to our concrete bungalow inside Everglades National Park. We got out of the car and stretched. It was warm and sunny. My kinda winter.
I’m here until the end of the year, while Rebecca is back and forth from New York. She only has a total of two and half weeks to navigate the vast park and produce work, so the priority this week will be on her project, which involves shooting the Everglades landscape by day and night using artificial lights and window curtains (sans windows) to frame mother nature. We walk over to the maintenance complex to locate a small generator we would need for the night work, and thank the heavens, they had exactly what we needed. My sister in Daytona had lent us a heavy duty one, which weighs almost 150 lbs. So now we do not have to lug it about, and still have it as back up. We go to the Park Headquarters, meet Kevin the volunteer coordinator, sign our official documents and get our badges, and away we go.
On day one we strolled the immediate grounds in our ‘”hood” and encountered a few park volunteers and “interpreters,” nature lovers who annually make their way here in Winnebagos and trailers, then set up camp for a few months inside the park, near our place. We meet two very nice fellas, Charlie (from New York, of course!) and Mike from North Carolina. It’s a wonderful sight seeing people care beyond the gates of suburbia and give of their time and energies to something so simple and obvious without expecting any returns, sort of like the lottery. It’s also pretty cool seeing them personalize their temporary patios with grills, Christmas decorations and satellite dishes underneath portable awnings. Officially, the artists in residence are park volunteers as well!
The second day involved more prep work. We went 20 minutes into town to find some local thrift stores to look for drapes and cheap work clothes. Thank you Goodwill and Salvation Army – who gave us that day’s senior discount. A quick stop at the Home Depot for a curtain rod and we’re ready for some action! By the way, we can’t get over how nice, knowledgeable, and helpful employees actually are in the ‘glades. Shout out to Dwayne at the Post Office, who handled the queue singlehandedly with enduring patience and what might only be described as an artisanal mullet. If this were our local Greenpoint Brooklyn USPS, those shameful chick clerks with a bad attitude would have busted out a bottle of Jerry Springer on us.
There is one main road in Everglades National Park that stretches for about 40 miles, with offshoot paths leading to sites of interest that are easily accessible. The first stem, Royal Palm, is about 5 miles from us. We checked out its two short walking trails and familiarized ourselves with the red gumbo tree, aninghas, and a few lethargic alligators.
The sun was quickly fading so we rushed to the next two stems to do some more scouting. Long Pine Key is the camping area, with a nice lake and a tiny, weather-damaged amphitheater. We will definitely want to come back here for a few shots. Further along is Mahogany Hammock, a short boardwalk trail with dense hardwood trees clustered and branching overhead, housing strangler figs and the largest living mahogany tree in these United States. Back on the asphalt we avoided a diamondback rattlesnake that was crossing the road. We turned our car around for a closer look. It raised its head and frontal torso, giving a dirty glance. Warning heeded.
Back at base camp we shovel some food then grab all the gear for the first night shoot. Camera. Check. Lights. Check. Bug spray. Check. Fear factor. Check.
On the main road again on a very black early evening, we ride slowly past the sawgrass, prairies, and sloughs. Every 50 meters felt like a possible stopping point, so we looked for isolated trees as a focus. We found a deserted palm and began there. We set up a dark gray curtain on tripods to frame it, then started the generator and lights. So far so good. We lit the tree with one source, while using small flashlights to accent the drapes. Rebecca was shooting with a medium format camera, taking short long exposures. We will have to wait until the film comes back from New York to see how they turn out. But she feels good about it.
The bugs and mosquitoes were having a feast of our flesh. The camo army fatigue shirt that Becky (we’ve made it to the nickname stage now) picked up at the Salvation Army is coming in handy. Tomorrow I might opt for a mosquito net sweater and hoodie. Holding a hot lamp is one sure way to attract the bugs.
A volunteer researcher driving the dark roads stopped and checked on us. He was keeping an eye out for pythons to count! He seemed overly excited at the task, and I pictured in my head Walter White running one of his “errands” before coming home late for dinner. But he assured us we had nothing to fear, except the other poisonous snakes. He motored on and so did we, stopping by two more spots for additional shots and calling it a night. After all, it was 9:30pm and getting late! The next morning we will try a sunrise shoot, hoping to catch some soft and radiant, angelic morning glory to illuminate the river of grass.
Fast forward to 6:30am. I have to say, the sunrise and sunsets in Florida never fail in delivering their celestial magic. We drive just past Picus Pond and locate a bunch of mangroves, bathing equally in the rising sun and declining moon… It was a bit windy, but very picturesque. Later in the afternoon, while driving to the Daniel Beard Research facilities, we ran into smoldering grounds from a prescribed, generative blaze that had blackened a small swath of the land. The gray monochrome it left behind was too good to pass up. A giant fallen tree with smoking roots beckoned the firewalkers inside of us, and Becky’s lens obliged.
The next few days were a repeating pattern of early morning and evening shoots, with day trips to more thrift stores in search of more kitschy Florida curtains. We drove over to Flamingo Plaza, a strip in Hialeah containing 5 or 6 shops that used to be a bargain. Now their prices are inflated, but for our needs, it’s cheap enough. We found a bunch of cool patterns and fabrics at Red White and Blue. Becky said it was the largest secondhand store she’d ever seen. I am determined to find my $20 secret Picasso.
The first week ended with a relaxing canoe ride (minus all the yelling back and forth at one another for our less than expert paddling and steering skills) at Nine Mile Pond. We learned about many more things, including cattails and tree islands. From a healthy distance, we even eyed the “mythic” 16 foot crocodile lazing by the water’s edge. All in all, a fabulous beginning!
Now, about that WiFi….