North Woods: An artist residency on Rabbit Island (with photos)

Sep 26, 2011

Earlier this summer we told you about a remote island in Lake Superior called Rabbit Island:

New Yorker Rob Gorski saw the 91-acre island listed for sale on Craiglist. At first, he was skeptical. But after talking it over with his brother, both of whom are Michigan natives, they bought the island for less than $150,000.

The land, known as Rabbit Island, is about a half hour boat ride from the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Gorski says the plan is to preserve the island as is, and build only a small, green cabin where future artists can stay.

"We’d like to be able to send an artist, maybe two, out to the island to practice their creative process within an entirely isolated environment. We think it’d be a very remote experience, it’d be very difficult in some ways, but I think the end result could be very interesting."

As part of my series, Stories from the North Woods, I took the 3.5-mile boat ride from Rabbit Bay to Rabbit Island to see how the residency is coming along.

The lay of the land

Rabbit Island pretty much looks like your typical uninhabited island, save for the main camp area (more on that in a minute.) The interior of the island is mostly forest, with a ring of Jacobsville sandstone surrounding the edges.

The only real signs of life on the island are at main camp, about 100 feet from the shoreline. That’s where artist Andrew Ranville and several others built a 3-sided Adirondack shelter, which will serve as the future headquarters for the island.

"They can come here and have a communal kitchen, the tool shed for a lot of the tools, a workspace, and a place to welcome visitors or collaborators or researchers cause you have rooms to set up tents," explains Ranville.

The shelter is about the size of a small studio apartment. It looks like it, too, with cast iron skillets, some groceries, a Murphy bed and a kitchen table made out of reclaimed wood from the island.  Ranville also built bookshelves to house the "Rabbit Island Library," because they keep getting book donations.

"The next Walden could be written here"

If artist residencies are all about focusing on your work and solitary reflection – the romantic idea of being stranded on a remote island seems pretty ideal. In fact, the Upper Peninsula as a whole sort of lends itself to quiet reflection, with its vast stretch of north woods and the deep blue of the big Lake all around. It’s little wonder there are already a number of artist residencies in this area: Isle Royale, Porcupine Mountains, and Pictured Rocks National Park.

Andrew Ranville wants to build a tree-house studio in one area of the island. "The next Walden could be written here," says Ranville. "It's the "perfect location for a writer who wants to be really in the remote area of the island."

Some musicians already came out to the island and gave a little concert for some locals over the summer. Steven Michael Holmes, who runs the music blog "Mostly Midwest," recorded the session with Ann Arbor musician Chris Bathgate and others. You can watch a video of the performance here.

The logistics of a remote island

The plan for the Rabbit Island residency is to have it during the summer months only, with no more than two or three artists at a time.

Everything is still a work in progress, though. They still have to build a dock for the boat. They’re applying for grants to pay for the artist in residence. Rob Gorski, one of the guys who owns the island, says he gets emails weekly from people asking how they can apply to the residency. Turns out, you can't apply...yet. Gorski's in the process of creating a website where people can submit applications.

Also, as you can probably guess, there are no real trails on the island. You basically have to slog your way through brush and scramble over rocks and boulders to get anywhere. The island is definitely not handicap accessible.

And while we didn't come across any mosquitos to speak of, we did find ourselves smack dab in the middle of a wasp nest. Ranville's girlfriend, who was visiting from London, got stung five times. So did I. Ouch!

An artist exchange program

Back on the mainland, I dropped by Margo and Tom Rudd’s house in Calumet. They’re pros when it comes to artist residencies – they’ve traveled the country doing different residencies, including one at Isle Royale.

Margo's a painter. Tom, a sculptor, co-owns the Gallerie Boheme in Calumet. They're excited about the Rabbit Island residency, and they hope some kind of "artist exchange program" can be worked out.

"What I want them to do is to bring artists from Manhattan onto Rabbit Island, and of course they'll see a little bit of the peninsula, too," says Tom Rudd. "I want to see if we can work out some sort of deal where we take artists from the Keewenaw to Manhattan."

The Rudd's says artists have a tendency to get stuck in the aesthetics of their surroundings, and they say artist residencies are the easiest way to shake things up.

*Support for arts and cultural reporting on Michigan Radio comes in part from a grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and the National Endowment for the Arts.