Editor's note: This story was produced by Great Lakes Echo, a project of Michigan State University's Knight Center for Environmental Journalism.
When Rob Gorski bought a Lake Superior island on Craigslist he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with it. He did know, however, that he wanted to combine ideas of conservation with artistic creativity.
“It was love at first sight,” he said. “It was an amazing experience, pulling up on the boat, seeing the rocks coming out of the bottom of the lake. I think my idea from the very beginning was mainly of preservation but also creativity. Those two ideas seldom go together.”
Gorski, a Troy native and medical doctor in New York, partnered with an old friend — London-based sculpture artist Andrew Ranville, who also grew up in lower Michigan. Both men are raising funds to create an artist residency program on Rabbit Island.
Gorski said the opportunity to purchase the island arose and he wanted to take advantage of it. He declined to disclose the price, but pulled the funds together with loans, retirement accounts and borrowed money from friends and family.
“I worked with the nature conservancy locally and placed an easement on the land restricting the amount of development that could ever be made on the island,” he said. “With that in place, the seller of the land — a woman from Southern Michigan who was nearing the end of her life — was able to sell it and claim a tax break under Michigan law.”
The 91-acre island is three miles east of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Within the next few months, the island will be available as a temporary home for artists from around the world.
“I think it was (Rob) who was interested in having some sort of art contingency, something with the arts on the island and through conservation,” Ranville said. “My work had been approaching this very sustainable site-specific thing of working outdoors, working with reclaimed timber. Rob took notice of that and thought it was a good idea if I was the first artist in residence.”
Although he is traditionally a sculpture artist, Ranville’s work has also expanded to architecture, installation, photography and film.
The two plan to construct a cabin on the island over the summer or early fall to house a small number of people. Artists will have the opportunity to live for an extended period of time — over a summer, for example — to practice and hone their craft while drawing inspiration from their surroundings.
Ranville’s project as he serves his residency on the island will be to build the cabin itself, he said.
“My practice is that I battle with the whole functional versus form and everything and how that can be integrated,” he said. “I would build a studio and a cabin that future artists can stay at.”
“Ninety acres is a big area, yet ecologically it’s very small,” Gorski said. “So the environment is very sensitive. I guess I envision a small number of people, could be one person, living there for weeks or a couple months.”
They are particularly excited about the project because it’s unique. Many artist residencies, Ranville said, don’t offer this level of seclusion and cohabitation with nature.
“It’s a residency that’s been unheard of,” he said. “You’re basically setting up a space which will be really challenging and can be really important for the future. There’s an increasing movement of people concerned about being an artist and trying to do that in a sustainable way. It’s hard to find a residency that can kind of present that in such a tangible way.”
The two have established a website on kickstarter.com to raise funds for the project, with a goal to reach $12,500 by July 15. The site offers incentives for contributions, which include:
“If you don’t make the goal, it’s all or nothing,” Ranville said. “If we don’t make goal, nobody’s pledges go through. No one gets charged.”
That isn’t to say the project will be scrapped.
“We won’t give up, that’s for sure,” Ranville said. “We’ll just make it a much slower process, I imagine. I hope it goes through because that will guarantee I’ll be able to come and do the first artist residency and make a lot of headway on the actual construction of the residency.”
Melissa Matuscak, director of the DeVos Art Museum at Northern Michigan University, said she first heard about the project through Gorski and is extremely excited about it.
“I think it’s something that’s really wonderful for the Upper Peninsula and artists, as well,” she said. “The trick is getting people to the U.P. and once they’re there, they fall in love.”
Matuscak said the opportunity to live on an island as secluded and untouched as Rabbit Island is valuable for artists because it allows them to focus on their work.
“I think it’s just the area,” she said. “It’s so clean and beautiful and pristine. I think a lot of artists, especially those in major cities, can have the experience of coming to some place completely different.”
The residency will benefit more than just the artists, Matuscak said. People in nearby communities such as Houghton, Hancock and Marquette can also benefit.
“I’ve talked with Rob about possibly incorporating an exhibition so that the artist has a public platform to show their work,” she said. “An artist can come from a different place and they get there, do their work and leave. I think Rob would agree this is important to have some kind of engagement with the community.”
Gorski said the idea to promote the island for its natural beauty, instead of exploiting its resources, is a new way of thinking about the U.P.
“The transition from the generation before us to now is a really exciting one,” he said. “I think this idea of a project taking the wilderness that remains and celebrating it, instead of mining it or using it for lumber, is a really significant transition in the history of Michigan. This could exemplify that next generation coming.”