Donna Marxer grew up in the 1930s and 1940s in Miami, before invasive pythons and voracious real estate developers encroached on the Everglades’ homeland, at a time when its vastness and rich ecology were not as threatened as it was. ‘today.
Over time, Marxer pursued a career as an artist and moved to New York City, but his concern for the Everglades remained. In 2001, a year after the publication of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan (CERP), Marxer came up with the idea of contributing to conservation efforts in the best way she knew how: through art. She will spend the rest of her life devoting herself to her two greatest passions, art and the Everglades.
When Marxer learned that Congress was signing CERP, a major wetland restoration project underway to restore and protect what remains of Florida’s “river of grass”, she was full of hope.
Recalling her childhood memories of a less threatened wetland, she realized that art could be a tool to help people see the beauty of the land she worshiped. She wrote a letter to her congressman proposing an artist residency program inside Everglades National Park as a way for artists to record and perform the earth and, through this intimate experience, to become ambassadors of the Everglades.
The letter was quickly passed on to Alan Scott, then District Interpreter for Everglades National Park. Together, Scott and Marxer created the Artists in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE) program.
Twenty years later, AIRIE celebrates its commitment to conservation through art by exhibiting an investigation of the works of art created by AIRIE artists in Everglades National Park. Since its founding in 2001, AIRIE has brought over 190 artists to the park for month-long residencies during which they live and work in the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States. Opening on July 19, the show will feature works by Marxer, who died in 2018 at the age of 84, and other artists who have become loving ambassadors of the Everglades through the program.
“It was a passionate job for her,” says Scott, current head of resource education and interpretation. “People know about Marjory Stoneman Douglas and her support for the Everglades. Donna Marxer was the same. She basically decided to do something for the Everglades, and she did.
By partnering with AIRIE, the Everglades National Park has raised awareness of the threatened resource on a larger scale and to an audience who would otherwise have no interest in wildlife.
“What goes outside the park boundaries affects wildlife, and the park itself is the downstream recipient of all sins committed by the people and the state of Florida,” Scott said. “AIRIE is a way for people who would never normally be involved in the Everglades or Everglades restoration to get involved. Each of them thus became a speaker, a spokesperson or an ambassador of the Everglades. ”
The exhibition will present photographs, paintings and video works produced by scholarship holders during or after their stay at AIRIE.
Jose Elias, who was in residence in January 2016, focused his work on communication between species, traveling to Lake Okeechobee and across the backcountry to capture the audio of the animal kingdom in the field. Five years later, thanks to a process he describes as “osmosis”, he created the “Everglades Songbook Suite” in collaboration with Live Arts Miami and various musicians.
The “Everglades Songbook Suite,” which will be on display at the Anniversary Show, is a collection of improvised compositions and soundscapes that celebrates the sights and sounds of the Everglades by juxtaposing a variety of acoustic instruments with recordings on field. The short honors the natural flow of the Everglades, featuring compositions ranging from a peak sunrise on the Anhinga Trail to an intimate prayer song on the Mahogany Trail performed by Seminole artist Samuel Tommie, with the aim ultimate to attract people to the majesty of the glades.
“The Everglades are tough, but they’ll never be the same again,” says Elias. “We are the stewards of the earth. Hope this project moves forward so that people are aware of their footprint no matter where you live, be it Hialeah, Miami Lakes or Westchester – it was all swampy.
One of the projects launched by AIRIE in 2015 was the purchase of promotional advertising space to highlight the work of scholarship holders. As a federal agency, the National Park Service cannot do marketing on its own. While many other national parks receive tourism money from the state to market their parks, the state of Florida has other tourism destinations that have historically taken precedence in the marketing budget.
“We’re one of the most treasured national parks here, and the state of Florida doesn’t see us as the main thing – not in a marketing sense, at least,” Scott said. “AIRIE put up the billboard for people to experience the art of the Everglades as they walked down the toll highway or 95, and it had a lot of impact.”
Franky Cruz’s photo series and performance, A kind of heron, presented on an AIRIE billboard in 2015 and part of the anniversary show, presents the artist transformed into a heron at the bottom of a cypress dome. During his residency in 2015, the local artist ingested information about the plume
“Art in itself is a tool of communication, and maybe an object will touch someone in a way that someone preaching to it won’t, or an advertisement won’t.” , explains Cruz. “Something like this photo that I took – it’s like you’re in that environment, it’s such a thing outside of what people do in their daily lives, it makes them curious about it. ”
Cruz, who grew up in Hialeah, always felt intrinsically connected to nature but never had direct access to it until he intentionally searched for it via AIRIE and the Everglades. While there, a park ranger took him on off-road tours, giving him a deeper admiration for the delicate cycles of the earth and how his work could leave a lasting impact. He experimented with natural pigments and learned to pay more attention to his imprint.
“I am nature,” he said. “For a long time I used to spray paint on the walls. I realized what I was doing. Do I just paint more and splash harmful chemicals on things? Why can’t I find another way that matches what my footprint will be, what my impact will be on how the job is done.
After 20 years and nearly 200 artists in residence, AIRIE will continue to highlight the state of the Everglades in the hope of supporting the earth’s natural cycles as Marxer and Scott always intended.
20th anniversary exhibition of AIRIE. On view until March 2022, at the AIRIE Nest Gallery inside the Ernest F. Coe Visitor Center, 40001 State Hwy. 9336, family property; arie.org. Free entry.