Artist Ashley Pierce enjoys the silence

An ongoing residency at Waubonsie State Park in Iowa has led the painter to embrace peace and solitude

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Ashley Pierce at Waubonsie State Park

During a recent hike in Iowa's Waubonsie State Park, it struck Ashley Pierce just how loud she could be tromping down the forested trails that surrounded her single-room cabin, where she’s in the midst of a three-week artist-in-residency stay.

“I was walking and thinking about how loud my feet were, and how loud I was, and I startled some deer,” Pierce said by phone from Iowa. “So I kind of went off trail and I told myself I would just sit and be quiet. And after a while, I started to hear woodpeckers, and then the deer came back, and I followed them for a bit along a ridge. It was really kind of a cool moment and a good reminder of how loud things can be.”

This isolation and escape from the chaos of city life are part of what drew Pierce to pursue an artist residency in a state park (she had previously applied for highly competitive national park openings, making the shortlist for one, and eventually widened the search), and in the time she has spent in Waubonsie, she has refrained from falling back into the habit of reaching for her phone whenever those moments of quiet hit, which she admitted has been an adjustment. 

“I think one big thing that has changed is my relationship to time, almost like I’m rekindling a relationship that went sour long ago,” Pierce said. “At first it was difficult to be in that silence and not go to a screen or a distraction, which I’ve gotten so used to doing in this human-created, ADHD environment. I’ve gotten OK with not filling every moment with meaningless stimulation and instead focused on being present and enjoying time for exactly what it is.”

Even just two weeks in, Pierce has noticed a difference, posting on Facebook about the way her body has adapted to nature’s rhythms, writing, “I find it amazing how easily I have fallen into a natural rhythm, going to bed shortly after dark and waking with the sunrise, when artificial environments have been removed or at least lessened.”

The view on one of the trails in Waubonsie State Park

Since arriving at the park in the second week of March, Pierce has developed something of a routine, leaving room for the unexpected (recently, she joined a park manager in surveying and marking a potential new trail). But generally, after waking up, she’ll begin the day with a morning hike, returning to the cabin to journal and read, chipping away at The Pioneers by David McCullough. She’ll then hike again before lunch, after which she spends some time sketching. Following a third hike, she’ll usually get out her brushes, completing a single small painting as another means of documenting her three-week stay. 

“It felt like a nice way to capture my experience here, so at the end of the stay I’ll have 20-some mini-paintings,” said Pierce, who painted the exterior of her cabin on her first day in Iowa, and the view from a nearby ridge the following afternoon.

The landscape paintings are fairly new to Pierce, whose work tends to live in more fantastical, imagined realms, but she felt compelled to capture the beauty of the natural setting in which she currently finds herself, describing an expansive view just steps outside of the cabin.

“The park is on these hills, these ridges, so you can see out so far because it’s March and there are no leaves on the trees yet,” said Pierce, who didn’t know much about Waubonsie prior to applying for the stay, but spent time researching it before leaving Columbus, learning it was along the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, among other factoids. “It’s really proved to be the perfect time to be here, because everything is so quiet, which is the perfect setting for an arts residency — Having that ability to just be in an environment that’s kind of dormant, on the verge of something, which is how I feel right now.”

Paintings done by Ashley Pierce

This feeling has been further heightened by a transitional COVID year, during which Pierce also became a full-time artist (not entirely by choice, either, but rather because the art program she ran in Marysville for 13 years became unsustainable amid cuts forced by the pandemic). 

Moving forward, Pierce is still sorting out how the experience could inform future work, though she said that forcing herself out of her usual comfort zone is likely to shift things in ways both subtle and obvious. 

“This is so far from the style I’m known for, and that I naturally do. I don’t paint landscapes,” she said. “But becoming a successful artist means continuing to learn and push yourself outside of your comfort zone. So even if this isn’t a style or approach I usually do, by learning how to do it, I can then apply those lessons to my style, and hopefully become a better artist. The more I can stretch myself, the better I’ll be.

“And then there’s also been a lesson that it’s OK to slow down and take my time on something. I’m not one of those artists who wants to work on a piece for a month, or even a week, because I get so many ideas and get so passionate when I work on a piece that I’ll work on it all hours, staying up crazy into the night to get it done. But here, with the attention to how I’m spending my time, and trying to be more present in the moment, I’m learning to be OK with taking a little longer. It’s just been nice to really enjoy that process of creating.”