Making Art Off The Grid: A Monthlong Residency At A Remote National Park Filmmakers Carter McCormick and Paula Sprenger recently wrapped up a month as artists-in-residence at Dry Tortugas National Park, 70 miles west of Key West. No phone, TV, Internet or other people.
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Making Art Off The Grid: A Monthlong Residency At A Remote National Park

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

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

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now we're going to visit one of the most remote national parks in the country. It's a group of islands 70 miles off of Key West, Fla., in the Gulf of Mexico. It's called Dry Tortugas National Park. It's surrounded by coral reefs. Dry Tortugas is one of the country's least visited national parks, but two young filmmakers recently got a rare opportunity. They spent a month there as artists in residence, living by themselves off the grid on an uninhabited island. NPR's Melissa Block visited them on their last day there.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: To get there, I go first by seaplane and then...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK, you ready?

BLOCK: Yeah.

...By boat across crystal-clear turquoise waters, headed to Loggerhead Key, a narrow strip of an island lined with coconut palms, its lighthouse puncturing the horizon.

CARTER MCCORMICK: Hi.

BLOCK: How are you?

MCCORMICK: I'm great - and yourself?

BLOCK: I'm good - pleased to meet you.

PAULA SPRENGER: Nice to meet you, too.

BLOCK: Meet filmmakers Carter McCormick and Paula Sprenger. He's 26 from Lookout Mountain, Ga. She's 24 from Chile. And for one more day, this island is their tropical home.

MCCORMICK: We're walking through sea lavender, island morning glory, some cactus and a tree called buttonwood.

BLOCK: Carter and Paula met in art school two years ago. They've been a couple ever since. And this past summer when they saw an article about an artists in residence program...

MCCORMICK: Spend a month on a deserted island making art.

BLOCK: They jumped, submitted a proposal and beat out nearly 400 other applicants.

MCCORMICK: Should we do high frame rate, 4K?

BLOCK: So they packed up everything they'd need for a month - all the food, camera and scuba gear, everything - and came to Loggerhead Key to make art. Part of the deal is that afterward they have to donate some of their work to the National Parks Collection. They've been filming the island's ecosystems on land and underwater on a reef called Little Africa.

MCCORMICK: Great snorkeling, great diving here right at the back door.

BLOCK: This is your playground right here.

MCCORMICK: This is the playground.

BLOCK: This will be their final dive on the island.

MCCORMICK: A little sad that it's our last time in.

BLOCK: Out at the reef, Carter dives to the bottom to shoot. Paula and I snorkel above. We see schools of silvery bar jacks, spectacular bright indigo tangs, a prehistoric-looking spotted trunkfish shaped like a triangle and corals of every shape and color. After the dive, Paula and Carter take their last walk around the island.

MCCORMICK: See; right here - sea turtle.

SPRENGER: Oh, yeah.

BLOCK: A wide curved path in the sand leads to a deep pit where a sea turtle has laid her eggs. Loggerhead Key is just 49 acres. The artists in residence stay in an old lightkeeper's house. There's solar power and drinkable water through a desalination system. There is a radio to contact park headquarters but no phone, no television, no internet.

MCCORMICK: I have loved every second of not being connected to the digital world.

BLOCK: I think a lot of people listening to this will be going, that sounds so great.

MCCORMICK: (Laughter) It is great. You need to get off Facebook. Stop worrying about politics, and live on a deserted island.

BLOCK: That night, we sit outside as a lightning storm flashes across the sky in all directions.

SPRENGER: It's everywhere around us. But you know, right on top of us there are stars.

BLOCK: There is zero light pollution on Loggerhead Key, and if it's a night with no moon - total darkness.

MCCORMICK: I literally held my hand just inches in front of my face and could not see a thing.

BLOCK: So after a month off the grid, together 24/7 all by themselves, maybe they're ready to leave.

MCCORMICK: Gosh, no. I told them a couple weeks ago that we'll be here chained to the dock on our last day. Like, bring the bolt cutters because we're not leaving.

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

BLOCK: The next morning at the dock, a park service boat comes to take Carter and Paula off the island, and back they go to the real world. I'm Melissa Block on Loggerhead Key in Dry Tortugas National Park.

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