Nick Collier: National Parks Artist-in-Residence Success Insider



Big Blend Radio conversation with recent Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park artist-in-residence Nick Collier, and Tanya Ortega – Founder of National Parks Arts Foundation (NPAF).

A photographer, sculptor and installation artist, Nick Collier was NPAF’s first-ever U.S. veteran artist when he was selected to pilot the foundation’s program at Big Bend National Park, and the successful program has grown to encompass several residencies at Gettysburg National Military Park, and now at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. Nick has been an artist-in-residence in all three parks. Listen to our Jan. 2017 interview with Nick after his Big Bend AiR.

Nick is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, with a combat action ribbon for his time in Afghanistan. His unit was in Afghanistan running missions that set the frame-work and would in part lead up to the actions portrayed in the movie, “Lone Survivor,” with Mark Wahlburg. His unit was the first unit in the Korengal Valley prior to the Army unit portrayed in the movie, “Restrepo.”

Nick received his BFA from George Mason University, Virginia, in 2012 and his MFA from Florida State University in 2016. He works as an interdisciplinary artist, employing photography, social practice, and sculpture to explore the intersection of ideas revolving around place, history, and contemporary culture. His work has been shown in galleries in Washington D.C., Virginia, and Florida. He lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he splits his time between his studio practice, the development of his start-up Aloft Aerial Imaging, and working as a residential remodeler. See his work and learn more at

National Parks Arts Foundation selects any sort of artist for national park residencies, from traditional landscape painters, photographers, to performers, installations, films/video, as well as writers, poets, sound artists, and new arts media. More information about these opportunities is available at 

  • Fence Climb - Gettysburg
    Fence Climb - Gettysburg

So what does it take to be a successful artist and national park artist-in-residence? Listen to our Big Blend Radio discussion with Nick Collier and Tanya Ortega, founder of National Parks Arts Foundation, and read Nick’s answers to our 10 National Park Artist-in-Residence Insider Questions.


What led you to become an artist and photographer?
I don’t know if it was really any one thing that attracted me to art. Its something that I’ve always been into, even from a young age.  I think part of it then was that it came naturally, the same way someone else might pick up an instrument or play a particular sport.  These days it’s still partly that, but also is a means of concentrated reflection, a creative outlet, and a way to apply skills I’ve acquired throughout my life.

Who or what inspires you?
As cheesy as it sounds, I’m inspired by the world around me and the environments I surround myself with. During my undergrad I was exposed to the idea of art being created through questioning and research and not just aesthetics or technical proficiency.  I loved how expansive that was.

Describe your ideal viewing audience?
My ideal audience really is anyone that enjoys what I make.  I think if you make work that has to try to please everyone, you’ll be constantly worried about reaching that mark.  Make what you enjoy and you’ll find people (even if only a few) that appreciate and applaud you.

What personal changes have you had to make in order to build your career?
I haven’t really been faced with making personal changes in order to make art work as career. I guess really the only thing would have to be taking the time to pursue two degrees in fine arts and then putting those things to work for me!

What do you consider your biggest challenge?
I don’t really find that I have challenges.  Maybe just opportunities for unique perspectives.

If you could invite any three people (alive or passed on) for a dinner party who would they be?
Both of my grandfathers (both passed when I was young and before I was able to ever really know them), and my good friend and fellow Marine, Nick Kirven, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005.

If you could switch careers for a day, what would you choose?
Charter sailboat captain for sure.

What led you to apply to be a NPAF Artist-in-Residence, and more than once?
I applied for the first NPAF residency because a grad school friend of mine passed it my way knowing that I would be a good fit. This was for the Military Veteran Artist in Residence launch at Big Bend National Park so I figured that I would have a pretty good chance at least to make it into the top three.  I was actually kind of stunned when I found out that I was awarded the opportunity.  I was hooked after that first one and just wanted to try to get to every park that I could!

What attributes do you have that make you a good fit for being a successful artist-in-residence?
Well I guess I’m a good fit because I enjoy history and researching the parks that I visit. I also love the outdoors and spending time not only learning the parks, but also getting to know the park employees, the surrounding towns and towns people.

What is the most important tip you would pass on to another artist applying for an art residency?
Make sure your work and application are solid.  Some of the required items are boiler plate type stuff that everyone should have prepped and ready to go at any time (bio, resume/CV, images of work).  The proposal should be strong too, but I find it’s easier to leave them a bit open-ended and flexible.  I don’t like to get too specific with those things because I would rather have the ability to develop work once I’m on site. You have to apply though. Again, and again, and again, because it can take several tries before you are accepted so don’t get discouraged!!

*ARTIST’S STATEMENT ON HAWAII & QUARANTINE SERIES: With the main portion of the park being closed due to the ongoing eruption of Mt Kilauea, my focus was directed toward the only portion of the park still open. The Kahuku Unit, covering roughly 116,000 acres, is a former cattle ranch and newest addition to the park. The area has a long and storied history including lava flows, livestock, and a WWII U.S. military occupation.

Currently, the park is ground zero for a new threat in the form of a fungus called Rapid Ohia Disease. If not controlled, this disease has the capability of wiping out a key plant and corner-stone of the islands eco system, the Ohia Lehua. Attempts to control its spread have led to laws banning the handling and transport of the tree and park patrons are asked to thoroughly clean shoes, gear, and vehicles before entering and after exiting back country trails.

After a new lava flow has cooled and the earth begins the process of repair, the Ohia Lehua is the first plant to establish itself. Growing at first as an air plant on top of the lava its roots eventually permeate the porous rock and reach deep within the earth in search of water. As the tree grows and the root system expands it breaks down the lava and creates homes for the next wave of plants, insects, and animals to take hold.

In Hawaiian culture this tree has a deep historical significance. Legend says that one day The Fire Goddess Pele, keeper of Kilauea, came across a handsome woodsman working in the forest. Pele wanted Ohia as her lover but her advances were rejected because Ohia was already in love with the beautiful Lehua. In a fit of jealousy and rage Pele turned Ohia into a twisted and gnarled tree trunk for eternity. Devastated, Lehua went to the gods and pleaded that they change him back but it was too late. The gods instead transformed Lehua into a beautiful red flower and placed her upon the tree so they could be together forever. It is said that if the flower is plucked from the tree the sky will fill with rain, the tears of the separated lovers.

National Parks Arts Foundation


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