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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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.”

 

 

 

 

Mallard Island Art Residency: Food and Lodging

What I took with me to Mallard Island (so much stuff!!)

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.

One of the three outhouses with composting toilet (this one was shaded by a crabapple tree)

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.

My bed and “private” space in the Cedar Bark House

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.

Cedar Bark House, Mallard Island
Interior, Cedar Bark House
Cecilia through the screen window on the porch of Cedar Bark House
Cecilia’s work in progress

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.

One of my lunches

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.

The Wanigan — our kitchen and dining room
The ingredients one of the artist pairs brought and cooked and assembled

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

Salad nicoise (Cecilia made four plates like the one shown above)

Nobody ever lost weight on Mallard Island!

My next blog post will be about work and play during Artists’ Week.  Stay tuned!