New Energy: Art and Ideas in a Remote Mountain Town

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Mammoth Lakes is a small rural community nestled approximately 8,000 feet above sea level on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range in central California. The full-time population of around 8,000 people expands seasonally with visitors who seek out Mammoth for epic skiing, easy access to alpine lake fly fishing, hiking and biking with endless mountain vistas. In addition to the beauty and solitude the area offers, the small-town vibe and year-round stoke attract Olympic and professional athletes who take full advantage of the high altitude for their training.

Long home to a thriving local theater scene, Mammoth is now poised on the cusp of an awakening as a cultural hub via artists and other visionary thinkers who are just as inspired by the outdoors as skiers, mountaineers, ultrarunners and anglers. Forest Island Project is a primary force in the effort to promote art and ideas in the region.

Co-founded by Kiersten Puusemp and Christopher James, both artists, skiers and climbers, Forest Island is an art and advocacy organization defining a space for conversation and engagement at the intersection of nature and culture. Developed from the belief that actionable solutions to social issues can originate from creative practices, this residency program for artists, writers and thinkers is part of an endeavor to establish Mammoth Lakes as a distinctive rural cultural nexus, a hub of artistic and intellectual capital, and an authority on the constructed environment, both built and social, as it relates to the natural world.

To reach these ambitious goals, Forest Island has developed relationships with community organizations, including Mammoth Lakes Foundation, which was created by ski legend Dave McCoy to promote art and education in the region, Mammoth Lakes Recreation, Mammoth Lakes Trails and Public Access Foundation, Mammoth Lakes Trail System, and the Sierra Center, as well as corporate partner Mammoth Mountain Ski Area. The Forest Island advisory council includes local stakeholders like Mammoth Lakes Mayor John Wentworth, entrepreneur Rudy DeFelice, Powder magazine correspondent and columnist Hans Ludwig, writer and artist Benjamin Weissman, and yours truly, artist, curator and writer Corrina Peipon.

As curator for the residency program’s inaugural session in October 2017, I was thrilled to invite artists Krysten Cunningham, Helen Mirra and Drea Zlanabitnig to Mammoth. These artists were chosen specifically for the immediate connections their work makes to the natural world. Using sculpture and performance, photography and collage, and mixed media interpretations of walks in the environment, all three use the surrounding environment as inspiration, subject matter and medium. The artists lived in Mammoth for a month and participated in events that were open to the public, including an open studio that gave the community a glimpse of the ideas and questions raised by their residency period and the potential of Forest Island to spark a new energy in the Eastern Sierras.

Image: Untitled (Merced River), 2017 Archival Inkjet Print by Drea Zlanabitnig.

xx Corrina Peipon

This article was originally published in RANGE Magazine Issue Eight.