The James River Park System's First Artist-In-Residence Explores the Ghosts of Belle Isle 

click to enlarge Artist Lauren Miner stands near Belle Isle, where she will be conducting a Halloween-themed writing workshop this weekend.

Scott Elmquist

Artist Lauren Miner stands near Belle Isle, where she will be conducting a Halloween-themed writing workshop this weekend.


Lauren Miner was hoping for rain.

She wanted to show a visitor the mushrooms that flourish on Belle Isle after a good rain — the shelf fungi that line trees and decomposing matter along the paths. Still, it’s hard to walk 20 feet with her without stopping.

“I’ll come for 20 minutes and be here two hours later,” she says. “Depending on how distracted I get with mushrooms and spiders.”

Not to mention geological formations, turtles and historical artifacts.

But Miner isn’t a biologist, geologist or historian — she’s a writer and artist, a recent graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University with a master’s degree in fine arts. And her budding mycological knowledge is the result of spending a lot of time in the James River Park System as its first artist-in-residence.

The link between parks and writers is storied. Such naturalists and writers as John Muir helped advocate for early preservation. Writers like Terry Tempest Williams and Annie Dillard continue the tradition. Dozens of national parks play host to popular residencies in which the artist or writer lives in the park. Recently, more unusual arrangements have surfaced, such as Amtrak’s sleeper car residency for writers. And VCU’s school of business named its first artist-in-residence this year.

“I was kind of surprised it didn’t already exist,” says Miner of the James River Park position. Of course, Miner doesn’t live in the 550-acre park, but she goes to different parts of it at least once a week to write, walk and contemplate. And she’s held four free writing workshops since she started in May.

“The river is one of those places where, as soon as I could drive, I’d end up here all the time,” Miner says. The Richmond native enjoys watching people interact with the park, too. “People are not separate from nature, they’re made of matter,” she says. “[The residency] combines overlapping obsessions. It’s history and what’s invisible, and what’s on the surface.”

She says she planned to do it unofficially, even if the park system didn’t claim her as its artist. “But I like knowing people are waiting for me to report back,” she says. “It imposes accountability.” That’s where the Friends of the James River Park come in.

“When she presented it, we were all kind of like, huh?” board member Karen Thomas says. “We hadn’t thought of that.”

But they welcomed it, coordinated with the city’s staff, and help advertise her workshops. “It gets people in the park that don’t normally get there, and it makes them more attentive to the park,” Thomas says. “Generally when you think about park recreation, it’s paddling, hiking and biking, but this opens a different avenue for people who aren’t interested in that.”

It helped that Miner wasn’t asking for money. For now the residency is without financial support, and Thomas acknowledges that it’s not a funding priority. The nonprofit group already funds and staffs a number of basic projects in the park system, such as cleanups and trail maintenance.

But if a donor is interested in underwriting a seasonal fellowship for a local artist?

“That would be awesome,” Thomas says.

The artist-in-residence program that Miner developed was inspired by the National Park Service’s: a commitment to inhabiting the space, free service and outreach programming, and creative output inspired by the experiences.

Miner studied poetry but also works in visual mediums like photography and watercolors, as well as having a background in creative nonfiction and comics theory. She calls the project that will result from the residency still “squishy,” but says she has visions of a multimedia book. “I feel like I’m throwing wet spaghetti against the wall right now to see what sticks,” she says.

“It’s kind of a low-stakes thing,” she adds, laughing.

After holding writing workshops in Pump House Park and the dry rock area south of the island, Miner returns this weekend with a Halloween-themed workshop on Belle Isle. Participants will take a walking tour of the island developed by former park director Ralph White and write ghost stories and haunted poems — an easy task given the hundreds who died there during the Civil War when it was a prison for Union soldiers.

“We’re using the historical space and landscape braided together with the literary tradition of ghost stories,” Miner says. “We’ll explore the way that the past haunts the present.”

Miner pauses to point out a hidden blue heron, seemingly watching the rock climbers. She lifts up a dead tree stump. “All kinds of fun micro-organisms having a life here,” she says. S

Lauren Miner holds a free creative writing workshop, “Ghost Stories on Belle Isle,” on Sunday, Oct. 30, from 2-4 p.m. Attendees will meet at the foot of the pedestrian bridge on Tredegar Street.

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