February is Black History Month, and to help celebrate it, I painted a few portraits of Black leaders to use in a library display. We can learn a lot about resilience, strength, dignity, courage, humanity and creativity from the history and examples of Black leaders who faced racism, injustice, and social and economic disadvantages. Such lessons and wisdom are timeless — just as helpful in today’s world as ever.
For example, think about these words:
“I will not allow my life’s light to be determined by the darkness around me.”
— Sojourner Truth
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
— Frederick Douglass
“We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what is in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense.”
— Barack Obama
“Each person must live their life as a model for others.”
— Rosa Parks
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“There was a man who loved islands. . . . He wanted an island all of his own: not necessarily to be alone on it, but to make it a world of his own.”
— D. H. Lawrence, “The Man Who Loved Islands”
Lawrence could have been describing Ernest Oberholtzer. Ober’s spirit permeates Mallard Island. You feel it in the whimsical, eclectic dwellings and buildings — Louise Erdrich describes one of the cabins here: “There is the Birdhouse, rising like a Seuss concoction into the pines, story after story, with a zigzag of steps and ladders” (from Books and Islands in Ojibway Country). Little garden plots that dot the island are testaments to Ober’s love of landscape architecture. The pianos, gramophone, shelves of sheet music hold his love of music (Ober played the violin). The porches and many chairs hold memories of his many guests. Oberholtzer’s choices created an idiosyncratic world.
But it is the books on Mallard Island — over 11,000 of them — lovingly collected and well-thumbed, that best reflect Oberholtzer the man.
“Other than actual writing, the books a person leaves behind reflect most accurately the cast of that person’s mind. . . . [Oberholtzer’s] assemblage does reflect his character, as the best collections do, which is why it is is important that the heart of it be restored. His books on exploration, the great north of Canada and the Arctic, and his painstakingly procured works on Native American life, as well as the volumes of poetry he so loved and the works in German and the books on music, probably reflect as much as anyone can know of him.”
— Louise Erdrich, Books and Islands in Ojibway Country
There are books everywhere. Most of the little cabins and buildings hold hundreds of books. The Oberholtzer Foundation has inventoried them and decided to keep them in the places where Ober himself kept them and used them. To find a particular volume necessitated the development of a unique coding and cataloguing system by title, author, and subject. The books are coded and tagged by the building where they are housed, the wall where they are shelved (N for north, S for south, E for east and W for west), and unique number where they fall chronologically on the shelf.
“The little houses are all lined floor to ceiling with bookshelves. They are all full of nooks and crannies, little hidden spaces reached by narrow, steep stairs with still more stuffed bookshelves, trap doors leading down to yet more rooms.”
— Bill Holm, Eccentric Islands
“There is a fever that overcomes a book-lover who has limited time to spend on Ober’s island. A fever to read. Or at least to open the books. There is no question of finishing or even delving deeply. I have only days. Among the books, I feel what is almost a low swell of grief, a panic.”
— Louise Erdrich, Books and Islands in Ojibway Country
If I have one regret from my six day art residency on Mallard Island, it is that I did not have enough time to be with Oberholtzer’s books. I made painting a priority for my time there, but I could have been equally happy browsing the bookshelves, discovering books that spoke to me, delving into their text and illustrations, and perhaps being inspired to start a book-related art project. I guess I will just have to make an application to return to Mallard Island some day to indulge my bibliophilia.
“Books are our guardians of memory, tutors in language, pathways to reason, and our golden gate to the royal road of imagination. Books take us to new places where boundaries are not set by someone else’s pictures on a television screen and our thoughts are not drowned out by sounds on a boom box. Books help us pose the unimagined question and to accept the unwelcome answer. Books convince rather than coerce. They are oases of coherence where things are put together rather than just taken apart. Good books take us away from the bumper cars of emotion and polemics in the media into trains of thought that can lead us into places we might not otherwise ever discover.
Reading a book can become a private conversation with someone from a time and place other than our own — a voyage into both mastery and mystery.”
— John H. Billington, “The Modern Library and Global Democracy,” from The Meaning of the Library; ed. Alice Crawford
“If you’re well, you should be able to live on a piece of bread, while working the whole day long, and still having the strength to smoke and drink your glass; you need that in these conditions. And still to feel the stars and the infinite, clearly, up there. Then life is almost magical, after all.”
