An Artist’s Evolution on Rabbit Island

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It’s 5:30 AM when I open my eyes, it takes a moment for me to realize that I’m not in my own bed in Brooklyn, NY where the air is a crushing 100 degrees. I’m in a sleeping bag and lots of layers, savoring this warmth as a cold wind drives through sparse trees around me. I can hear waves crashing, it sounds like the ocean. Rob is already yanking on his wetsuit and saying “Waves like this could sink the boat, we’d better move it before this weather gets worse!” I spring into action and grab my own suit, soon we are chest deep in the frigid waters of Lake Superior, hauling our bodies over the bucking sides of the 17 foot Boston Whaler. I wrestle with the mooring ropes as Rob starts the engine and in a minute we are riding that heaving turquoise water away from shore. It doesn’t take long for us to round the southwest point of land and suddenly the boat planes flat and we glide safely through smooth water. Protected from the wind, this scene is a world away from the one we just left – the sun is beginning to warm the day and gentle waves lap the rocks.

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The author connecting with Lake Superior in her Divide Henley

This is how I began my first morning on Rabbit Island, a ninety-one acre oasis of wilderness located three miles off the Keweenaw Peninsula in northern Michigan. The island is home to a small artist residency, one where the artists sleep in tents, cook over a campfire, and go fishing for dinner. The only shelter from the elements is a three sided cabin that serves as a communal kitchen and dining area. Residents are responsible for cooking and doing chores around camp but otherwise are free to roam the island and find inspiration in this unique environment.

The shoreline feels worn thin by the constant forces of wind and water. The trees on the edge are small and wiry, the sandstone bedrock has crumbled into chunks under the summer waves and winter ice. By contrast the island interior is a riotous jungle of thick moss, impenetrable undergrowth, and sturdy old trees. No mammals larger than mice live here, so the flora has grown unchecked. A nesting pair of bald eagles watch over this rare, fragile ecosystem that is contained by the impossible expanse of the largest freshwater lake in the world.

And what a lake it is! It’s immensity is hard to grasp. If emptied, it would flood North and South America to a depth of one foot, it holds 10% of all the earth’s fresh water, and it’s surface area is larger than all of New England. I had been aware of these facts before, but during my two weeks as a resident artist on Rabbit Island I gained a more intimate reverence for Lake Superior.

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I spent my time making small oil paintings, standing still for hours at a time, immersed in observing the water, rocks, moss, and sky. For three days in a row we endured weather that was 45 degrees and raining with waves so big that some of the artists were able to take out their surfboards and catch some rides! On these days I was cold and shivering at my canvas, but transfixed by the challenge of painting the storm. With my easel set up on the wet rocks I was just out of the water’s reach while it reared and crashed in my face. I could peer into the cold clear water while the wind whistled around my head, sensing the threatening power of the legendary lake and the safe shelter that this delicate island was offering me.

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It’s October now, and I’ve been back in New York City for a couple months. My paintings from Rabbit Island have joined others on my studio wall – like little windows into my memory, I can look into each one and be transported back to the day I made it, complete with all the sounds, sights, smells, and emotions that I experienced. I’m using these small paintings as inspiration for much larger canvases, and while I’m working in my studio I can almost feel the shivering cold of those stormy days. Digging into this remembered experience on a daily basis, I’ve uncovered more than just colors, shapes, and values for my artwork. I recall the simplicity of my daily routine on the island and how little I needed to be happy. A cold dip in the lake, a hot bowl of oatmeal, and I was ready to paint all day.

Back in New York, my life has more complexity, and at times I feel like I’m fighting upstream to carve out the uninterrupted hours I need to paint. During this past month of transitioning I’ve seriously questioned my choice to live here, is it time to move on and find my nest in the woods? Weighing my options, my instincts voted unanimously to stay put. I don’t feel ready to flee the city for a more secluded life. Instead I’m thinking about ways to simplify my routine and make room for the things that matter: painting, family, friends, and time to be reminded of natures beauty and power. I need the opportunities to expand my mind, to continue learning, to be challenged and inspired by the rich culture of art around me.

Emilie Lee’s paintings from Rabbit Island are currently being exhibited at the DeVos Museum of Art in Marquette, MI, on view now until Nov 17th. See more pictures from Rabbit Island on the New York Times Blog.