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Helen Toomer

Helen Toomer Named Executive Director of AIRIE, Launches New Conversation Series

Last week, Helen Toomer was announced as the new Executive Director of the Artists in Residence in Everglades (AIRIE).

The program invites 10 fellows a year to participate in a one-month residency, living within Everglades National Park. Artists, performers, writers, choreographers, musicians, and filmmakers alike, have the chance to engage with rangers and biologists to better understand the local ecology and environmental history. Since 2001, AIRIE has hosted over 180 artists.

This Wednesday, April 22, at 1PM on Zoom, Toomer will launch a new digital series, “AIRIE Asks,” in conversation with recent AIRIE Fellow, artist Dara Friedman.

Whitewall spoke with Toomer, Co-Founder of STONELEAF RETREAT, about guiding AIRIE into its third decade and how artists are uniquely equipped to address our current climate crisis.

WHITEWALL: How would you describe your new role at AIRIE?

HELEN TOOMER: As Executive Director, I’m responsible for everything really. We are a tiny team and my role spans from establishing the creative vision, working with our artists, planning with partners at the Everglades National Park, to basic logistics. I have to say that I’m extremely lucky to be working closely with such a fantastic board who have been instrumental in helping me hit the ground running at this especially challenging time.

WW: Can you describe the residency program at AIRIE?

HT: It’s a month-long residency for artists to immerse themselves in the tranquility and beauty of the Everglades National Park. The landscape becomes their studio, biologists and park rangers become their studio-mates, and I guess the neighboring wildlife conduct studio visits! We provide a home within the park that serves as a base for research as well as a stipend to each artist. It really is an incredible gift to be able to stay and study in the heart of the Everglades.

WW: Who are some of the artists who have participated in the residency? 

HT: There have been over 180 artists who have participated in the residency! Those who spring to mind are Robert Chambers, Elisabeth Condon, Mark Dion, Dara Friedman, Brookhart Jonquil, and Rebecca Reeve—the last is also a STONELEAF RETREAT alumni artist.

WW: How are artists responding to issues around climate change and the climate crisis while spending time in the Everglades?

HT: AIRIE hosts artists from a range of disciplines, such as music, film, dance, performance as well as the visual arts. As there is a diverse mix of voices and practices, they communicate about environmental issues differently, which to me, means we are able to reach an expanded audience. The residency is about complete immersion in the Everglades, which allows our fellows to gain insight into the complexity and fragility of its wilderness, thereby becoming fierce ambassadors for the preservation of this World Heritage Site.


AIRIE booth at UNTITLED, 2019.

WW: You are no stranger to the artist residency. What can a residency offer to an artist? How does working from a new place/space being given the time to focus and create?

HT: I think the power of an artist residency can be tremendous, which we’ve seen firsthand at STONELEAF. The connectivity the artists can have with each other and with the natural environment is incredible. I truly believe in the power of time spent in nature. I have seen artists transformed, through the experience of slowing down and connecting with their natural surroundings. It unlocks and it can heal. Time in nature is regenerative and I think that goes for all of us, not just artists.

WW: Tell us about the new conversation series you’re launching, AIRIE Asks?

HT: The first in the series is on Earth Day, where I’ll be in conversation with Dara Friedman, who participated in the residency this past January. She is an incredible artist and her time spent in the Everglades unlocked a whole new body of work, which I’m excited for her to share.

AIRIE Asks” came from my desire to connect with the fellows who have come through the program and have a better understanding about what it meant, and still means, to them and their work. The next in the series will be Dorian Emerson Munroe, a filmmaker, who was in residence in March and was recipient of AIRIE’s first Diversity and Inclusion Award.




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