While on jury duty last year, Rob Gorski bought an island off of Craigslist, a pristine 91-acre stretch of untouched land in Lake Superior called Rabbit Island. It was a simple decision, made with a very simple plan in mind: to protect the land's unblemished qualities while creating an artist's residency program there, a place where creative types could explore concepts of development and civilization through their absence.
Together with a few friends, artist Andrew Ranville among them, Rob proceeded to run a successful Kickstarter project in order to fund the island's development into a sustainable, ecologically-conscious space. Along the way, their campaign experienced its fair share of public speculation — "Would they really?" and "How would they?" — which quickly turned into its more-than-fair share of excitement, particularly around Kickstarter HQ. Now instead of asking "How?" everybody was asking "When?" and "Can we come?" In that spirit, I dropped Rob and Andrew a line to find out what's been going on at Rabbit Island since the project finished funding. And also, um, seriously, when can we come because I'm alreadyontheway.
Break down a typical day on the island for me. You wake up, you make coffee, you take a deep breath and admire the sunrise while contemplating your humanity (kidding, but you know what I mean), then.... ?
Wake up early, take slow deep breaths of the fresh air, listen to the lake and birds for a moment, walk away from camp to go the bathroom somewhere in the woods, do some yoga/stretching, read a few chapters of a book, eat some oatmeal, drink some tea, then start measuring planks of timber for a long day of cutting wood and building things, eat some lunch if I remember to, grab the GPS and take a few hours to explore the island, drink a bunch of water, build some more, wave at a rare visitor boating along the shore, collect some firewood, sweep up the day's accumulated sawdust, a chilly dip in Lake Superior to clean away the day's accumulated sweat, have a fire, cook a dinner on the fire or on the Coleman stove, sit by the fire and watch the silhouettes of the bats zoom around while the sun sets over Rabbit Bay (a different set of colors every night), read some more in my sleeping bag, fall asleep with a smile on my face knowing that I get to do it all over again tomorrow.
What's your favorite spot on the island and/or what building project were you most excited about?
The whole island is my favorite spot, it is so hard to choose one area. But one major highlight is probably The Amphitheater. It is an amazing spot that I just stumbled across in the middle of the island. You can visualize the space being activated in the future by artists of all types. Other inland highlights are the ridges of changing elevation and crumbling rocks (The T Crags), the highest point on the island which looks and smells like a wild Christmas tree lot, some random natural clearings like "Land of Giants" with their massive Sugar Maples and Paper Birches are impressive as well. The coastline is a obvious draw though as well — the distinctive White Pines of main camp, the "Hot Tubs" just north of main camp, other distinctive trees like Big Leanie on the other side of the island, little detached "islands" like Little Wedge off the northeast side and Gull Rock off the southwest point, the southwest point itself (Eagle Point), the cove on the southeast side of the island with the small smooth pebbles and perfect skipping stones, Mustard Seat on the northeast point... I could go on and on.
Favorite memory from this summer? (PS. You can name more than one.)
Two favorite memories on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. First one was when I came back from a long trek around the island and a group of musicians were around an afternoon campfire. Steve from Mostly Midwest brought Chris Bathgate, Graham Parsons and some friends over to play some songs and record the experience. It was an absolutely perfect day for it. Calm water, beautiful sunset, great people and great music. Check out the results here and here.
Second memory was when I was on the island on my own when a horrible storm hit. It was about five in the morning. The tent I was sleeping in was being beaten flat on top of me by the wind and rain. I couldn't even get out initially. The lightning was so bright and consistent it was like a strobe in my face. I worried about one of the White Pines all around me being struck by lightning and falling over (only 20 feet away was the remains of a tree that that had happened to sometime last year). The storm abated momentarily and I escaped the tent, only for the storm to intensify as dawn approached. The tent was thrown into the trees as I huddled down in the back of the Adirondack shelter. The wind stayed strong and the clouds menacing long into the day. It was certainly humbling to be smack in the middle of nature as raw and isolating as that. It made me realize how insignificant my years will be in the far more significant timeline of Rabbit Island, in a good sort of way.
What else do you guys plan to build?
A treehouse studio. Four tress have already been selected and the area around them prepared. Next year I'll begin building in the trees themselves. We also plan to build a sauna near the main camp for rejuvenation of the artists' bodies and minds!
What would you consider the "toughest" part about the island right now? (Wasps!?)
Toughest part would probably be logistics. Lake Superior can at any time make crossing the short distance from the bay to the island impossible. The boat problems we've had this year haven't helped either. Traversing the island is pretty tough as well. The coastline is rocky and hard to walk on, the forest inland is extremely dense and tough to transect. Getting just yourself from place to place on the island is a tough slog, imagine carrying axes, saws, big bits of wood, it is damn challenging.
Approximately how many requests have you gotten to come to the island since you've started posting pictures (you can round up to the nearest thousand)?
So many. The feedback has been amazing though. A lot of people really understand what we are trying to do and aren't just saying "I want to come hang out." They are offering their hands, heads, and hearts to the project, and in great numbers. That amount of support and interest from outside our group of Kickstarter backers has been impressive to say the least.
Do you guys have a vision for the future of the island? What do you hope this place will be like for the artists who hold residency there/do you see the island's role evolving in a specific direction over time?
Nothing completely specific. We hope the project evolves organically partly based on the artists, researchers and other folks we have out there. Of course we envision most aspects of the island to be completely self-sustaining (i.e. food production and energy needs), this ideally being part of a five-year plan. For the artists who come to the island, we want them to have a very challenging and raw experience, but one that offers great reflection and potential rewards when placing an artist's practice in a wild, preserved, natural microcosm such as Rabbit Island.
Any comments/thoughts on your backer community post-funding? Do you feel like they remain involved or have any interesting relationships sprung from it?
They have been absolutely amazing. They helped spread the word via social media, some posting stories about the project on their own blogs and others emailing friends and family they know they would be interested in Rabbit Island. Comments and advice continue to flow in from the backers. Locals to the area and the state of Michigan have also signed up to Kickstarter to support us and have commented about finding so many other cool projects to support as well. A couple other backers have been inspired to start their own Kickstarter projects. Some continue to support the project even after making our goal by donating used books to the Rabbit Island Library, second-hand camping equipment, and offering to come and lend a helping hand in person. We consider all of them friends and instrumental parts to future successes of the Rabbit Island Residency program. I know we'll see them continue to be as active and engaged in the process of building this residency as we will be each year to come. We also greatly appreciate their patience as we slowly get those rewards out to them. We've only just got off the island and settled back into our "civilized" routines, and we want to make each and every Rabbit Island reward we send out special.