— Vincent Van Gogh
“Islands do not want laptops or cell phones or any ringing or buzzing noise except the brass bell to summon you to dinner in the Wanigan or the buzzing of moths around a kerosene lamp or candle. Islands want you to read old editions of Leaves of Grass or eighteenth-century travel books so you can dip your naked body into them long enough to scrub off the dust of continents, of offices, of the noise of ringing, buzzing, beeping gadgets, of human foolishness. Even if the island is small, the imagination grows large to encompass and comprehend it. Islands want true artists.”
Bill Holm, Eccentric Islands
Being an artist in residence on Mallard Island was my chance to live the life of an artist, to make watercolor painting my primary task for six days in a row. No errands to run, nothing to schedule, no appointments, no mail, no email, no bills to pay, almost no cooking, and no outside interruptions . . . I wanted to make productive and creative use of this time apart.
I came to Mallard without any fixed project to devote myself to. I thought perhaps that the books and library would inspire me to create a new bookish project. I wanted to be open to the influences of this special place. But I was also conscious of the finiteness of my time there, and I soon settled in to making a watercolor journal about Mallard Island, combining images and quotes from my pre-trip readings and my own words. That became my primary “work.”
I soon realized that I simply could not paint for eight hours a day. I was pulled away by the urge to meander around the tiny island with my camera, capturing its unique features and artifacts and buildings in the ever-changing light and weather. I wanted time to browse the books. I wanted time to read. I wanted time to just sit on a porch or deck and watch the waves lapping the shore.
So my typical day went as follows: upon waking (no alarm clock) I went out to the eastern point to watch the sunrise, then assembled and ate a quick breakfast, then gathered my art supplies and found a spot to work. For such a small island, there was an abundance of nooks and crannies that would have provided secluded and private spots to work and make art. Oberholtzer was a man who loved porches, and any one of them would have sheltered a creative spirit.
But my absolute favorite place to paint was the tiny Japanese House. It was a bit out of the way on the westernmost tip of Mallard Island, approached by crossing an arched stone bridge. It was a single room with a peaked roof, surrounded on all four sides by a screened-in narrow porch. It had purple painted floors with a Japanese character painted in orange on each side (the cardinal directions?). Its big window opened wide to an island-dotted view of Rainy Lake. There I worked four or five hours on my journal pages before stopping for lunch, and that typically completed the day’s painting portion of my artistic endeavors.
After lunch I had a few “free” hours before the group gathered for our communal dinner. Editing and uploading photos took a good portion of my time, but I also read and explored. One afternoon Cecilia and I took out a canoe and rowed to Crow Island for a hike. We also paddled around Gull Island. Others were often out and about, socializing and becoming acquainted. The shared dinners were always a convivial time. A couple of times we met evenings in the Drum Room of Ober’s House for piano music and conversation.
Nature continually offered visual gifts: ever-changing clouds, sunshine, trees and water illuminated by the nearly full moon, stars, and even the Northern Lights (which made an appearance just one night — ephemeral curtains of pale green light, fading in and out over the treeline of Crow Island). One day we spotted an unusual sight — a free-floating bog/tangle of grasses floated by in the distance like a long natural barge.
Writer Joe Paddock, in Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer, made this comment about the effect of Mallard Island on its lucky visitors: “In many, an archetype is awakened that releases an ancient joy at finding human shelter so in continuum with nature. . . . those in whom the archetype awakens become playful, expansive, and creative on the Mallard. They regain connection with soul.”
I’ve dreamed about participating in an art residency and feel so grateful that I had the opportunity to live this dream on Mallard Island. If you are like me, you are probably curious about the nitty gritty details about how one’s life plays out during a residency. So let me tell you about how meals and lodging were organized for our Individual Artists’ Week.
The week was well organized by our two caretakers. There was no fee to apply for the residency, but each artist paid $250 for a “shared island” donation. The Oberholtzer Foundation limits visitors to the island, with a maximum of 12 guests at a time. That way the stress on the island’s composting toilets, waste management systems, etc. is kept under control.
Mallard Island is a unique environment in that it is quite rustic — no plumbing or hot water (there was a pump to get lake water, which we heated for washing dishes, etc.), no wifi or internet, no flush toilets (there were three composting toilets), and indoor heating was by wood-burning fireplaces or stoves.
