Trailblazer: Rebecca Lowry

Location: Los Angeles / Twentynine Palms, CA

Trailblazing Role: Artist and founder of Joshua Tree Art Innovation Laboratory (JT Lab)

I’m a Modern Hiker because: I like the reminder that Nature wasn’t made for me, I was made for Her.

Feelin’ good at Joshua Tree National Park / credit: Rebecca Lowry

Even if you’ve never peered into the depths of the Grand Canyon, stood beneath Yosemite Valley’s sheer granite cliffs, or watched the powerful explosion of Yellowstone’s geothermic geysers, you understand the compelling beauty of these places. You can probably even imagine exactly what they look like, a certain knowledge culled from an array of media you’ve been exposed to from childhood through the present day: paintings, sketches, photographs, literature, videos, and documentaries like Ken Burns’ PBS series The National Parks.

Whether you’ve ever stepped one foot inside a national park, you’ve probably been inspired by at least one of them thanks to someone else’s depiction. In this way, you’re not all that different from Franklin D. Roosevelt, who first viewed the magic of what he would later designate as Kings Canyon National Park through Ansel Adams’ evocative lens, as depicted in his book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. John Muir himself was equally successful in wooing politicians, including Teddy Roosevelt, with his eloquent writings – while he wrote persuasively and passionately about many places, his role in the creation of Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks cannot be overstated. In fact, we owe the very existence of our national parks to artists, including Thomas Moran, who traveled across the West with a government survey team, sketching and painting the natural wonders encountered along the way. His gorgeous paintings of what would become Yellowstone National Park were presented to Congress to help advocate the creation of not just that park, but the entire National Park Service.

As it turns out, artists make exceptional conservationists. Their efforts are woven throughout the history of our national parks, but they are also heavily involved in the parks’ contemporary stories, typically through an artist-in-residency program that features artists creating works inspired by their surroundings. However, what if artists can move beyond their own practices to once again effect change on behalf of the parks? That’s the hope of Otis College of Arts and Design lecturer – and artist – Rebecca Lowry, founder of the Joshua Tree Art Innovation Laboratory, or JT Lab. Far from a traditional residency program, JT Lab aspires to a higher calling: tapping into the artists’ creative reservoirs to act not in service of their own art, but to the park itself.

JT Lab launched in October 2016, partially funded by a grant secured through the “Imagine Your Parks” initiative, a collaboration between the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Park Service in celebration of the former’s semicentennial and the latter’s centennial. The project is a natural extension of Lowry’s own work, considering her experience with both traditional residencies and independent projects in a number of parks, including Grand Canyon National Park, Joshua Tree National Park, Lava Beds National Monument, and Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve.

In Rebecca’s words, JT Lab is “a set of experiments that test ways that the creative community can contribute to the National Park Service in a more substantive way than they can or do right now.” Though she describes the project and its components as “less glamorous and more infrastructural” than perhaps, say, hosting an opera at the park, the initiative is already offering value to the park and its visitors.

JT Lab’s first “experiment” (xA) is dubbed the Embedded Art Professional – in a word, Lowry herself, who works to build relationships across the park’s multiple departments to tackle “special projects and creative problem solving.” In essence, Lowry’s creativity and unique perspective as an artist will allow her to offer innovative solutions on how to engage visitors, and suggestions on how to address challenges within the park.

Artists’ Tea – featuring custom built all-terrain tea cart / photo: Jenny Kane

The second component of JT Lab is xB, the Volunteer Art Program. This portion is helmed by artist and climbing guide Jenny Kane, who’s already created a recurring event called Artists’ Tea. Modeled after the park’s popular Climbers Coffee program, visitors head over to Cap Rock on Sunday mornings to caffeinate and enjoy an artist-led presentation and conversation. While Kane is busy cooking up even more ambitious projects, another component of xB is its Artist Programs, where artists across the media spectrum can apply to host visitor programs within the park. Explains Lowry, “Such a diversity of people come to the park, and David [Smith, Park Superintendent], in particular, wants an even more diverse group of people to come. The thing is, not everybody in the country is engaged by what ranger programs usually discuss, but maybe somebody would want to listen to what a writer has to say, or a musician.”

The final component of JT Lab, xC, is Future Park/Art Professionals, an initiative that will link up students from Otis College of Art and Design and Copper Mountain College with high school students for a unique mentorship program. “Jennie Albrinck at the park – the Chief of Interpretation and Resource Education – she had run a similar program at Badlands National Park…so she wanted to kind of try that program again, but with an art twist,” says Lowry. The college students will mentor the high schoolers so that “when they’re doing their interpretation unit, they’re basically going to be coming up with creative projects that will in some way reach out to their own demographic…trying to engage with them as peers.”

