Tucked in the rolling hills north of Montello, Nev., surrounded by sun, stars and sagebrush, stand two simple new structures: a living space and a studio. Miles from any population centers, they are a haven for creatives. A retreat for artists. In artspeak, a residency.
With the remove from everyday life, the promise of seclusion, the possibility of engaging with likeminded people, the lure of residencies is strong: the creative spark that arises through one or more of these situations can lead to enrichment in one’s practice, or a new view sparked by a new muse. Regionally there are a variety of residency programs, each with its own mission statement and desired outcomes for accepted artists. In the West’s Basin and Range region, the Montello Foundation Residency joins the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Artist-in-Residence program set within the Bureau of Land Management’s Conservation Area in northern Nevada; and The Center for Land Use Interpretation’s Wendover Residence Program, which has been in Utah for 20 years.
The brainchild of founder Stefan Hagen, the Montello Foundation accepted their first round of residents this spring while the structures were still being completed. Hagen’s extensive background spans commercial photography and independent projects, all of which has taken him literally around the country. His base is in New York City and for a time he worked with staff at Wave Hill, a nature-based public garden and event center, documenting their shows and also participating in exhibitions. Hagen’s work at Wave Hill, his interest in photographing ancient art, and cross-country driving trips culminated in a captivation with the West’s desert environs. In 2007 he became enchanted with Nevada and formed the foundation soon after, coalescing thoughts that formed an unpublished manifesto of sorts. As the foundation began to take hold, he organized a small exhibition by artist Richard Torchia in a popup gallery in a gritty section of New York City’s midtown. Torchia’s nature-based work can be seen on Montello Foundation’s website; the installation shots present a salve to passers-by on NYC’s streets.
Hagen works with a small collective of people to realize his foundation: he is the sole staff member and has a small board. His time has been spent in building the residency structure, a simple yet beautifully-crafted place inviting solitude, along with the studio, a 20′ x 20′ space with commanding views of the northern mountains. These buildings sit on 80 acres, more easily accessible from late spring to fall before the graded and dirt roads of northern Nevada become difficult to navigate in tougher weather.
The foundation (from their website) is “dedicated to support artists who foster our understanding of nature, its fragility and our need to project it.” To achieve this mission, the two goals are “to preserve a piece of this desert landscape, protecting this delicate system of flora and fauna, but then also, at the same time, to create a place in the sagebrush desert for observation, for contemplation, and for artistic work.” Balancing preservation of place while place-making can be tricky and Hagen says awareness as a key component of action is vital to making the two compatible. Minimizing one’s impact on the land is always the dilemma (“any human footprint is a footprint”), yet the foundation’s idea is to go outward from that space. Artists can raise awareness of the environment, and determine how their awareness can be translated into something that can be understood: “As an artist you can protect that area and project that awareness,” Hagen says.
Hagen’s talents fit best with the idea of social impact and gathering people to be able to share a common message. The growing community of residents (11 this season) will become a community of Montello Foundation alumni. Connections are an important part of developing the residency: Hagen met artist and CUAC director Adam Bateman at a conference of emerging residencies and Bateman was a juror for Montello Foundation to narrow down the 45 applications the foundation received this spring to a manageable size. Hagen did not participate as a juror, but advised jurors in advance to look at the full body of the artist’s work to determine what their reach would and could be, both artistically and from the vantage of their social impact.
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Lauren Strohacker, a Phoenix artist who recently completed a residency in Montello, says she went to the site not to make physical work(s), but to have the time to think of new Ecological Art projects. She says the residency was “an exercise in self-awareness. Removed from the city and its obligations, I was relieved of typical labels like ‘educator,’ ‘partner,’ ‘citizen,’ etc. and was left only with ‘human’ and ‘artist.’ Each day boiled down to eating, sleeping, cleaning, writing and experiencing the land through hiking and stargazing. In between the everyday activity was a persistent fear; fear of not having good ideas, of injury in the remote desert, of negative events unfolding at home, of death. This was fear at its most basic, usually muffled in the city and amplified in remoteness. While navigating fear and creative purpose I found an intense clarity that allowed ideas and connections to pour out, into my notebook. This clarity continues to linger as I readjust back to my Phoenix life.”
Of the artists chosen for residency this season (each of which has approximately two weeks at the site), Hagen found most of them drew their inspiration from the landscape, while the best ones translated that inspiration. The broad range found in these artists, both visually and stylistically, hopefully leads to works that translate beyond the space of the residency’s site.
Inspiration from the landscape includes possible inspiration from Utah’s earthworks, the Spiral Jetty (1970) and Sun Tunnels (1973-76), both located near northeastern Nevada. The foundation’s website includes information on these earthworks and much more, offering both residents and those interested in applying a broad base to understand their mission and the artists’ place at both site, and after.
With information provided on Utah’s earthworks, I was curious if artists could develop work on the site of the foundation. Hagen was cautiously optimistic with his answers, explaining the foundation is actually two pieces of 40-acre properties with a half mile between them. Theoretically a work could be created in situ, but it would have to make sense within both the concept of the foundation and the situation of the land it inhabits. Having spent a considerable amount of time at the site, Hagen has found a lot of lines already evident on the land but no one knows where they’re from; not a lot of people can be found in the region, but the lines could just as easily have been made by cattle.
Artists from as close as Denver and as far away as New Zealand will make their way to Montello, Nev., to participate in their own artistic development inspired by the region’s raw and rolling hills. City artists will be displaced in a new environment: Hagen hopes to slow down the rapidly changing “fashions” found in the commercial art world to foster artists who work in the field of environmental awareness, to give them something they can work from to, in turn, influence others. As these artists’ energies are redirected from society to solitude, they may find that creative spark that can sometimes be found by engaging with the land.
This article appeared in the July 2015 edition of 15 Bytes.
has taught art history at Westminster College since 2006, and has also taught at the University of Utah and Weber State University. Her extensive exploration of Spiral Jetty was published by The University of Utah Press and the Tanner Trust Fund in a book titled “The Spiral Jetty Encyclo: Exploring Robert Smithson’s Earthwork Through Time and Place” in 2017; it won the 15 Bytes Art Book Award in 2018.