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Making Art Off The Grid: A Monthlong Residency At A Remote National Park

Oct 26, 2016
Originally published on October 27, 2016 7:59 pm

Imagine: the chance to live on an uninhabited tropical island for a month, off the grid, creating art.

No phone, no television, no Internet.

Instead, spectacular night skies, crystalline turquoise waters and extraordinary marine life on the coral reef just a short swim from your back door.

For one month a year, Dry Tortugas National Park is home to a pair of artists in residence. The park is made up of seven islands in the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles from Key West, Fla., accessible only by boat or seaplane.

The artists live by themselves on Loggerhead Key. It's a narrow strip of an island, lined with coconut trees. The vegetation includes mounds of spiky sea lavender, cactus, island morning glories, and flowering buttonwood and Geiger trees.

There are just a few structures, including an imposing lighthouse built in 1858, which is no longer lit. Their home for the month is a lightkeeper's house built in the 1920s. (Other visitors to the park land at Garden Key, about three miles away. Most visit just for the day; a smaller number can camp there.)

This year the lucky artists were filmmakers Carter McCormick, 26, of Lookout Mountain, Ga., and his partner, Paula Sprenger, 24, from Santiago, Chile. They met in art school two years ago, and have been a couple ever since. Living on a tropical island has always been one of Sprenger's dreams, so this past summer when she saw an article about the residency program, she told McCormick, "This is for us!" They submitted a proposal to film the island's ecosystems, on land and underwater, and were chosen from nearly 400 applicants. Part of the deal is they agree to donate some of their work to the National Parks Collection.

I visit them on their last day on the island in September, and paddle out with them on their final excursion to the reef known as Little Africa. As McCormick dives to the bottom to shoot a last batch of images, Sprenger and I snorkel above. We gaze at schools of silvery bar jacks, bright indigo tangs, a prehistoric-looking spotted trunkfish shaped like a triangle and corals of every shape and color. It's an extraordinary playground. "The water is the most transparent I've ever seen," McCormick says. "It's a whole 'nother world out here."

After the dive, on their last walk around the island, McCormick points out the wide, curved path a sea turtle has made in the sand, ending in a large pit where she's laid her eggs. "It looks like it was drunk!" he jokes. "It was really swerving." Loggerhead Key is named for the loggerhead sea turtle, an endangered species, and the Spanish word for turtle gives the Dry Tortugas their name.

The artists chosen for this residency have to bring with them everything they need for the month. There is solar power on Loggerhead Key and drinkable water, through a desalination system. There's a radio to contact park headquarters.

As for leaving communication behind and going through what he calls "digital detox," McCormick says, "I won't say I've missed civilization one bit. I have loved every second of not being connected to the digital world." His message to the rest of us: "You need to get off Facebook, stop worrying about politics and live on a deserted island! You'll love it!"

At night, we sit outside as an electrical storm lights up the sky in all directions, with bright flashes every few seconds. "I've never seen lightning do this," Sprenger says. "A lot of being on this island is the extreme weather. You just see crazy storms, and the clouds are so big, so colorful and the weather is so hot and it rains so hard. In one month we really got a lot of everything."

McCormick says they made it a point to get out from behind the camera at times, and simply absorb the experience. "It's always such a fine line for us, [between] filming and experiencing something. Because we look at a lot of really beautiful, interesting things, but half the time it's through an eyepiece. So out here we have taken that time to just let ourselves immerse in the island."

As their final day on Loggerhead Key winds down, the two sound wistful, not quite ready to leave.

"I think one of the saddest things to think is that we don't know if we're ever coming back," Sprenger says. "In 50 years it could be completely covered with water because of global warming."

McCormick adds, laughing, "I told 'em that we'll be here chained to the dock on our last day. Like, bring the bolt cutters, because we're not leaving. You put a great Chinese restaurant out here, and a grocery store, and we'll stay for the rest of our lives!"

