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The National Park Painter: An Interview With Artist Patricia Cummins
by Ashley Milliken, 28 April 2020
Patricia Cummins is an American artist known for her ability to capture the exquisite beauty of National Parks throughout the globe, with an emphasis on the United States and Ireland. Her work has been featured in numerous exhibitions throughout the United States, as well as internationally, including at The American Embassy in Africa. Over the years, Cummins has been selected to serve painting residences in thirteen United States National Park Artist-in-Residence programs and other national private institutions such as the Hermitage on Mannasota Key. Cummins’ philosophy: “Hard work earns you reward.”
Currently on display at the Foosaner Art Museum in their FLAG Exhibition (March 28th – June 25th 2020), is Cummins’ first work to ever include a self-portrait alongside one of her landscape recreations. The work is titled, “Pastel Painting at Zabriske Point, Death Valley National Park” (2019).
We invited Patricia to share more about her process and inspirations.
Q: In terms of subject, what draws you to National Parks?
A: “I have been connected with parks since I was a young child, living just one block away from Forest Park, in New York City. My earliest and fondest family memories are of family gatherings at Valley Stream State Park, Long Island. It is at any park where I feel at home, connected to our planet and its wondrous gifts.
Seventeen years ago, I took a year sabbatical from my elementary school art teacher role, and rediscovered my passion for oil and pastel painting. I rented a studio space at the artist center, ArtSouth in Homestead, Florida, serendipitously located between Biscayne and Everglades National Parks. It was at Biscayne National Park where I began my journey as a National Park resident artist. Since 2003 I have been invited to serve fifteen National Park residencies and have produced a body of work that has been shared locally, nationally and internationally. My works are part of National Park art collections and paintings of South Florida National Parks have become part of the Florida State Art Collection, as well as the U. S. Art in the Embassies Program.
The National Park system has been a gracious host and muse for my talent, which has allowed me to reconnect with my wonderfully free early childhood memories. The parks have also exposed me to our country’s varied park visitor population and breathtaking landscapes. Painting, lecturing and conducting interpretive workshops across our country has enlightened me about the diversity of our country’s landscape, as well as its people. I am thankfully a better person and artist as a result of my National Park experiences. This pandemic has made me reflect upon how fortunate I have been, even more than before, when things were ‘normal.’”
Q: Besides National Parks, what else would you consider to be some of your influences?
A: “I paint mostly outdoors, so any interesting landscape can inspire a painting, especially if water is found in the environment.”
Q: In your artist statement you mentioned being, “invited as a resident artist to explore and paint a fifteen national parks.” Can you explain what a “resident artist” at a national park is?
A: “Every program is different, but residencies are usually two to four weeks. If selected, all types of artists have the honor to reside in a lakeside cabin, hogan, or historic building, depending on the park. There is a jury process, and if selected you’re invited to stay and create art in some of the most beautiful places on earth. Artists are invited to participate in park programs by sharing their art with the public through slide lectures or workshops. Individual parks have their own application process and residency requests. An artist usually donates a work of art within the year following the residency.”
Q: What is your process when painting? What are your preferred tools and mediums of choice?
A: “I work with oil paint as well as chalk pastel. Most often I work on site and take reference photos for later in the studio if I feel the painting isn’t completed, or if the weather or light changes too drastically.”
Q: Motion seems to be an important element to your paintings. When I look at your work in the FLAG Exhibition I get a sense of motion from the stone wall that your figure sits on to the ripples in the mountains that lead the viewer’s eye around the complete composition. Would you say capturing the landscape’s motion is a significant component to your work?
A: “I’m glad you got that feeling! My goal as an artist is to arrest nature’s motion, involving viewers as deeply as I can. As I make my artwork, I leave behind traces of feelings associated with my experience of each scene; sharing my vision of beauty and grace expressed through color and form.
The experiences of life that I find to be of greatest value are those that rest in the basic and seemingly simplistic. Garden fragrances, nature’s color and form, all outweigh for me the more contrived and materialistic of our life today. I paint the landscapes, the feelings and the experiences that they create for me; the perceptions and sensations that collect as a result of a day at the shore, or under the shade of a live oak, or during weeks spent serving a residency at a National Park. If these sensations communicate with the viewer through my work, their connection and purpose are complete.”
Q: You also mentioned in your artist statement that, ““Pastel Painting at Zabriske Point, Death Valley National Park,” is your first time including a self-portrait in your recreation of a landscape. What made you decide to include yourself as a figure in the work?
“I was painting a small pastel at Zabriskie Point. I wish that I had my oil paints with me, but I had a choice to paint hours in one place, or to see more of a National Park that I had never seen before. I was with a friend chasing the light at Zabriskie Point and had only enough time to finish a small pastel. It was such a special time in an amazing location, when I returned I was inspired to work from a few photos to create this painting that reminds me of a special trip. I was visiting a close relative that I had lost contact with for over forty years. I was staying in his home and visited Death Valley and Joshua Tree National Park during my stay. Perhaps placing myself in the composition symbolizes finding myself as I reconnected with my long lost family member.”
Q: Do you often include figures in your work?
A: “I have never included a figure in any of my National Park paintings, until this painting. Birds, mammals, insects, and flowers are depicted but never humans.”
Q: What made you choose this piece specifically for the FLAG Exhibit at the Foosaner Art Museum?
A: “It was my most current and largest completed painting.”
Q: Can you describe one of your favorite career defining moments for us?
A: “In 2010 the National Park Foundation interviewed me. and published an article about my work. It can be found here! I received a lot of visitors to my website as a result of this article. This photo appeared in the article.”
Q: Do you have anything planned coming up or anything you are working on that you’d like to share?
A: “Currently on my studio easels are works from my residency at Crater Laker. Completing these paintings and then selecting one to gift to them is my current task. I am also still waiting to hear from a few National Parks that have pending applications. I am hoping to be invited to Joshua Tree National Park in April of 2021. In October a Residency at Desert Mountain Retreat, New Mexico was awarded with a life-long college friend and pastel artist, Pearl Lau.”