How one man's mission to save an island created an inspiring retreat for artists

Located on the pristine waters of Lake Superior, Rabbit island is a remote place that is largely uninhabited. While this tiny island may not look like much from up above, it’s a slice of undeveloped nature, the perfect backdrop for artists from all fields to come and spark their creativity.

It was that vision that prompted New Yorker Rob Gorski to purchase the island on Craigslist in 2010. The 91-acre island off northern Michigan”s Keweenaw Peninsula was listed for sale, and Gorski had personal connections to the area. He wanted to protect the island’s natural state. After purchasing it, he established a conservation easement with the Keweenaw Land Trust to protect the majority of Rabbit Island.

But Gorski had more than preserving nature in mind. He saw an opportunity to create a setting where artists, musicians, writers, dancers and other creative types could reconnect with nature while learning about conservation and sustainability.

2016 artist program Musician Dana Falconberry plays her guitar in the woods on Rabbit Island. (Photo: Rabbit Island Foundation)

Shortly thereafter, Gorski partnered with friend and artist Andrew Ranville and created the Rabbit Island Foundation. The organization’s main goal is to host artist residency programs during the summer while also teaching and advocating conservation, sustainability and serving “as a platform for science, art, preservation and recreation for the generations.”

Artists from all mediums and disciplines are invited to a “two week to one month period of profoundly reflective engagement with a wilderness unlike anywhere else in the world and with one’s own artistic practice,” Ranville tells MNN.

rabbit island building There are two rustic shelters on the island. (Photo: Rabbit Island Foundation)

In keeping with the belief that the island should largely remain untouched, the artists follow a “leave no trace” policy. Small solar panels are used to generate electricity, and buildings are simple and modest with no permanent foundation left in place. There’s also the added benefit that there are no modern distractions for the artists — no internet, no television.

“After around two weeks of immersion in the environment — a pristine Northwoods ecosystem surrounded by the largest freshwater lake in the world — most who have internal dialogues start to speak out into their surroundings,” said Ranville. “To trees, to rocks, to the water. Those with the opposite disposition experience a new level of introspection. It is pretty incredible.”

artist and easel in water Some artists like Beau Carey find inspiration in the waters of Lake Superior. (Photo: Rabbit Island Foundation)

What sets Rabbit Island apart from other artist fellowships is the fluidity of the programs. Artists are encouraged to experience solitude and listen to what nature is trying to tell them. “Rabbit Island exists to encourage the creative community to focus on the most fundamental narrative of our age — the environment and the human relationship to it. We challenge applicants to take risks and create bold work challenging the assumptions of the creative landscape created by previous generations.”

There is no right or wrong way to create art if it’s in harmony with the environment. And in the end, Ranville hopes the artists have a better understanding and appreciation for nature just like he does with his art.

“I have found my focus drawing closer to the stones on the shore, the small patches of lichen and moss, the fungi, the spiders, the birds, etc. It goes beyond simple observation and almost begins to feel like collaboration in some sense.”

artist holding up drawing The artists are encouraged to explore the island and let the surroundings inspire their creations. (Photo: Rabbit Island Foundation)

The foundation’s purpose isn’t just to host artists.

It’s also to study the island and develop new ways of preserving undeveloped land in other areas around the world. “An island in the largest freshwater lake is a pretty powerful image. And the fact that we can show restraint, and find inspiration to create commentary and possibly even find solutions to contemporary challenges related to climate change, wildness protection, land use, freshwater ecosystems, etc. is an engaging idea.”

It’s an idea that continues to be preached today as the foundation adds more programs, including a choreographer and composer program this summer. They are also relaunching their school program and will invite students ages 14-18 for a week-long arts and ecology camp.

Rabbit Island Foundation hopes more artists will venture to their little oasis with the continued support of donations and sponsors.

“Artists who are really challenging their practices and tackling contemporary issues that inform how we all engage with our environment should be supported, and their work should be celebrated,” he said.

How one man’s mission to save an island created an inspiring retreat for artists

Rabbit Island residency programs encourage artists to incorporate conservation, ecology and sustainability into their work.


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