A sweet floral scent overwhelmed my senses as I stepped onto the Upper Dogwood Trail in Hot Springs National Park. It felt like walking into a perfume boutique, except no posh attendant approached me on the dirt trail. Only a green snake jumped as I walked forward in a dreamy state of mind. I yelped, and the snake froze inches from my feet.
Quickly side stepping this little guy, my thoughts returned to the artist statement of Patricia Cummins. I remembered her words:
The experiences of life that I find to be of greatest value are those that rest in the basic and seemingly simplistic. Garden fragrances, nature’s color and form, all outweigh for me the more contrived and materialistic of our life today.
Her statement could not have resonated more.
Two weeks into this National Park Quest, we were in the midst of discovering the smallest of all 59 natural parks: Hot Springs. The first impression was one of dilapidated buildings mixed in with beautifully preserved bathhouses, but the second impression was one of quiet healing in the forest around those structures. We’d discovered the work of environmental artist Patricia Cummins several weeks before the quest and saw the essence of the park reflected through her oil paintings. She captured the source of the wild fragrances through rich color and form that enlivens the humble landscape for eternity.
The result of Patricia’s work is nature caught in time, elevating simple scenes we easily take for granted in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives. In 2006, Patricia stepped outside her daily routine to immerse herself in these scenes for 18 days. Drawn to the diversity of the natural beauty of our country, she is an artist who has completed eleven National Park Artist-in-Residence programs.
Hot Springs took Patricia back to her childhood days of growing up in Queens, New York City. The park has an urban feel to it, considering the city of Hot Springs divides it in half. The stone structures and overpasses were nostalgic reminders of her neighborhood in New York, and she was drawn to paint them.
A Healing Place for All
For many decades, folks have escaped places like New York to find peace and healing in Hot Springs. It’s famous for natural springs that were tapped in the 19th century to become the lifeblood of the great “American Spa” as Hot Springs became known as. Bathhouses sprung up in abundance, along with casinos that rivaled Las Vegas, natural parks, ballparks, and hospitals. Polite society coexisted with gangsters, as well as famous baseball players who came here to sweat booze out their systems.
Everything changed around 1967 when Governor Winthrop Rockefeller shut down the casinos, and literally had all the gambling equipment destroyed. While the vibe of Hot Springs has changed in the last several decades, the national park has continued to draw visitors from all over the world. The park began as a federal reservation in 1832 – technically making it our nation’s first park, even before Yellowstone – but did not receive official park status until 1921.
As Patricia described, we’re fortunate the park is now frozen in time and hopefully it will remain so for many years to come. It takes over 4,000 years of rain dripping through layers of the earth to heat up and create the natural hot springs so valued today. Water is at the heart of this story, with locals all too eager to discuss the benefits of drinking the mineral rich resource.
A Holistic Approach
Hot Springs advocates protecting this water by keeping most of the 47 springs closed off with green boxes to prevent contamination. A natural spring is preserved in the heart of the park, but much of the landscape feels built up with layers of historical development. One thing that has stayed with Patricia is the paving over of Hot Springs Creek, which is now Central Avenue, the main street dividing the park.
Despite these changes to the landscape, visitors can still explore several miles of hiking trail along rocky mountain slopes and lush forested valleys with a diverse range of flowering shrubs and trees. These trails were initially constructed as part of fitness regimes for visitors who sought healing in Hot Springs. They’d take in fresh air between nourishing bath treatments. A ranger emphasized the purpose of the bathhouses: to heal the mind, body, and soul. Treatments focused on a holistic approach with time among the trees a significant part of healing process.
Immersion into nature is a theme in Patricia’s work. Her goal as an artist is “to arrest nature’s motion, involving viewers as deeply as I can. As I make my artwork, I leave behind traces of feelings associated with my experience of each scene; sharing my vision of beauty and grace expressed through color and form.”
We often feel healed after walking along a forest path, calmer or more at peace in some way. Art reflects these moments, giving the artist an opportunity to connect viewers to places that enrich our lives. As a plein air painter, Patricia can spend hours in a park and use all of her senses to experience the details around, then translate what we feel, but cannot always describe. Her days in Hot Springs were spent painting in beautiful weather, talking with visitors from all over the world, and meeting locals.
Paint to Protect Parks
Ten years later Patricia’s paintings continue to speak for Hot Springs, which is part of the goal of the Artist-in-Residence (AIR) program. Over 50 residency programs exist throughout the country, and artists can choose to apply for locations as remote as Denali in Alaska, or as historic as sites in New England. These programs offer opportunities of research and reflection for artists who can use their unique voices to document our natural heritage. More than document, artists can aid in protecting our natural lands, as Thomas Moran did in the 1870s. This tradition has continued on with AIR programs, as well as initiatives like Paint the Parks.
With her diverse park experiences, as well as international plein air painting, Patricia is one of many artists who supports Paint the Parks. The movement invites painters to join the community and contribute 10% of their earnings back to the parks they paint. It encourages artists to become stewards through their creations, to “actively participate in painting and preserving our precious park-lands for future generations.”
Artists can connect with like-minded folks and contribute their work to a diverse gallery of park-inspired paintings. Meanwhile, patrons can connect with landscapes they love and support the parks through their purchases.
For Patricia, painting in parks has been a source of healing and connecting to the land. Her journey continues this summer as she prepares for her 12th residency at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. We invite you to view all of her diverse paintings at her website, patcummins.com, and also check out her Q&A with the National Park Foundation.
Hot Springs National Park showed us that it’s not hard to find a peaceful moment even in an urban setting. As Patricia’s paintings depict, there is beauty in the simplicity surrounding a stone bridge or quiet creek. Whether you take a lunch break through Central Park or afternoon hike in Hot Springs, you’ll surely feel a little more healed from the experience.
And we can all use a little bit of that healing, now and then.