Northern Wilds Magazine
The artist-in-residence program at Isle Royale began in 1992 and allows professional artists to spend two to three weeks immersed in Isle Royale’s isolated landscape. | KALLI HAWKINS
Along the Shore

Unveiling Isle Royale National Park’s artists-in-residence program

The dimpled Portage Lake Lava bedrock, the dense boreal forest, and the elongated barrier bars of Isle Royale National Park are a 132,300-acre representation of nature’s artistic and talented hand.

Carved out by glaciation and erosion over millions of years, Isle Royale is a masterpiece of nature’s finest artwork that draws many first-time and returning visitors to its shoreline and surrounding waters.

Isle Royale National Park, located 20 miles offshore from Grand Portage, and over 61 miles from Houghton, MI, is one of the least-visited U.S. national parks. The remote island location on Lake Superior provides a challenge for individuals to access without a boat or ride on a ferry. The remoteness and decreased visitor numbers contribute to the island’s uniqueness. The national park has averaged 21,267 visitors annually for the past 10 years.

Due to its uniqueness, diverse landscape, and wildlife, Isle Royale hosts several visitors who spend long stints of time on the island conducting research, developing personal and professional work, or enjoying nature and simply having fun. During the early 1990s, Isle Royale National Park adopted a program that many other national parks across the U.S. offer to creative individuals.

The artist-in-residence program at Isle Royale began in 1992 and allows professional artists to spend two to three weeks immersed in Isle Royale’s isolated landscape. The opportunity provides artists uninterrupted time to embark on a transformative voyage of self-discovery and reflection. It also serves as a canvas for individuals to write, draw, photograph, or create meaningful work in their medium.

“You feel sort of like you’re given the keys to a national park,” Andrew Gottlieb, an artist who participated in the artist-in-residence program at Isle Royale in 2003, said.

While on the island, artists live in Dassler Cabin, a former summer cottage of the Dassler family from Leavenworth, Kansas. The small off-grid cabin is in Tobin Harbor, on the eastern side of Isle Royale, near Rock Harbor.

While on the Island, artists live in Dassler Cabin. This small, off-grid cabin is in Tobin Harbor on the eastern side of Isle Royale, near Rock Harbor. | NATIONAL PARK SERVICE

Gottlieb said the artist-in-residence program with the national parks is intended for artists to “make work created by, impacted by, and informed by, the park itself.” He added, “And that’s just so special.” As a poetry fiction writer, Gottlieb said the opportunity allowed him to embed himself in the natural landscape and create fictional poems focused on the outdoors and the intersectionality between humans and nature in the landscape.

Twenty years after his time at Isle Royale National Park, Gottlieb still carries with him his experience at Isle Royale. He often reflects on finding moose and fox tracks, watching mergansers swimming in Lake Superior, witnessing an American redstart on the island, and “that sense of time and space and being alone.”

Not only has he stayed in contact and exchanged annual Christmas cards with the artist-in-residence caretakers, Dick and Mary Scheibe, but the experience he gained influenced his life’s work for the past two decades.

“Isle Royale has remained really close to my heart,” Gottlieb said. “I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Since the 1992 inception of the artist-in-residence program at Isle Royale National Park, over 100 artists specializing in writing, storytelling, painting, playwrights, mixed media, and music have been involved in the program. The national park states the program is open to all art forms except those that would manipulate or disturb the park’s environment. After receiving the annual applications in January and February, a panel of art professionals and a national park representative select the finalists based on a handful of qualifications.

In addition to the qualifications, the selected artists are required to donate a finished piece of artwork to the park that is representative of their Isle Royale residency. “It’s a great opportunity for artists who are newer, younger, or more under the radar,” Gottlieb said.

A trip during the summer of 2018 to Isle Royale National Park was the catalyst for applying for the artist-in-residence program for Cecil Howell, a landscape architect from New York. “I went to Isle Royale and was on the boat, saw the cabin that the artists get to stay in, and I was like, oh, no, no, I’m applying right away,” she said. “That is too good.”

Artwork by landscape architect Cecil Howell. | CECIL HOWELL

After immediately applying, she landed a spot in the program the following year, in 2019. As a landscape architect, Howell said she is naturally drawn to maps, cartographic studies, and artistic approaches to architecture. She is intrigued by “things that are typically left off of maps and how one could start to convey them.”

While staying on Isle Royale, her focus and intention were to observe the small intricacies of the landscape, such as wave movements, sounds of the forest, or rock textures, and create art to help visualize the place from perspectives often not considered in traditional cartography. “I felt like Isle Royale is really suited for that kind of very slow, deep observation,” Howell described. “You could spend all day really honing in on certain places. Which I absolutely loved.”

Howell put her observations and writings into artistic action using charcoal, pastels, watercolors, copper ink, and printmaking once returning to New York after her Isle Royale residency. “That was when I started to really flush out some of the ideas and think about these ideas of cartographies of movements and cartographies of time, how those two things would frame my experience.”

About six months after returning from Isle Royale National Park, Howell said the COVID-19 pandemic began, and she suddenly had ample time to dedicate to creating her work.

Gottlieb and Howell said their experience as the artist-in-residence at Isle Royale National Park exceeded their expectations. They both dream of returning to the remote and rugged island. Howell said, “It’s one of the most magical places, I think.”

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