The COM.EN.ART Experience


Huyck preserveCOMmunity . ENvironment . ART (COM.EN.ART) is an artist-in-residency program for natural history artists. Each year five to seven professional or aspiring natural history artists are selected to spend one to two weeks at the Huyck Preserve biological field station and nature preserve. Artists are free to produce artwork in their chosen manner and medium. The institution provides housing and studio space. In exchange, the artist is asked to contribute an original work constituting something appropriate for exhibition and publication. Here is my experience…

Years ago in western Kansas, there was a sign on Interstate 70 that read Next McDonald’s 100 Miles and when passing it I would say to the kids, “We are really in the wilderness.” Of course, creeping commercialization has long since removed the need for that sign, but when the announcement for COM.EN.ART arrived, I went online to check out the Huyck Preserve and discovered that this place really was the wilderness. Now I have never been much of a traveler or thrill seeker preferring instead to let Rick Steves and Rudy Maxa do all the hard work while I just sit back and vicariously tour the world. But the kids are grown and Medicare (if it still exists) looms on the horizon. It seemed like the perfect time to experience living on the edge. Besides, I would only have to give up my urban comforts for two weeks. So I put together the required materials and sent in an application.

Once the application was posted, however, I began to seriously consider the possible outcomes. First, if not selected I would feel my work wasn’t good enough; but if I were selected it would mean that I would have to actually pack up and go. When the news finally arrived and there was an invitation to participate, the agonizing decision had to be made: how would I get there? Traveling from here in the middle of Kansas to there in upstate New York would require more than just clicking my heels together. In addition to the sheer mileage involved, there would be art supplies, clothes, and all those items that participants must bring including towels, sheets, blankets, food, etc. that would need to be transported.

Huyck preserveThe Huyck Preserve is located approximately 28 miles southwest of Albany, NY off State Route 85 in the village of Rensselaerville. Possible modes of transportation were train, plane, driving my own automobile or renting one when I got to Albany via plane or train. I concluded that even though I would be traveling alone for 3,500 miles, driving my own car would allow me to take all the necessary items, all the possibly necessary items (you never know, you might need that), and lots of unnecessary (never used) items as well.


Anyone who is considering participating in the COM.EN.ART program can go online ( and under the heading Research Station check out Facilities and Lodging as well as Staying at the Station to see photos with detailed descriptions of facilities and what to bring. There is also a map of the area. But even though I had studied all this available material there were things for which I was not prepared.

One was the weather. Back in Kansas, the daily temperature was already reaching 100 plus degrees. But this was June in upstate New York and I was glad I had packed those sweaters. One day it was so cold the heavy jacket felt good. The shorts were never worn. Then there was the raincoat. Where I live it rarely rains and when it does, rain is accompanied by high winds, lots of thunder and dangerous lightning. Sane people don’t go out in that kind of weather so I didn’t even own a raincoat. It was good, however, that I went out and bought one because it was used. The preserve is large and there can be a lot of walking so the necessary items also included good walking shoes and a backpack for carrying art supplies when doing plein air sketches and paintings on the many trails throughout the area.

Reportedly there are on-site laundry facilities, but before leaving home I decided that while I was away there would be no time devoted to washing clothes. That meant bringing enough underwear, pants, and shirts to last two weeks plus the traveling time of six days. Some of the more camping experienced support staff at the preserve later advised me all that was needed was three sets of pants/tops, but they lived within close driving distance. I, however, had to bring everything in one trip. Automobile transportation had been a good choice.

Each person must provide their own food. All food is kept in the community refrigerator or large closed containers for non-refrigerated items, and people cook/eat in the community kitchen/dining area. There are a refrigerator and stove, but no microwave. One of the artists brought along a slow cooker. By using it she was able to prepare a simple meal that was cooking all day and had a minimum of cleanup.

But there are always food items you will forget to bring. Coffee is one of my basic food groups and I had left home without it. What a mistake. It’s several miles to the diner and it’s even farther to the closest grocery store. I also found myself without yet another of my basic food groups: chocolate. Chocolate deprivation leads to some very bizarre behavior. Like retrieving a wrapped chocolate mint that had been in the car’s beverage holder for at least three months, then eating it with great relish. Desperate times require desperate measures - I discovered that the closest spirit shop was in Greenville, miles away over back roads.

Keeping in touch with the outside world can be accomplished in several ways. If you want to send tourist postcards to friends and family there is a selection at the local public library and they can be mailed at the post office – the other half of the building that also houses the diner. For those who prefer to email everyone, the Internet is available at the field station (studio/lab) but not in the living facilities. There is a telephone in the dining room but not to be used for long distance calls; however, cell phone service was available, at least while within the range of the preserve.

