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Making Art Off The Grid: A Monthlong Residency At A Remote National Park

Imagine: the chance to live on an uninhabited tropical island for a month, off the grid, creating art.

No phone, no television, no Internet.

Instead, spectacular night skies, crystalline turquoise waters and extraordinary marine life on the coral reef just a short swim from your back door.

For one month a year, Dry Tortugas National Park is home to a pair of artists in residence. The park is made up of seven islands in the Gulf of Mexico, 70 miles from Key West, Fla., accessible only by boat or seaplane.

The artists live by themselves on Loggerhead Key. It's a narrow strip of an island, lined with coconut trees. The vegetation includes mounds of spiky sea lavender, cactus, island morning glories, and flowering buttonwood and Geiger trees.

There are just a few structures, including an imposing lighthouse built in 1858, which is no longer lit. Their home for the month is a lightkeeper's house built in the 1920s. (Other visitors to the park land at Garden Key, about three miles away. Most visit just for the day; a smaller number can camp there.)

This year the lucky artists were filmmakers Carter McCormick, 26, of Lookout Mountain, Ga., and his partner, Paula Sprenger, 24, from Santiago, Chile. They met in art school two years ago, and have been a couple ever since. Living on a tropical island has always been one of Sprenger's dreams, so this past summer when she saw an article about the residency program, she told McCormick, "This is for us!" They submitted a proposal to film the island's ecosystems, on land and underwater, and were chosen from nearly 400 applicants. Part of the deal is they agree to donate some of their work to the National Parks Collection.

Carter McCormick and Paula Sprenger make images on the Loggerhead Key beach.
Melissa Block / NPR
Carter McCormick and Paula Sprenger make images on the Loggerhead Key beach.

I visit them on their last day on the island in September, and paddle out with them on their final excursion to the reef known as Little Africa. As McCormick dives to the bottom to shoot a last batch of images, Sprenger and I snorkel above. We gaze at schools of silvery bar jacks, bright indigo tangs, a prehistoric-looking spotted trunkfish shaped like a triangle and corals of every shape and color. It's an extraordinary playground. "The water is the most transparent I've ever seen," McCormick says. "It's a whole 'nother world out here."

After the dive, on their last walk around the island, McCormick points out the wide, curved path a sea turtle has made in the sand, ending in a large pit where she's laid her eggs. "It looks like it was drunk!" he jokes. "It was really swerving." Loggerhead Key is named for the loggerhead sea turtle, an endangered species, and the Spanish word for turtle gives the Dry Tortugas their name.

(Left) Loggerhead sea turtle tracks lead to the ocean. This species gives Loggerhead Key its name. (Right) The island has solar power and drinkable water, through a desalination system.
Melissa Block / NPR
(Left) Loggerhead sea turtle tracks lead to the ocean. This species gives Loggerhead Key its name. (Right) The island has solar power and drinkable water, through a desalination system.

The artists chosen for this residency have to bring with them everything they need for the month. There is solar power on Loggerhead Key and drinkable water, through a desalination system. There's a radio to contact park headquarters.

As for leaving communication behind and going through what he calls "digital detox," McCormick says, "I won't say I've missed civilization one bit. I have loved every second of not being connected to the digital world." His message to the rest of us: "You need to get off Facebook, stop worrying about politics and live on a deserted island! You'll love it!"

At night, we sit outside as an electrical storm lights up the sky in all directions, with bright flashes every few seconds. "I've never seen lightning do this," Sprenger says. "A lot of being on this island is the extreme weather. You just see crazy storms, and the clouds are so big, so colorful and the weather is so hot and it rains so hard. In one month we really got a lot of everything."

McCormick says they made it a point to get out from behind the camera at times, and simply absorb the experience. "It's always such a fine line for us, [between] filming and experiencing something. Because we look at a lot of really beautiful, interesting things, but half the time it's through an eyepiece. So out here we have taken that time to just let ourselves immerse in the island."

As their final day on Loggerhead Key winds down, the two sound wistful, not quite ready to leave.

"I think one of the saddest things to think is that we don't know if we're ever coming back," Sprenger says. "In 50 years it could be completely covered with water because of global warming."

McCormick adds, laughing, "I told 'em that we'll be here chained to the dock on our last day. Like, bring the bolt cutters, because we're not leaving. You put a great Chinese restaurant out here, and a grocery store, and we'll stay for the rest of our lives!"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.