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Insights of an Eco Artist

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Magazine - Montello Foundation

Montello foundation

Welcome to the Montello Foundation interview, where we speak with its founder Stefan Hagen. The Montello Foundation Retreat, nestled in its serene natural surroundings, offers a haven for artists seeking respite and inspiration. It serves as a sanctuary for artists from various disciplines, providing them with the time and space to cultivate their craft and connect with the environment.

images of the work of montello foundation

Joana Alarcão: Hello, thank you so much for being here with us today. Can you just start to talk a bit about the Montello Foundation's mission and how it has supported artists who work in the realm of eco-art?


Stefan Hagen: So, hello. The Montello Foundation is basically dedicated to helping foster artists who bring our attention, and this is general public attention, to the fragility of nature and consequently how we can protect it and not further destroy it.


And so the whole idea came out of several observations, in terms of the art world, as it started in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I saw a lot of galleries in New York and submissions to them, but mostly galleries, which are always much more at the forefront of what's happening, were showing eco-art. But then there were some other trends, I guess, and then they were out of the galleries. Basically, I mean, the art world has shifted to a way where the trends are very fast-paced, which is interesting for the collectors and the audience in general but, of course, problematic for the artists. They're not going to shift their mission and their work constantly just to do that. So that was something where I thought it is also necessary to foster that, to help these artists in some way.


The building. Image courtesy of Montello Foundation

Joana: So what does the retreat residency do for artists in particular? Can you talk a bit about the infrastructure?


Stefan: Yeah, the infrastructure. So it is a solitary retreat in a very remote valley. I always say that the closest people are gonna be the ones in the airplane going from New York to San Francisco. So you're really alone there with nature. And also, you don't have cell phone reception.

You have a beautiful 40-square-meter studio that is in the northern light. Plenty of walls and you have nature around.

Most artists are basically in a situation where they have to live in cities, either because they're teaching or because of other infrastructure. And so it's very important to give them the possibility to also reconnect with nature. So in that sense, I always have the annual reports, and they're a little bit more filtered, but then I also get private emails, and they're just observations about coming back to city life, and it's like, "yeah, all these people, all these noises, all these things."

And the retreat is basically there not so much to get worked on but to refocus and reorientate your senses a little bit rather than shutting out.


Joana: So do you feel that the feedback from the artists is positive when they are a bit remote?


Stefan: Yes. I mean, of course, I don't always get the full story, and, of course, there are some artists who are not used to being alone in nature. And that is sometimes a little bit of stress for them. And they don't know beforehand how they're going to react to it. And it also depends on the season; I mean, on the weather; if it's more cloudy days and cold and when you want to be more inside, you want to be with people when the people are there.


So you have to be more on your own, but in that sense that is important. I mean, there's a very big library now. They are going in all directions, from very technical nature books to general observations to also some more focus on spirituality. So in that sense, these residents are not alone.

The building. Image courtesy of Montello Foundation


Joana: What support do you normally give the artists? Do they, if they are there for a week, imagine that they come in and stay in the studio working? Do they have other residents with them? Do they have someone who, in the end, gives them feedback, or are some of the pieces that they do for the residency? What is the structure of the retreat?


Stefan:  Yes. So, basically, they are selected by a jury. And then they get the materials, the information materials, how to find it and the house manual. I always tell them that they should forget about their plans. I'm sure there are some who just couldn't get away from anything and couldn't shut the phone off, but that's sort of a problem.

And then they'll finally get some time to work on something specific, but what's more important for me is that they actually just go out and maybe just sit under a tree for an hour and see what happens and what's there. Otherwise, it's very difficult to have this kind of infrastructure, especially if it's right next to a house and you can go there.

Then I always do a Zoom or in-person introduction, especially about the roads, since they are really bad. And so I get a sense of who they're, and they get a sense of me. And then I have to be, you know, on call. I mean, like yesterday, I heard that they actually had to leave today instead of Saturday. And, the roads were supposed to be good on Saturday, but now they're still bad, so I make sure that the housekeeper's coming today, she can drive out with him, and these kinds of technical things.


Then afterwards, what's also very important is that we do an annual report and print it, and it goes online as well, so there is then more reflection. In the report, some artists have new pieces, and they're very excited about it and to show them and for some, we just show something that they applied with, and it's not necessarily any finished work. Also, of course, about half of them are driving and the other ones are flying, and then often just work on sketches and everything they want to present.


Joana: So can you recall any notable projects that have occurred from artists being in residency, or is most of the time what you just said, just being alone with nature and sketches?