Getting Started

The wilderness was not exactly as I had imagined. There were a lot of trees and plants, and because the preserve is a protected area, animals – including chipmunks, deer, and beaver venturing close enough to be observed. From the dining room deck one could see Lincoln Pond with the comings and goings of both water and land birds. There were no emergency preparedness sirens, car alarms, ambulances, police and/or fire sirens; instead, bullfrogs serenaded throughout the night. It sounded like millions. Realistically it was probably closer to hundreds. And there were no streetlights, so at night the road from the housing to the studio was very dark. Don’t forget to bring a flashlight.

Once all those necessary and unnecessary items are moved from the car into the living quarters the question becomes, “What now?” According to office manager Carolyn Barker, it is not unusual for the artists to spend a few days acclimating, that is adjusting to the surroundings once the dictates of life outside the preserve are removed and they are free to just create art. Initially, I found myself in that dilemma and resolved it by looking to the end to start the beginning. In exchange for time at the preserve, artists are required to contribute work to the Huyck Artist’s Sketchbook so I decided to create that work first. It was a good decision that gave me the self-imposed structure I needed to get started.

Gail Selfridge leaf rubbingAs I worked on my contribution to the Sketchbook it became clear what the focus of my time and art should be. Over the years, in addition to working as an illustrator I have worked in education, and during that time I developed an educational outreach program for teaching both adults and children about drawing with an emphasis on scientific accuracy rather than concentrating on the emotional aspects, that is how one feels about a subject. I decided to spend my time at the preserve further developing and testing parts of my program intended for use by other teachers.


There were many benefits to participating in the COM.EN.ART program including working with the other artists. During my stay, there were three artists each specializing in a different technique. My work is almost exclusively funded by short-term grants and commissioned works for which I am the only artist, so for me, the interaction with two other artists, particularly the exchange of ideas and information regarding techniques, was a very important part of the experience. There is also a collection of matted and framed works done in a variety of techniques that are displayed in the field station and the main office/visitor center. These are works that have been left by artists who have participated in the program and are available for observation and study.

Equally important to the interaction with other artists was the daily opportunity to observe the on-going field work by the scientists and other staff members at the preserve. On Thursday evenings the preserve hosted a potluck at 6:00 p.m. followed by a guest speaker presentation. It was a very enjoyable social and educational event with preserve members, staff members, and the artists in attendance.

We artists were also fortunate that the exhibit Focus on Nature coincided with our stay. One day the three of us ventured into Albany to the New York State Museum to see the exhibit and it was quite a treat to see not only the traditional art but the digital works that are now being accepted. The FON catalog can be viewed at

Gail Selfridge illustration


When I started writing about my experience the intention was not to describe it in glowing esoteric terms but rather to share some of the more mundane aspects of the actual living and working situation. According to Carolyn Barker, some of the issues that face all of the participants include:

  1. The isolation. Even though the preserve is protected you are in the wilderness and to some, but not all, this can be an issue. I did feel isolated particularly when venturing into the world outside the preserve. While driving to the spirit shop in Greenville I turned on my car radio but the seek button just whizzed back and forth without finding any stations. I began to wonder what would happen if I needed to call back to the preserve and request a rescue mission. Would the cell phone work?
  2. Defining a focus/purpose. Most of us come from very structured situations that include deadlines, schedules, commitments, and requests from various sources including the cat demanding: “Fill my bowl.” At the preserve, the artists are free from these outside pressures but they must then create their own focus and artistic direction. This does not seem to be a problem until you are actually faced with the issue.
  3. The rustic living conditions. This is cottage camping, not “Gail-Style” camping on the veranda of the Stanley Hotel (the elegant site in Estes Park, CO, the inspiration for The Shining, sipping a martini. Rooms are small and occupied by two persons. Toilets and bathing facilities are located in the community bathhouse - which is a short distance away. There is no cleaning service. Everyone is expected to pitch in and help maintain cleanliness by keeping the dishes washed, the trash picked up and participating in the once a week community cleaning that includes sweeping, scrubbing the bathing facilities, etc.
  4. Shared workspace. Artists who are not used to having others in their workspace can find shared spaces to be unsettling. The studio is located in an area that also accommodates the scientists, staff, and students, and some artists find the activity of other occupants to be distracting.

These are all situations that each participant encounters. Resolving these issues is an important part of the experience, but once resolved artists are then able to get on with enjoying and benefiting from the two-week program. So if you do decide to participate in the program, pack prudently, leave behind the backlog of unfinished work, and come prepared to observe and take inspiration from the abundance of plants and animals that live in this protected wilderness area.

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