Beth sent us a list of things to bring, including swimsuit and thermal underwear (the weather in northern Minnesota in September can be summer-like or quite cold), rain gear, mosquito repellent, flashlights, and sturdy shoes for walking on the rocky grounds. Thankfully we were actually blessed with nice weather, so I did not use my rain gear nor any insect repellent.
We were responsible for bringing our own bed linens — I brought a sleeping bag, pillow cases, a flannel sheet, and a quilt.
Each artist had a private room in one of the larger houses (Front House and Ober’s Big House and Winter House) or else shared accommodations in one of the other buildings. I shared the Cedar Bark House with Cecilia, a sculptor who carved moveable, wooden figures. My bed was in a little nook that jutted over the water.
The Cedar Bark House was where Oberholtzer’s mother stayed when she was in residence on Mallard Island. The structure had an interesting history: it was formerly an “old floating whorehouse and gambling den that had serviced the lumberjacks, pulling up anchor to cross the border whenever police arrived either from Canada or from Minnesota” (description from Bill Holm, Eccentric Islands). Its interior, a long open rectangle, was anchored by a fireplace on one end and a wood-burning stove on the other. It also housed one of the island’s two pianos and its wind-up gramophone. Cecilia was often sitting in the enclosed porch on her end of the house, carving her little wooden sculptures. The Cedar Bark House also had a deck overlooking the water.
Each individual was responsible for his or her own breakfasts and lunches. I kept it very simple and generally had a hard-boiled egg, cherry tomatoes, a slice of toast, and coffee for breakfast. Lunches were sometimes leftovers from the previous night’s dinner, or a light meal from my stock of canned tuna, sardines, and peanut butter.
The dinners on Mallard were extraordinary. We were paired up with a fellow artist and were each responsible for cooking one dinner during the week. (The two caretakers made dinner the first night.) My partner, Cecilia, and I planned our meal via email before we arrived. We divvied up the parts of the meal, shopped for the ingredients, and brought them with us. The kitchen (also a former barge) had an electric stove and oven and almost any utensil you might need.
An old bell was rung to gather us for dinnertime. Here is how Louise Erdrich described dinner time on Mallard Island: “We convene to eat in an old early twentieth-century cook’s barge used by lumber companies to feed their crews as they ravaged the northern old-growth trees and floated the logs down to the sawmill. Ober had this cook’s barge hauled onto his island. An old bell signals meals. Original plates and dishes of every charm — Depression glass, porcelains, and sweet old flowery unmatched Royal Doulton china dishes — crowd the open shelves” (from Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country).
Every single dinner was worth raving about. Lots of healthy food. Delicious, too. Let me list the meals here:
Sunday — homemade tomato soup, chicken, and fresh salad
Monday — pezole (traditional hominy soup/pork stew from Mexico), tortillas, chips, salsa, hot cheesy bean dip, and apple crisp with whipped cream for dessert
Tuesday — hard and soft tacos with all the toppings you could ever wish for and lots of chopped vegetables
Wednesday — cheese and crackers and wine to start us off, then creamy wild rice soup with chicken, fresh salad, and warm blueberry pie for dessert
Thursday — fried and breaded walleye fillets, mashed potatoes, abundant and assorted raw vegetables, and Nut Goody bars for dessert
Friday — challah baked from scratch, salad nicoise, squash soup, venison brats, and cashew bars for dessert
Nobody ever lost weight on Mallard Island!
My next blog post will be about work and play during Artists’ Week. Stay tuned!
This week I received an unexpected package in the mail. My sister sent me some old postcards that I had sent and received years ago when I was still in school and then later when I was recently married. We cherished mail in those days — as a kid, I didn’t receive many letters or postcards. Some of the postcards in this pile were sent to me by my Uncle Leo (a favorite bachelor uncle), my oldest sister when she was at her college job as a cook at a summer camp in Minnesota, and my brother when he was in army training before his stint in Vietnam. There are also a few postcards from three school friends — lines dropped about their summer vacations. I do not remember corresponding with my school friends, but here I am holding proof in my hands. Back then, we did not talk on the phone like everyone does now. Our phone was on a party line — we were wary of chatting with the risk of someone eavesdropping. And in our family, social talking on the phone was simply not done.
