A Studio in the Woods
How artists are making science more accessible
About thirty minutes east of downtown New Orleans, down a road squeezed by the Mississippi’s west bank on one side and a bottomland hardwood forest on the other, a gravel lane darts off and needles its way through the trees. Glimpses of polished metal sculptures peek between the leaves, their playful shapes left by their creators to disappear and reappear amongst the undergrowth. The woods lean in close. It takes a moment to notice the large cabin climbing out of the bushes at the end of the lane. Inside, one or two artists are likely working on their latest projects, leaving clay splattered across a workbench or notebooks open on a table.
This place is A Studio in the Woods, as if it could be called anything else.
Lucianne and Joe Carmichael bought the seven-some–acre property in 1969 to be the site of their home and personal studios. They built the main house out of reclaimed wood from town, while the tile floors are Lucianne’s handiwork. Even the massive, rough-hewn table that bisects the patio has significance; Joe had it milled from the tree where the land’s “for sale” sign had hung. All the structures on the property would feel at home in the mountains of Colorado or Wyoming—the sort of places where houses often seem to rise like organic continuations of the land around them. The studio should be here, then. Southern Louisiana, more than any place in the country, needs reminders of how inextricable it is from the environment.
In 2001, the Carmichaels founded A Studio in the Woods artist residencies, which serve as six-week incubators for painters, sculptors, writers, dancers, musicians, and other creators. Over 130 artists have stayed at the property since then. In 2004, the property and program became the domain of Tulane University, finding a home within the ByWater Institute. There’s a writer’s cottage under construction and a summer camp for seven– to eleven-year-olds, but other than that, not much has changed. Nature is largely allowed to run its course, immersing residents in a dense, dynamic forest. “It was our founder’s vision and belief that the natural world inspired creativity,” said Ama Rogan, the Managing Director of A Studio in the Woods.
Now it’s creativity’s job to protect the natural world.
These are no ordinary artists’ residencies. A Studio in the Woods selects participants who are using art to explore environmental issues, then asks them to create a public component to increase community engagement around that issue. Since 2017, the thematic focus has been “Adaptations: Living with Change,” which takes a look at how climate-driven adaptions are shaping the future. Among other things, alumni have created experiences that investigate the relationships between humans and plants, earthwork installations that change with time and weather, and Haitian dance workshops that speak to the resilience of cultures.
The residencies are not the only thing seeking to amplify and preserve the fragile environment. The property itself serves as a form of protection for the endangered surrounding forest, which is part of several thousand acres that help buffer New Orleans from hurricanes. For fifteen years, a botanist has researched the grounds, with a focus on invasive species and how hurricanes impact forests. Recently, A Studio in the Woods received its field station credentials from the Organization of Biological Field Stations.
Its mission aside, A Studio in the Woods is beautiful in its own right. The lush, green haven is dotted with pathways, sculptures, and hidden details that invite visitors to linger. The site is usually closed to the public except by appointment so that artists have some privacy, but the annual FORESTival in November opens the gates. During FORESTival, visitors can take a guided tour of the grounds, experience presentations by current and former residents, and listen to live music. This year the studio celebrates fifty years on the property, so naturally, FORESTival celebrated in style with a performance by the Lost Bayou Ramblers.
If you haven’t made it out there yet, your chance might be coming up. Artists, writers, and scholars have an opportunity in January to apply to the next round of residencies, while partnerships with institutions like the New Orleans Museum of Art and luminaries such as Brandon Ballengée will bring more of the studio’s magic to the public.
Join A Studio in the Woods for their annual FORESTival November 16, 2019. astudiointhewoods.org.
Morgan Randall is a writer, marketing consultant, and full-time road-tripping van dweller. You can find her fueling up at your local rest stop or at morganeliserandall.com.