To dig a bit further into the mission of JT Lab, the importance of artists’ involvement in the national parks, and Lowry’s personal connection to the land, I met up with her in Joshua Tree for coffee and conversation.

One of the JTNP Waysides – precursor project to JT Lab // credit: Rebecca Lowry

Why does it make sense for artists to collaborate with national parks outside of traditional artist residencies? How do you see your role as an artist in the park?

There’s this whole segment of society that’s got an amazing skill set and is particularly skilled at education, communication, and creative problem solving, and is kind of really dialed in to what’s going on out in the world – and a lot of them feel really strongly about the Park Service. But, the Park Service isn’t really capitalizing on the fact that there’s this whole talent pool out there that they could potentially tap.

You’ve got scientists, you’ve got law enforcement officers, you’ve got archaeologists and cultural people, you’ve got interpretive staff, you’ve got the maintenance staff. They’ve all got different tasks to do, and different motivations, and different needs, and my role is to be that non-specific person with no specific task other than to approach things differently, come up with new ideas, and implement them, essentially. And that can apply to anything.

To step backwards, one part of JT Lab and my role is that I actually have a desk at the park, so I’m present at the park three days a week. It’s really important because you find out what’s going on and you interact with people while you’re there – people are not going to get on the phone and call you to come over. I ran into Jay Theuer [Chief of Cultural Resources] and he mentioned, “Oh, hey, we’re doing this cool project, would you like to take photos of it?” and I said “Sure.” I didn’t know what he wanted the photos for…it was up to me to make of that what I would, but what it gave me was a green light to go and engage with the project [a restoration of historic ore bins] and be present there.

On site documenting a Historic Preservation project in the park / credit: Rebecca Lowry

Rebecca shot the project on three separate occasions, creating a wealth of photographs that she divided into three categories: “basic documentation” of the project, “aesthetic photos” that could be used in an interpretive display, and a smaller, more curated collection of black-and-white “conceptual photos” that might lend themselves to an art exhibit.

We met and looked at [the photos], which was great – I finally found out if what I had done was even remotely relevant for them. [Jay’s response was] “Oh my gosh, these are amazing because we need to give presentations about what we do all the time.” He’s like, “I could present these photos to Congress, to show them that what we’re doing in Joshua Tree is deserving of funds…that, you know, Yosemite is not the only park with important historic structures.” So that, I was thrilled to hear!

One thing that’s really important is that if you’re going to be a creative person doing this, I think you’ve really got to be a creative person who is willing to have your ideas be your output, and not have a really strong personal aesthetic, because to be successful, you’ve got to be okay with – or you’ve got to love – finding out what the aesthetics of your organization are and then working within that. I don’t want to do something different than what everybody already loves about the Park Service; I want to expand on that, I want to make that even more wonderful.

You’ve obviously thought about this before – your experience with Joshua Tree is not your first national park experience. I know you did an artist residency at the Grand Canyon – let’s talk about some of the other work you’ve done with parks.

The second residency that I did was actually this past summer at an amazing national monument called Craters of the Moon National Monument… it was actually really interesting because I was already doing JT Lab and I knew what I was interested in doing was not so much going up and doing my own studio work. Instead, I kind of helped them with special projects and creative problem solving the way I had modeled for JT Lab.

They had me look at two things that they needed creative input on because either they didn’t have the time and effort to put into it, or they’d just run out of ideas. One of them [involved] the second-most visited site in the park…an interpretive trail called Devils Orchard. The signs were made in the ‘90s, and they were made by somebody who knew a lot about science and the resource, but their skills of communication weren’t quite as strong…[the park] had me go around and do kind of a conceptualization of, like, what’s a different way that we could give some similar messages that would be easier for people to digest, so I came up with a proposal.

The other project also resulted in a proposal…that park has two remaining original structures on it which are National Park Service rustic log structures. They’re both very humble – one of them is a comfort station, and that one has been restored and is in use in their main campground, and is super charming, and then there’s another one that was always meant to be a service building. It’s just a shed, and the shed has been left to kind of rot away into the cinders. But it is one of the only two historic structures they have in the park and they’re not using it for really anything now, so they asked me to kind of re-conceive what that shed could be, if it had any potential reuse – kind of do an assessment of what its current status is, and so I did that. It took a huge amount of time, but I basically came up with a strategy for how the park could really kind of add to its very limited facilities by reusing the shed in a way that was still really historically sensitive.

You obviously have a strong connection to the parks – where does that come from?

Growing up, we went camping. It wasn’t necessarily in national parks a whole lot, but it was definitely out camping in the woods. What’s funny about that – I have a lot of fond memories of it – but particularly, I remember being kind of the stubborn teenager who’s like, “Ugh, I don’t want to go on that hike – can’t I just stay in the tent and you guys all go on the hike?” And it’s like, “No, you need to go on the hike, too.” But I think that kind of ensconced in that was just kind of getting it in your bones when you’re really young.

Then, when I was an older teenager, my father decided to take my brother and I on a trip down the [Grand] Canyon – we did the whole length of the canyon…and that was a really eye-opening experience for me because ironically enough, that was pre- my residency, but maybe that’s one of the reasons that residency is something I went for. It was so interesting, because I remember getting ready for that trip and I must have been, like sixteen maybe, and people telling me, “You know, you’ll want to bring a really good book, because there’s rapids, but then there’s a lot of flat areas, so [bring] something to keep you busy.” I remember in camp, everybody kind of chatting among themselves, and for me, that entire trip I was so dazzled by the canyon. I mean, I brought a big book, but the entire time I did not crack it open once! I was just so enamored with where I was. I remember at the end – it was like a two-, two-and-a-half week trip, and everybody was complaining about how dirty they were and how great it was, but they were so glad to be getting back, and I was kind of like, “No, let’s go on to Lake Mead! I don’t want it to end!” So that was kind of a turning point for me.

One of the things I really love is being in places that are not custom-tailored for human beings, you know? It really kind of puts you in your place and reminds you that you are not the most important thing on the planet.

You’ve been in the Grand Canyon, in Joshua Tree – what about the desert inspires you? Is it deliberate that you’ve spent so much time here; is there a draw for you to be in these wide, open spaces?

I think you’ve summed it up yourself…because when you talk about the desert, you talk about space. And when you talk about a place like the Grand Canyon, you’re talking about the canyon. And when you’re talking about Yellowstone, you’re talking about geysers and features. And when you talk about Yosemite, you’re talking about rocks and massive cliffs. But out here, what you’re talking about is space. And because you can’t touch space – it’s not a thing – people often discount it. But I think that space is an amazing thing, and as time moves on and we get more and more cities, and things get more and more developed, having huge swaths of uninterrupted space – uninterrupted vistas – is going to become the ultimate luxury.

One reason we talk about features in places like Yellowstone is because they’re so heavily forested, but I mean, you can get up above the trees and kind of see space – that’s why people like to climb mountains a lot – but when you don’t have all of those things blocking your view, then you can just see for miles, and it’s an astonishing thing to be able to see for miles. So I would say of anything out in the desert, that’s probably what appeals to me the most.

Thinking about JT Lab and your work out here in the desert, what kind of impact do you hope it will have?

I would say that there are two kind of categories of impact that I hope JT Lab and my work has. JT Lab specifically – I’m hoping that after we do our two years, or however long the experiment ends up running, that at the end of that we will have shown in a very concrete way what the creative community can contribute to the Park Service, and that that will instigate change either at Joshua Tree or hopefully even region-wide or Service-wide. So one idea – if we have the funds to do this – one idea that’s part of the project is to ultimately gather together everything we’ve done, documentation of the volunteer work, the student work, the things I’ve done, into a big catalogue…a book that a park superintendent would get in the mail and maybe thumb through. Maybe it would find its way through the park, people would want to look at it, and really be inspired by the stuff that we’ve done to get [them] thinking: “We need to do something like this here.”

And then the other thing that, personally, I hope my work will do is just affect change in park visitors. Not every park visitor, of course, but just that something I will do will be compelling to somebody who might not otherwise have wanted to visit a national park, or who might have otherwise had kind of a lackluster experience, but they found some little thing that was kind of like, “Oh, I can relate to this.” And maybe that will change the behavior of that person. Maybe it will help them to value these places more, value the outdoors more, you know, vote in support of these kinds of places. That’s a big part of what we could potentially do. I think that in some ways, that’s more important than being the biologist studying the fish – I mean, they’re really important, too, but if that biologist doesn’t have funding to study the fish, that fish isn’t going to get studied.

For more information on Rebecca Lowry and her work, visit http://www.studiolowry.info.

For more information on JT Lab, including information on how to participate in its Artist Programs, visit http://www.jtlab.info.

Trailblazers is a new series on Modern Hiker that profiles hikers who are making an impact in the outdoor world, whether locally or on a larger scale, both inside and outside of the industry. We are always looking for inspiring people to highlight, so feel free to send suggestions to Shawnté at Modern Hiker.

More Trailblazers profiles:

I am a curiosity-seeking, adventure-loving, outdoor-rambling professional word wrangler.

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