Stefan: Yeah, certainly very strong pieces. For example, Patricia Watwood's sort of categorized as a figurative painter, and mostly it's oil, and, I mean, probably portraits, official portraits, and probably sort of more allegorical paintings she sells, but there she did this whole watercolor cycle about how the day changes, and so that was really a totally new departure.

And then I can think of Margaret Coxwell, who has a long career of large installations and video work, but also some watercolor things. But then she really dove into these beautiful watercolors on the land. Also in a very different way, Sven Wallund is a composer and also a high school teacher, and he did a whole series of videos where he interacted in the landscape, and he brought a big drum out there too.


These are all on the website, on the residents, and then you sort of have to scroll down and find when they came, the websites, and also the reports. And you click on their name, and then you can read what their personal experience was like.


The studio. Image courtesy of Montello Foundation

Joana: Have you seen a shift since the beginning of the foundation until now in terms of promoting new projects and artists?

Have you seen an evolution of the organization somehow?


Stefan: Well, I mean, the most is that, of course, it's more recognized. That just takes a while, takes a lot of outreach, takes a lot of talking, and, of course, word of mouth. Every year we have 11, 12, or 13 artists there, and of course, they spread the word, and then we had two large exhibitions, one in the Southern Lutheran Museum of Art, which is part of a college in Cedar City, and that was a big retrospective of artists who went there, and it was really in all directions; we went from sound pieces to video to installations to outside projections.

And then we had this sort of little modified show done in Concord, Massachusetts. The Europeans, most of them, might not know this, but Henry David Thoreau spent there, basically two kilometres away from the museum, at this place called Warden Pond. And he was there in 1835, or something like that. And basically stayed in a hut there for two years; he wasn't all solitary; he could walk to town and do it many times. But he was basically recording for the first time all aspects of nature, and it's very interesting because we actually don't have any other record of when migratory birds came to the region, and here, the role was basically seen as a wider one. We have all this data, and you can see that migration was two to three weeks later than it is now. And so that is a very interesting aspect; you just go there and see what is actually happening. What is nature? It's not something where I go in and move around and do something with it; I'm just going to go there and listen.


Joana: So how do you envision eco-art contributing to ecological awareness and sustainability? And how do you see the Montello Foundation contributing to this vision?


Stefan: Well, I mean, eco-art is basically, I see it as something as subtle as just awareness. And if you look at advertising, there's a lot of advertising where you just see the name and it's very subtle, but you're just sort of constantly getting the information, and I think that is something that is necessary; this very subtly gets the attention. I mean, you know, we do what we can do best. Of course, you look at other organizations or other things where, for example, there's a whole organization helping legislators formulate laws that actually do something without being easily circumvented by the industry. Which is a very important thing, but that's not what I can do.


Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty near Montello. Image courtesy of Montello Foundation

Joana: Okay, you give artists a space to connect with nature. And I think it's also very, very important to have that possibility.


Stefan: Yes, and we're trying to also exhibit this. And, you know, that in the last couple of years, we had almost 170, 180 applications.

So, of course, I have to send out a lot of rejection letters, and if you have never done this, I mean, as a private person, for some, it's like, "Yeah, okay, you're not ready," but for others, it's like, "No, I want you to give you that recidency, but it's just not possible," so I have to look at it and say, "Well, what is then this whole application process actually doing?"

It is actually something where 180 artists, composers, and writers think about the work in that context and make some statements. And I think that is already something. I mean, even if they don't have the residency there, at least they sort of prepared their work and thought, "Okay, yeah, I guess it is important that I do this. I'm not; I'm not just working in the back room."


Joana: Yeah. So what advice would you give an artist trying to apply to the retreat? How do they stand out?


Stefan: Stand out. Well, so our criteria are what I tell the jury. First, they should look at who's actually doing the best work. And the idea behind that is that even if it's not exactly tied to our mission, that place is going to influence you.

I mean, we sometimes had artists who were more abstract, but that place really sort of, okay, suddenly they were painting the wind. I mean, certainly, that is important. And then it's, yes, but it's tied to our mission? And then third, is also how much they are actually getting the word out.

Because, I mean, there are some artists who are not working that much, but they organize exhibitions in non-profit spaces, and they do basically a lot for the community. So that is also something that is important for us. And in that sense, I also find that being alone in that landscape, you focus much more on society at large.

You don't focus on the person you're going to set up a dinner with. I mean, I'm all for community, but I think it's also important that you spend a certain amount of time alone every once in a while, to think more in terms of how your work actually fits into a bigger picture.


