Nature + art = I-Park
Among the winding forest trails of East Haddam’s I-Park, alone in the swamp marshes, rests a simple wooden framed Ikea bed. The bed stands tilted on the uneven terrain, with nothing but white sheets covering it.
To most, this would be a strange view to stumble upon in the woods, but at I-Park, the sight is nothing new. It is but one of the many art pieces installed along the paths winding through the 450-acre property bordering Devil’s Hopyard State Park.
For artist Senbo Yang, the idea of a bed with white sheets is representative of a safe place. But placing the bed in unstable environments, such as in the middle of a pond or a marsh, directly challenges his ideas of security and comfort, he says.
Senbo, who grew up in Guangzhou, China, and who graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2016, says that, for many years, he has been moving between spaces.
That constant flux, he says, has led him to this month’s I-Park Artist-in-Residence program, where Yang has been living over the last few weeks.
Yang, in fact, is one of six artists staying at the park, which holds up to 10 residency programs per year.
“I wanted to explore the feeling of unsettled situations, and, as an international student, that has been a constant factor in my life over recent years,” Yang says while surveying designs for another project in his cottage studio overlooking a pond. “I plan to move the bed to different parts of the park over my time here. In a way, that will also keep me in a self-exploration of what it means to be always moving.”
Residency programs at I-Park aim to provide, according to the I-Park Mission, “a quiet, retreat-like setting in which serious artists are encouraged to freely unleash their imaginations in a stress-free environment.” The duration of residencies are typically one month and are hosted at the site from March until late November. Up to six artists participate at a time.
On Sunday, this month’s residents will showcase the art that they have worked on there. The show will be free of charge to the public, and onlookers are encouraged to explore the grounds and observe other works left behind from past residencies. This month’s showing will include a “studio crawl,” a presentation and a chance to speak one-on-one with the artists.
All but one of the artists staying at the park this month have come from countries other than the United States, and several artistic disciplines are represented. The group includes one writer, two visual artists, two composers and one landscape architect.
For Canadian composer Harry Stafylakis, the scenery of the place — from the idyllic landscapes to the winding forest trails — has acted as a source of inspiration to his work while at the park, he says.
While working at a baby grand piano in his studio, the floor-to-ceiling glass wall has offered him views into the forest — something that has impacted the meaning of the piece he has been commissioned to produce for the Winnipeg Symphony. His piece, called “A Parable for End Times,” imagines a near-future scenario of humans having caused worldwide catastrophe. It will be the first piece performed as part of the seven-day Winnipeg Music Festival held in January and February, he says.
“It is certainly taking a bleak view on the world. I’ve been looking out this window and thinking to myself, ‘That’s what we are going to destroy in due time,’” Stafylakis says.
Aside from this project, Stafylakis also hopes to finish another piece that he has been commissioned to complete for the same symphony.
Some artists, instead of being directly influenced by the surrounding environment, are bringing issues that they have faced in their home settings into the residency.
Iranian artist Azita Moradkhani's focus has largely involved the bodies of females and how they are viewed and valued in two drastically different environments — that of Iran and the United States.
Moradkhani’s series of lingerie drawings that she created before coming to I-Park was largely inspired from her first impressions of walking into a Victoria’s Secret store. That series, she says, has been a huge success, and she has already sold many of those pieces.
“I was amazed at how public the store was in the United States. In Iran, lingerie stores are secret spaces, and men can’t walk in them. And that’s when I started thinking about public versus private oppressions and looking at the pressures that are put on women in western culture. It was a strange obsession of mine, in fact. I started to even secretly collect the lingerie, even though I wouldn’t wear it,” she says.
Moradkhani is exploring similar ideas at I-Park, namely personal boundaries regarding her own body. For the purposes of creating body casts of herself, she was forced to completely strip down to do it.
“I exposed myself to challenge my own sculptural norms, and it was extremely difficult,” she says while displaying a body cast of her chest, the plaster of which was sanded down to a completely smooth surface. “I was also, in part, inspired by ISIS and all the violence that is happening with them because of the intolerance of beliefs.”
The residency programs at I-park are very competitive. Over 600 applications are submitted each year for 60 available slots. The reason for that might have to do with the supportive and uninhibited environment. Artists are provided food and lodging free of charge for four weeks and are put under no work expectations, aside from the final showing. Created in 2001 after founders Ralph Crispino, Jr. and Joanne Paradis — two Connecticut-based business partners who met while both working for a construction management company — bought the $1 million-plus property in 1998, I-Park has slowly grown into an artist sanctuary of sorts.
“The idea from the very beginning was to create a supportive haven for artists — to give them a space to focus on their art without any outside pressures to distract them,” Paradis says.
The park only receives $7,500 from the state each year in an effort to support the dozens of artists who come through the park. The rest of the money, which amounts to approximately $300,000 a year needed for these programs, Paradis says, comes mostly from grants and private donations.
The application process for each residency is extensive, Paradis says, and involves a revolving jury that changes with each year. The reason for that is to ensure that artists from all disciplines are selected.
“It does not matter whether they are a well-known artist or an emerging one,” she says. “What matters is the quality of their work submitted.”
But being able to support talented artists is really the end-point that matters most to Paradis.
“I feel that, to be an artist, one has to take a lot of risk. I admire that they are taking these risks. It is very difficult,” Paradis says. “Many artists aren’t supported by their parents, and many take teaching or bartending jobs so that they can still follow their dreams, and it’s precisely those dreams that we help to support, and being able to do that really means everything.”
What: I-Park Open Studios Day
When: 2-5 p.m. Sunday
Where: I-Park, 428 Hopyard Road, East Haddam
Call: (860) 873-2468