Mallard: The Island of Books

“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”

The Boat House (now the Library/Book House)

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.

Interior, the Boat House

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

Ober’s office in his Big House — filled with walls of books, upstairs and down
Looking in a window of the Cedar Bark House — here is a shelf of books above the window

“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

 

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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