Then, in terms of the application, if you're a visual artist and you're just sending in images other than video or something, then you have eight images, some of which I actually looked at afterwards at their website, and while you're doing very different things, you're just applying here with one thing because you might be excited at the moment with this one thing, this one series, this one direction. But I think it's more important that you show two or three directions. Because sometimes, you know, one just doesn't resonate. You might be very excited, but it's not exactly there yet. So in that sense, that is important because I also had artists I met afterwards, and, like, why didn't I take that artist?

And it's like" You applied with something that nobody was interested in, but otherwise, you're doing great work." But it's always difficult. I mean, I'm myself an artist; I apply for things often. It's like, yeah, I don't know.

It's difficult, but yes, I mean because most applications are only like three or four images, and here you can send eight images, so this way I think you can tell the story. On the other hand, eight different projects is probably not a good idea because then you don't get an item, it's just too long and difficult, and you don't understand what they're working on. You also have doubts that these things will all get sort of out there unless you are a very established artist.


Nancy Holt's Sun Tunnels near Montello. Image courtesy of Montello Foundation.

Joana: So if an artist wanted to reach out to you to ask for advice, would that be possible? Would it be something you would be open to, or not at all?


Stefan: Yes, but you know, I'm from Germany; we say what we think. It was funny. I once had somebody ask me why they weren't accepted, and I was sort of very polite, and then I got this email back.

"It's like, ahhh, first I was really offended, and then I don't know. And this doesn't make sense. And so I'm done." I wrote them back, and then I explained why it's not working for me. I mean, this just didn't have the right edge. And then two minutes later, I got this email back.

"Oh, I'm so sorry. That was meant for my mentor. It wasn't meant for you." And I was like, "Okay, well, here's my opinion." But she was very clear: she had been out of art school for like five years and lived somewhere in the countryside. She is never going to get feedback. People will just say, "Oh, it's nice." If they want to be nice to her, or it's like, "Oh, that's not my thing." But to get valuable feedback, it's difficult, especially here.


Joana: Yeah, I do understand that. But yeah, if you ask for feedback, you have to know that sometimes it's not going to be good. And understand that everyone has their own opinions, especially when you are grading something in terms of accepting applications. We are all humans. So we have things that we are more connected to or that resonate better with some types of juries. So it's difficult to just pinpoint how artists can really have an application ready to apply to residencies or galleries. But good feedback is always important.


Stefan: Well, and the thing is, if you look at a lot of art and all the galleries, I certainly do have a sense of what a good abstract painting is or not. But I would not be able to give any real feedback. In photography, I can give you very precise feedback because that's what I'm trained for. 


That's why I also have a jury, and the jury is mostly other curators or artists; I always take at least one who has been there. And, also from the artists, I only ask someone who is teaching as well. Because, of course, not every artist can get their head around other people's work. And I don't think that's common now. So a teacher certainly knows, "Okay, well, I guess they're working in a different way. I can't say whether that's anything different or not." And then, of course, the jury. I don't know whether you have done this, but often there are quite different opinions about one artist. Basically, what happens is that I usually have three or so artists where everybody says," Oh yeah, absolutely." And then I have another 25 where, "Oh yeah, that's great. Yes. Take them." And I don't have 38 spots, so that's often a very tough session.


And then the other thing is, so the American school - I mean, college - is off from basically the end of May, the beginning of June, until the end of August. And since a lot of artists are teaching at that time, it is then more compatible. So if you have time earlier or later, then that's just awesome.


Joana: Okay. Stefan, that was my last question for you. Thank you so much for sharing your advice and insights into the Montello Foundation.


Stefan: Wonderful.

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Some text was edited for clarity.

All images courtesy of Montello Foundation.

Montello Foundation main studio
Montello Foundation residency

Montello Foundation is a foundation dedicated to support artists who foster our understanding of nature, its fragility and our need to protect it. We acknowledge that the retreat is on the traditional territory and homelands of the Te-Moak Western Shoshone people.

“Slow wandering in every direction through sagebrush and juniper, reading, writing, and laying on the deck with eyes closed — these were the unfamiliar activities that held my days. I could not remember when I last felt that kind of happiness.”

The idea behind the retreat is that you are in this amazing desert landscape by yourself. It's all yours, and you are part of all what is around you. There is no direct interaction with other humans, no staff or other artists, you don't have to be social or not, decide whether you go to your room or chat all night. You focus on being social using your art you work on while you are there, or do sketches to work on it afterwards, or you can just relax from working and spend two week in the hammock. (We are sure you will have at least one great thought and will act upon it afterwards.)

Your social responsibility is with the audience of your work, not the immediate humans around you. What's important is to get the message out: Nature is a fragile thing and we have to take care of it.

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