Rabbit Island, a 91 acre oasis of wilderness in Lake Superior, first came to my attention in 2011 when a friend emailed me about a Kickstarter campaign. An artist residency was planned for the island and when I read about the fledgling project online my heart skipped a beat as I realized how much I would love to go there. The Great Lakes have captured my imagination for many years and this summer I had the chance to be one of the artists at work in this magical setting.
Under the creative vision of Rob Gorski, the residency has been developed with considered restraint – the only shelter from the elements is a 3 sided cabin that serves as a communal kitchen and dining area. Artists sleep in tents, cook on the campfire, and swim in the frigid water. The intention is to leave behind all distractions of modern life and live close to nature. We tried to cultivate an ethos of simplicity by keeping our off-island imports to a minimum. For instance, processed food and beer cans were discouraged in favor of a “less is more” approach. We were constantly asking ourselves “what else can we live without?” This being the third summer of the residency, we were essentially part of a beta testing phase and learned so much that will help shape the experiences of future residents.
I shared the island with a colorful cast of artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and chefs. The atmosphere was abuzz with creative energy, and adding to that dynamic was the presence of a New York Times journalist and photographer who were writing a story about us. I felt some conflict between my desire to find solitude, and the excitement of the activity around me. In my normal routine I spend a lot of time alone but I recognized the value of this opportunity to work alongside such a diverse group. I loved seeing what fascinated other people about this unique environment and imagining how it would manifest through each individual’s creativity. While I was out painting, completely absorbed in my canvas, I could occasionally look up to see one of the other artists at a distance, equally absorbed in another kind of work. Once when I was walking back to camp, I passed Jessica Kilroy, who was standing on a wobbly rock, shifting her weight side to side and listening intently to the hollow clunk underfoot. I knew she was collecting field recordings to use in her music compositions … I had never thought of it on my own, but now I heard a melody every time I wobbled across those rocks! This is just one example of the kind of energy that was sparkling around me this summer, and I encourage you to visit the Rabbit Island blog to read about all the different projects that took place.
I spent my time making small plein air paintings, choosing my subjects based purely on a fascination with light and form. The warm sandstone bedrock of the island as it disappears under the deep turquoise waters crashing over it was a fun challenge for me to decipher. As a group, these paintings are a collection of intimate moments, each one exposing a piece of Rabbit Island’s character. To me, they serve as windows through time, bringing me back to the moment I was painting in quiet meditation surrounded by waves, wind, rocks, and sky. Those afternoons spent in focused awareness were precious for their lack of distractions. Even though we had cell service and I was able to use my phone daily, it was often out of commission with a dead battery. If I were to repeat this trip, I’d give myself a true digital detox and I might even give up the ability to take photos altogether, that way I’d be forced to use my drawing and writing skills to record my memories.
Exercising smart-phone restraint has been a popular topic of conversation around me this summer. They are such powerful tools to connect us, and as an artist it is an invaluable way to promote my work and share the journey behind how I make it. My instagram feed has allowed me to stay in touch with my friends and find inspiration in their adventurous lives. Maintaining this sense of community has been a positive gain, but at times I feel overwhelmed by information and I struggle to find the presence I need to fully develop my thoughts. On the morning we were packing to leave the island and re-enter the outside world, I considered how I could simplify my life and bring more presence into my daily routine. I realized there were quite a few things I could live without – in material possessions, habits, and thoughts. So, in keeping with the “less is more” motto we had on Rabbit Island, I’ll be doing some spring cleaning this fall!