One leaf at a time, one day at a time, one small step at a time. I love these reminders that life is lived in the moment. So we’d best make each one count.
One leaf at a time, one day at a time, one small step at a time. I love these reminders that life is lived in the moment. So we’d best make each one count.
“Experience fall, one pumpkin at a time.”
— Slogan from Gordon Skagit Farms website
I don’t know if I will make the drive this year to Gordon Skagit Farms in Mount Vernon for its annual October pumpkin extravaganza. I would dearly love to see Eddie Gordon’s newest paintings, which he hangs outdoors on the barns, sheds, and grounds. They are always amazing. But this year I am feeling buried under other self-imposed obligations, so I might not make the time to go.
I haven’t been doing much art lately, so today I will post three pieces I painted this summer when I was out and about in Seattle. These images are recognizable to any Seattle resident:
On Saturday after I returned to the mainland from Mallard Island, I pointed my car south and drove 6 hours to the Minnesota farm where I grew up. My youngest and oldest brothers each own and live on half of the farm, and on Saturday my youngest brother was hosting a reunion for the extended family on my father’s side. The reunion was winding down by the time I finally arrived. I missed seeing my three surviving aunts and many cousins and their kids. Thankfully my siblings hung around to see me. Seven of the nine of us kids made it to the reunion. After all the cousins left, my siblings and some spouses talked around a fire pit as we roasted hot dogs.
My brother has made many changes and improvements since my Dad died. He replaced the old farmhouse, garage, and machine shed with new structures. Only the old red barn remains from my parents’ and grandparents’ time on the farm. My brother has worked hard to bring the farm into the modern age, and I love all the improvements. He keeps everything trim and neat and orderly. The land still holds the memories of our childhood there, and it still feels like I am returning home whenever I travel there.
Part of what is bringing the farm back to life are the animals. In the last decade of my father’s life, he no longer kept domesticated animals. Now my brother is raising hogs and a few beef cattle and lots of chickens. There are at least four or five barn cats and two dogs that have the run of the place.
I was able to spend just one night and morning with my brother and his family before continuing my drive. Here are two of my favorite pictures from this year’s trip to my childhood farm home: another lovely red sunrise . . .
In my two decades growing up and going to school in Minnesota, I rarely travelled in the northern part of the state. On this trip, I crossed the border into Minnesota at Fargo and then continued north to Bemidji, where I spent a few days relaxing with my sister and her husband at their cabin on Big Turtle Lake. It was a lovely interlude between my road trip from Seattle and the start of my art residency on Mallard Island. We took a long bike ride one day along the Paul Bunyan Trail.
When you are in northern Minnesota you can see why the state’s slogan is “Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.” The land is mixed woods and marshes and farmland, and lakes and ponds dot the landscape in between.
I left Bemidji early on Sunday morning to head even farther north to International Falls, where I would meet the nine other artists at Bald Rock dock for the start of our week on Mallard Island on Rainy Lake. Three times I saw deer alongside the road. There was little traffic.
I had time to visit the Rainy Lake Visitor Center in Voyageurs National Park before our meet up time. I walked the Oberholtzer Trail there.
It was still too early in the season for Minnesota’s spectacular displays of colored fall foliage. But driving along Hwy 53 south to my family farm, I saw little pockets of color. A teasing taste of the flaming landscape to come.
It was still green farther south. As I drove the final few miles to my brother’s farm, I enjoyed the Midwest sky full of high, white clouds. (We rarely see skies like this in Seattle.)
“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!
Last week I spent 6 days as one of ten artists in residence on Mallard Island in northern Minnesota. I applied for and was awarded this residency by the Ernest Oberholtzer Foundation, whose mission is to maintain the legacy of Ernest Oberholtzer — wilderness preservationist, explorer, book collector, and one of the founders of the Wilderness Society — and his North Woods home on Mallard Island as a “source of inspiration, renewal and connection to Indigenous Peoples, kindred spirits, and the natural world.”
