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!