Several of the postcards were from people whose names are a complete blank for me now. Who were these people? Apparently large chunks of my past have simply disappeared — memories of people I used to know (well enough to send me a postcard!!) and things that happened to me. What does this say about life? I believe it shows how ephemeral our short lives are on this planet. Much of our lives will be forgotten while we are still alive. But certainly, in a generation or two, we will be mostly forgotten. For example, how often do I think about my grandparents (seldom) or my great-grandparents (never)? So what do we make of this gift of time on this Earth, knowing it is not meant to last? Maybe we shouldn’t fret so much about life’s challenges and uncertainties — take a long enough view and our worries will have faded regardless of the outcome.
One of the postcards was sent by me to my sister shortly after George and I arrived in Seattle to stay in November 1978. We moved in stages — I stayed to find a job and put down some roots while George returned to his job in the Midwest. By August of 1979 he had moved here, too, and we were settled in an apartment on Capitol Hill. Seattle was meant to be a temporary home for us, but here we still are nearly 40 years later! I was delighted to read my first impressions. (I called Puget Sound a “bay,” something the locals never do!): “Seattle is a very pretty city — very big, and much hillier than any city I had ever been in before. George and I have walked along the piers in the bay where there is a huge open market — fish, vegetables, fruit . . . On Wednesday we had lunch in the revolving restaurant atop the space needle. There are mountains, ships in the bay, and a huge city to look at.” A second postcard mentions our efforts to furnish our rented home: “This morning George and I are going shopping for a mattress and foundation. I just got a Sears card, so I may get a small b/w T.V., too. By next week we should be wallowing in comfort!” The postcards are artifacts from one of the defining adventures of our young lives.
The postcards reminded me how things have changed — we document so much of our daily lives these days with our phone cameras and almost instantaneous posts to our social media accounts or emails. The beginning lines of this poem say this so well:
“Before the age of doing
and photographing and filming
and texting what you did,
back when people simply did . . .”
— Wesley McNair, from “This Poem”
I am not very sentimental, and I don’t know whether I will save even a few of these postcards even longer. It makes me wonder how today’s deluge of documentation will be looked at forty years from now — will it be cherished like a few, hand-written postcards? Will the names to those faces have slipped from our memories? Will we be destined to be forgotten like our great-grandparents and forebears? What will become of all this digital information?
Henry David Thoreau was born 200 years ago today. Six years ago, I was embarked upon a year-long project in which I wrote short weekly essays inspired by a passage from Thoreau’s Walden. I called this project “Thoreau Thursdays” and I posted my reflections on my blog starting with the one at this link.
In honor of this 200th anniversary, I am re-posting below one of the essays from “Thoreau Thursdays.” If you are interested in reading all 52, you can find them in my archives at http://rosemarywashington.wordpress.com (go to the right-hand column and click on the category called Thoreau Thursdays).
Thoreau Thursdays (43): Tasting the Fruits of Your Labors
February 9, 2012
“It is a vulgar error to suppose that you have tasted huckleberries who never plucked them.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
In Washington we have an abundance of blackberries rather than huckleberries.
“The fruits do not yield their true flavor to the purchasers of them.”
— Henry David Thoreau, Walden
How poor Thoreau would find me, a city dweller, who procures virtually all of my food from supermarket shelves. And while our neighborhood farmers’ markets give us access to locally grown food, we simply buy it with our coins. How rarely do we plant, nurture, harvest and preserve our own food. According to Thoreau, we are missing out on the true flavor of food when we do not grow or pick it with our own hands.
Having grown up on a farm, I still hold a deep appreciation for the hard work that goes into bringing food to the table. I’ve butchered chickens, so I understand the life that was once vibrant in my packaged chicken quarters. I’ve milked a cow by hand, so I remember the source of my glass of milk. I’ve made my own blackberry jam from hand-picked berries, so I can appreciate the work behind a jar received as a gift.
Snapshot of me milking our family’s cow in 1972, forty years ago!
Much is lost when we forego laboring with our own hands, for the value of the work is not just the finished product, but also the feelings of artistry, productivity, and self-worth built along the way. And it is true that we savor the end product more when we’ve created it ourselves.
One of my colleagues gives our library staff jars of her homemade blackberry jam each Christmas, and each spoonful bursts with the tastes of summer and Shirley’s shared joy in nature’s abundance. Everything that is in a jar of Shirley’s jam is what Thoreau is alluding to in this week’s quote.
Shirley’s jam on breakfast scones
Homemade jam from hand-picked blackberries
“The advantage of riches remains with him who procured them, not with the heir. When I go into the garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands. But not only health, but education is in the work.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson