Mallard Island Art Residency: Work and Play

“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

My favorite work space in the Japanese House, Mallard Island
My table with its water view, Japanese House

“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.

One of three porches in Ober’s Big House (notice the unpeeled bark siding)
Another porch in Ober’s House

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.

Approaching the Japanese House
Japanese character painted on the floor
Japanese House (photo taken from neighboring Crow Island)

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.

Rocky shoreline, tree roots, and reflections as seen from our canoe
The floating world
Trees along the hiking path on Crow Island
A look across the channel at the Cedar Bark House from Crow Island
Caboose on Gull Island (another ingenious use of reclaimed edifices for island dwellings)
Drum room in Ober’s Big House, a great spot for group gatherings

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.

A free-floating “island” of grass and reeds on Rainy Lake

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.”

 

 

 

 

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My Art Residency on Mallard Island: September 3 – 9, 2017

View from the western tip of Mallard Island

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.”

Cedar Bark House and the Cook House as seen from the water

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.

Ober’s Boat House (now Library)

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!

I spent some time on Sunday morning at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center of Voyageurs National Park before our departure to Mallard Island

Leaves I found along the Oberholtzer Trail at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center, Voyageur National Park
Mallard had a crabapple tree laden with fruit
Zinnias from the flower box on the deck of Cedar Bark House
Banged up teapot in the kitchen