Story and photography by Tom Haxby
It was my dream come true to have been the Artist in Residence as a photographer in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for six weeks from September through November of 2016. I have been to the park many times and I would never have imagined having this opportunity. My background as a natural resource manager for 26 years along with my passion for photography helped to secure the chance to take photographs for an entire season in one of the most picturesque national parks. For me, it was about more than just taking photos. I wanted to take the time to gain a greater understanding of the park.
The National Park Service, the Friends of the Smokies and the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts sponsor the artist program in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Artists are provided housing in a park service apartment inside of the park. From May through November painters, musicians, poets, writers and other artists were given from three to six weeks to utilize the park to inspire their art.
Although I mostly had the freedom to pursue my photography during my residency, there were few requirements to fulfill. I worked with the Volunteer Coordinator for the National Park Service to present programs on photography to the Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts and the Job Corps. I also took a day to work with a park volunteer to capture and tag monarch butterflies during their fall migration. On another day, I worked with the Great Smoky Mountain Association on a video promoting the artist program. I gave a brief summary of the resident artist program before taking a group hike with the Friends of the Smokies to the stunning Charlie’s Bunion formation and the awe-inspiring views near the Appalachian Trail. An Artist in Residence is also required to donate a product of their work and I am currently finishing a book of photos and essays about the park for the National Park Service and the Friends of the Smokies.
On most days with my camera bags and lunch packed, I headed to my chosen location well before sunrise. Sometimes the days lasted into the night for sunsets or even night stars from Clingmans Dome. During the early part of my residency, I felt no rush and just absorbing and studying about the surroundings was enough. As my time as an onsite artist dwindled there was a sense of urgency to capture as much as possible with my camera.
During my six weeks, I visited all of my favorite places, but I also had time to explore and photograph places I had previously never had the time to visit. I discovered that I really enjoyed photographing butterflies as they stopped to fuel up on nectar during their migration through the area. On several occasions, I photographed elk in the Cataloochee Valley during the fall rut as the bull elk bugled and sparred with other males in the herd. On some days the camera stayed behind and I just hiked the trails.
One of my favorite trails was the Boogerman Trail, perhaps because of the amusing story behind the name, but also for the solitude and beauty of the trail through an old growth hardwood forest on a stunning fall day. (The Boogerman Trail is named after Robert Boogerman Palmer who reportedly said on his first day in school that when he grew up he wanted to be “The Boogerman.” He later lived along the trail and refused to allow lumber companies to harvest his timber.) A hike through the giant trees in the Albright Grove had me thinking about the cycle of life and the struggle to capture sunlight energy in the forest. Another memorable day was spent along beautiful Big Creek in a driving rainstorm at the peak of the fall color when I was able to capture several of my favorite images. Drawing from my experience as a natural resource manager, it was during these hikes when I contemplated the state of the park and what will it be like in the future.
In 2016 over 11 million people, many of whom are serious photographers, visited the park. It is obvious that people really do love the park, as we do all of our national parks. Although the Smokies may seem like paradise, the park is facing many new threats. I left just before the historic fires burned almost 17,000 acres in the park and devastated many adjoining areas around Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Past invasive pests such as the chestnut blight and balsam woolly adelgid removed the American chestnut and Fraser fir from the park. New threats have arrived, such as the hemlock woolly adelgid which kills hemlock trees. During my time in residence, I wondered how future threats such as climate change, air pollution and the ever-increasing number of visitors would impact the park.
My six weeks went by too quickly, but my adventure as an artist in the Smokies provided the time to immerse myself into one of the most amazing places on earth. It also gave me the chance to see and learn so much more about the park while contemplating the future of this special place.
There are many other Artist-in-Residence programs throughout the country and I would highly recommend that photographers pursue these opportunities. Not only are these programs great opportunities for photography, but they also provide ample time to gain a unique perspective of a place.
Tom Haxby is a retired natural resource manager from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. He is currently based in the Traverse City, Michigan area and his second career as a freelance nature photographer brings together his background in natural resources and enjoyment of the outdoors. He completed an artist-in-residence program in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the fall of 2016. His website is www.tomhaxbyphotos.com and his blog is www.tomhaxbyphotos.blogspot.com/. Tom’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org