Art Captures the National Park Story,  A Personal Journey

By Jim Schlett

Over the years, Dulles International Airport has become a portal for numerous business opportunities created by the expansion of Washington’s Metro system.   In addition to helping create a  booming economy, Dulles is also a gateway to many sites of our
National Park Service, which as many have said, is “America’s Best Idea.”  One of the initial triggers for the creation of the National Parks was the artists and photographers who created images that captured the imagination of others, sparking tourism to remote sites, producing the westward expansion and initiating the process to “set-aside” land for future generations to enjoy.   To this day, the Arts and the National Parks make for a great combination, as over 40 National Park locations have established an Artist-In-Residency (AIR) program and application process.  After retiring from the Federal government with over 30 years of service in 2011, including the last 15 as the Director of Administration for the Law Department, I had decided to “refocus” on my photography, which has been an important part of my life dating back to  my receiving a gift of a Polaroid camera back in the early 1960s.  

Stonewall at Dawn.

Back around 2015, I had learned of the AIR program and process.  I had been very fortunate to have been selected as the AIR at the Whiskeytown National Park Recreation Area in Northern California in 2016.  This is the same area that unfortunately was hard hit by the “Carr Fire” of this summer.  

This year I was selected as the Artist-In-Residence at Catoctin Mountain Park in Thurmont, Maryland for May 6 – 19, as well as Manassas National Battlefield Park from July 26 – August 9.  The two weeks I spent in Catoctin, just a short drive north on Route 15 from Leesburg, were amazing.  The park, a hidden gem within the NPS, also houses the Camp David Retreat for our last 13 Presidents.  The Park provides lodging to the artists and I was assigned housing at Camp Misty Mount, a historical complex of cabins built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration.   As part of the program, the artist gives at least one workshop and donates one piece of work to the park.  Over my 2 weeks, I managed to hike 4-8 miles most days in order to find just the right place to stand for photographing, as Ansel Adams liked to say.   The very knowledgeable park rangers, staff and volunteers provided insights on the park in terms of special favorite places and spots to hike, relax and unwind.   At that time of the year, everything was just bursting out in a beautiful spring green, which made for some excellent photo opportunities.  Enjoying American history at the same time, I learned of the creation of the Park and its legacy, including its service as a training ground for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the CIA, during World War II.  This park, while small compared to many other parks, has camping sites, cabins, several trails, great vistas and a unique history. 

Later this summer, on July 27, just a short drive south from Dulles Airport, I served as AIR at Manassas National Battlefield park, the site where 2 major battles were fought during the Civil War back in 1861 and 1862.  These battles had a meaningful impact on this great internal struggle of America, which defines our nation to this day.  Today it is obvious that neither side was ready for war, with mostly volunteer armies that had enlistments of just 90 days.   On July 21, 1861, the largest battle ever fought in America up to that point took place just west of a slow, wandering stream that would become famous, “Bull Run.”  The battle raged back and forth and it appeared that the Union would be victorious but for the arrival of Confederate troops by train and the steadiness of General Thomas Jackson, who prior to the war was a professor at Virginia Military Institute (VMI).  From that point on, he was known to both sides of the conflict as “Stonewall” Jackson.   Eventually, as the day wore on, with confusion reigning on both sides, the disorganized Union troops left the field and retreated towards Washington, DC.   Across the nation, people now realized that this war would not end quickly but few ever expected it to last until late spring of 1865, accounting for the deaths of over 600,000 Americans.   No other war or conflict that America has been involved in has ever surpassed that figure.

Thirteen months later, the two armies again met at Manassas for the last 3 days of August and fought an even more encompassing battle.  This time, troops under General Robert E. Lee, the owner of the Custis-Lee Mansion atop of Arlington National Cemetery, hammered and routed the Union Army, commanded by General Pope.  Lee’s battle plan resulted in confusion in the Union ranks, despite the heroic acts of the troops, and eventually resulted in a demoralizing retreat by the Northern Army.

Today, the park’s 5,000 acres include a Visitors’ Center, long hiking trails, woods, horseback paths, a cemetery, battlefield signage, and gently rolling fields and ridges that make for great paintings and photographs.  A portion of my time was spent with Park rangers, employees, interns and volunteers who are dedicated to preserving the park and ensuring that the story of what occurred at this site over 150 years ago is not forgotten.  The knowledge that these folks bring to the daily hikes at well known sections of the field – such as Henry Hill, Deep Cut, Chinn Ridge and Brawner’s Farm – is incredible.   

With so many National Park Service sites, such as Great Falls, Gettysburg, Harpers Ferry and Shenandoah within an easy drive from the Dulles area, it is well worth your time to make such an adventure happen.

In our parks, I and other artists part of the AIR program reconnect to nature, history and the universe, so needed in today’s faster-paced society and world.  Since I took many images, one of the difficult and time-consuming tasks is editing my work down to the best 15 – 30 for prints for future exhibitions.  I am hopeful that people will respond to my work in ways that will benefit the parks by encouraging new volunteers and increasing visitation.  I will also be exhibiting some of my photographs from these two AIR experiences at the ArtSpace Gallery in Herndon Virginia later this year.  

More of my photographic images in individual galleries by subject matter can be found at http://photomanva.zenfolio.com.