I was the only painter among this year’s group of artists; others included writers, photographers, a sculptor, musicians, a composer, and researchers. The week-long residency offered us time to work on our own individual projects in a supportive and convivial environment. Mallard Island is a tiny island on Rainy Lake, which borders Canada and northern Minnesota. It was remote — I was without internet access or cell phone — and rustic — no hot water nor flush toilets.
I first heard about Mallard Island years ago when I read Louise Erdrich’s Books and Islands in Ojibwe Country. This was also my introduction to Ernest Oberholtzer, who was instrumental in saving the Quetico-Superior Wilderness from a lumber baron’s plans to dam and alter the Rainy Lake watershed. Here is Erdrich’s brief synopsis of Oberholtzer’s life: “He was born in 1884, grew up in an upper middle-class home in Davenport, Iowa, suffered a bout of rheumatic fever that weakened his heart. He went to Harvard, where he made friends with bookish people like Conrad Aiken and Samuel Eliot Morison. His heart kept bothering him. Told by a doctor he had just one year to live, he decided to spend it in a canoe. He traveled three thousand miles in a summer. Paddling a canoe around Rainy Lake watershed and through the Quetico-Superior wilderness was just the thing for his heart, so he kept on paddling. He lived to be ninety-three years old.”
Oberholtzer established his home on Mallard Island — accessible by boat in summer and across frozen ice in winter. Writer Bill Holm, who was also one of Mallard’s artists years ago, described Mallard as one of three “skinny sardines of rock and scrub timber” (Eccentric Islands). Holm continues, “Mallard is only twelve hundred feet from stem to stern, in places as narrow as fifty feet from port to starboard. A leisurely stroll of five minutes will get you from one end to the other. It was not a vast kingdom physically, so Ober set about making it large in other ways.”
Mallard has nine eclectic buildings, three compost toilets, an outdoor sun shower, two pianos, numerous canoes, a wind-up gramophone, and over 11,000 books. It was this personal collection of books in its unique wilderness setting which attracted me to the idea of Mallard Island and led me to investigate the Oberholtzer Foundation’s programs.
I will write in more detail about my week on Mallard Island in some blog posts to follow. For today, I will showcase the watercolor journal pages I completed during my stay, as well as a few other small paintings. Enjoy!
“The land was treeless and seventeen different shades of tan. It slowly grew more rugged, but the badlands still came up unexpectedly: a crenellation along the horizon that opened up on both sides of the highway into phantasmagorical landscape. It wasn’t so much the buttes rising above the earth, but more as if the skin of the earth had been ripped away, revealing the ragged, broken flesh beneath. You stared down into the badlands, and the maze of twisted gorges, trapped meadows, wind-eaten towers and bluffs were a geological underworld, as unearthly as beautiful.”
— Reed Karaim, The Winter in Anna
This was my first visit to the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. I think few tourists venture here. It is 90 miles north of the more easily accessible South Unit, which lies off I-94. I was entering North Dakota from the north, on Highway 2, so I spent a late afternoon and evening here exploring a new landscape.
First I claimed a camping spot at the Juniper Campground — very uncrowded, and I got a site close to the camp hosts. I loved the setting of this campground on the edge of a huge grove of towering cottonwood trees. Lovely.
Then I drove the 14-mile scenic drive to Oxbow Overlook. There were plenty of viewpoints along the way, some overlooking the Missouri River below. I enjoyed stopping at the viewpoints in this national park because the landscape was so different, varied, and unexpected. I didn’t hike here, but I enjoyed photographing at the stops.
I especially loved the vast grasslands: “The grassland stretches out in the sunlight like a sea, every wind bending the blades into a ripple, and flecking the prairie with shifting patches of a different green from that around, exactly as the touch of a light squall or wind-gust will fleck the smooth surface of the ocean.”
— Theodore Roosevelt, Ranch Life and the Hunting Trail
It was wonderful to see wildlife along the road. I saw mule deer and rabbits. I saw some bison in the distance, and then as I was leaving early the next morning, there were some bison in the road! The North Unit is a rewarding destination, and one that I’d recommend to anyone traveling in the Midwest.