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now we're going to visit one of the most remote national parks in the country. It's a group of islands 70 miles off of Key West, Fla., in the Gulf of Mexico. It's called Dry Tortugas National Park. It's surrounded by coral reefs. Dry Tortugas is one of the country's least visited national parks, but two young filmmakers recently got a rare opportunity. They spent a month there as artists in residence, living by themselves off the grid on an uninhabited island. NPR's Melissa Block visited them on their last day there.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: To get there, I go first by seaplane and then...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, you ready?

BLOCK: Yeah.

...By boat across crystal-clear turquoise waters, headed to Loggerhead Key, a narrow strip of an island lined with coconut palms, its lighthouse puncturing the horizon.

CARTER MCCORMICK: Hi.

BLOCK: How are you?

MCCORMICK: I'm great - and yourself?

BLOCK: I'm good - pleased to meet you.

PAULA SPRENGER: Nice to meet you, too.

BLOCK: Meet filmmakers Carter McCormick and Paula Sprenger. He's 26 from Lookout Mountain, Ga. She's 24 from Chile. And for one more day, this island is their tropical home.

MCCORMICK: We're walking through sea lavender, island morning glory, some cactus and a tree called buttonwood.

BLOCK: Carter and Paula met in art school two years ago. They've been a couple ever since. And this past summer when they saw an article about an artists in residence program...

MCCORMICK: Spend a month on a deserted island making art.

BLOCK: They jumped, submitted a proposal and beat out nearly 400 other applicants.

MCCORMICK: Should we do high frame rate, 4K?

BLOCK: So they packed up everything they'd need for a month - all the food, camera and scuba gear, everything - and came to Loggerhead Key to make art. Part of the deal is that afterward they have to donate some of their work to the National Parks Collection. They've been filming the island's ecosystems on land and underwater on a reef called Little Africa.

MCCORMICK: Great snorkeling, great diving here right at the back door.

BLOCK: This is your playground right here.

MCCORMICK: This is the playground.

BLOCK: This will be their final dive on the island.

MCCORMICK: A little sad that it's our last time in.

BLOCK: Out at the reef, Carter dives to the bottom to shoot. Paula and I snorkel above. We see schools of silvery bar jacks, spectacular bright indigo tangs, a prehistoric-looking spotted trunkfish shaped like a triangle and corals of every shape and color. After the dive, Paula and Carter take their last walk around the island.

MCCORMICK: See; right here - sea turtle.

SPRENGER: Oh, yeah.

BLOCK: A wide curved path in the sand leads to a deep pit where a sea turtle has laid her eggs. Loggerhead Key is just 49 acres. The artists in residence stay in an old lightkeeper's house. There's solar power and drinkable water through a desalination system. There is a radio to contact park headquarters but no phone, no television, no internet.

MCCORMICK: I have loved every second of not being connected to the digital world.

BLOCK: I think a lot of people listening to this will be going, that sounds so great.

MCCORMICK: (Laughter) It is great. You need to get off Facebook. Stop worrying about politics, and live on a deserted island.

BLOCK: That night, we sit outside as a lightning storm flashes across the sky in all directions.

SPRENGER: It's everywhere around us. But you know, right on top of us there are stars.

BLOCK: There is zero light pollution on Loggerhead Key, and if it's a night with no moon - total darkness.

MCCORMICK: I literally held my hand just inches in front of my face and could not see a thing.

BLOCK: So after a month off the grid, together 24/7 all by themselves, maybe they're ready to leave.

MCCORMICK: Gosh, no. I told them a couple weeks ago that we'll be here chained to the dock on our last day. Like, bring the bolt cutters because we're not leaving.

SPRENGER: And I think one of the saddest things to think is that we don't know if we're ever coming back. In 50 years, it could be completely covered with water because of global warming.

BLOCK: The next morning at the dock, a park service boat comes to take Carter and Paula off the island, and back they go to the real world. I'm Melissa Block on Loggerhead Key in Dry Tortugas National Park. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.