Watch: On a Tiny Island in one of the World’s Largest Lakes, Artists Explore Wilderness 

On undivided, uninhabited, undeveloped Rabbit Island, described as “a 90-acre speck amidst 3,000,000,000,000,000 gallons of fresh water,” a revolving ensemble of artists is contemplating our modern connection to nature in the Great Lakes country of Michigan. Photographer and climber Ben Moon recently brought his own artist’s eye to the island to create this short film. “My intent was simply to start a conversation with the film—about preserving our backyards to create change and keep pristine spaces to share and inspire others,” notes Moon, whose own story was told in the beloved recent film Denali. “There are no mountains to climb or feats to achieve, there is only time to think about the society you can barely glimpse on the horizon, regardless of what Lake Superior has in store that day,” says Rob Gorski, Rabbit Island’s creative genius and owner. Below Moon and Gorski share how and why Rabbit Island came to be—and it has nothing to do with rabbits.

Ben, we see you in a few frames of the film, surfing and taking a Polaroid. What brought you to tell this story of landscape and art and living wild?

Ben Moon: I first heard about Rabbit Island through my talented artist friend Emilie Lee, and she is who connected me with Rob Gorski. During my first conversation with Rob, I was immediately intrigued by both his description of the place and his philosophies on preserving its wild nature for future generations, while also inspiring the artists who spend time on the island. I traveled to Rabbit Island that summer with a simple intent to document the place, either through photographs or a short film… and this five-minute short was the result of my six-day residency on the island.

Having grown up in the Great Lakes, spending time in the midst of Lake Superior was an incredibly nostalgic and fulfilling experience. I also had the unique opportunity to pioneer an unsurfed point break on the island with Rob, and slipping into those saltless freshwater waves was a surreal experience that I won’t soon forget. After our surf, he named the point Moon Break.

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Emilie Lee paints a plein air study while a storm comes in over Lake Superior. Rabbit Island, Michigan; Photograph by Ben Moon

Are there in fact a lot of rabbits on Rabbit Island? Where does the name come from?

Rob Gorski: Nope, no rabbits. At least since the bald eagle family moved back to the island in the 90s, after the Silent Spring era passed. Rabbit Island’s name is a reference to the closest mainland community, Rabbit Bay. The handful of year-round residents historically looked out over the horizon to the east and saw… Rabbit Island.

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The cooking and dinner shelter is the place that everyone comes together in the evening on Rabbit Island. Here the 2013 aritists in residence enjoy a meal. Photograph by Ben Moon

How do the artists living on the island get food and supplies? Is it a “supported” experience or “unsupported”?

RG: Artists are given a stipend of approximately $1,500 to cover the expenses of their stay, but are responsible for outfitting themselves on the mainland prior to departure. Basic open shelter, a small sauna, cooking supplies, and a library compose the infrastructure of the island. This means different things for different artists. Some arrive with experience in the wilderness and are comfortable fishing and foraging, and wing it a bit with general camp staples. Other artists meticulously plan each individual meal prior to leaving. Some utilize various modern technologies to make work. Occasionally artists will pick a calm day and take a small dingy back to the mainland to resupply. All clothing and materials are up to the artists to provide for themselves. Artists are asked to leave the island as they found it upon completion of their residencies.

Is Rabbit Island going to stay undivided and uninhabited in perpetuity?

RG: Yes, wilderness is the premise of the project and the idea of undivided land and watersheds is our highest priority. Our hope is that beyond the preservation of Rabbit Island, itself but a 90-acre speck amidst 3,000,000,000,000,000 gallons of fresh water, the ideas that are transmitted from the island will define a culture that will carry to the mainland.

One of our favorite sayings is, “The English language does not have an antonym for the word subdivision.” It is strange when you think about it but there isn’t. At least not in the way that we use the word every day. Rabbit Island is trying to change this. Beyond the beauty of the island wilderness, relationships created, adventures had, and art made, there is the intention to draw light to a more lasting idea: Without the foresight to create wilderness it would not be there to be enjoyed. This idea can never stop being reborn.

How does the wilderness aspect impact the art created by the artists?

RG: We’re living in a maker moment. Everybody is making something and DIY is everywhere. Yet this is often where the conversation ends. The typical narrative tells that when you make something and sell it, you are successful. We baulk at this. What is missing from the discussion is the value of the product in more absolute terms relative to the wider environment. Is what is being made adding to or detracting from our larger problems? Is entrepreneurial success being confused with environmental science? When making is considered from this perspective the creation of anything a human mind can think up becomes and ethical decision. Artists, then, the fundamental makers, become symbolic, and the idea of thinking through what you are making from a very wide perspective becomes central. The wilderness is a very good ruler to measure the success of this effort by. This kind of thought is necessary in the context of what we now know about the connectedness of our ecology. We’re excited about an opera that was written on the island this summer by Juilliard-trained composer Eugene Birman about man’s relationship to nature in the modern world. Eugene took his craft and found a subject relevant to the larger cultural narrative. In the end our culture’s ethics are changing relative to what passes as successful creation—and they must! Artists on Rabbit Island forge ahead with this idea in direct terms.

One of the motto’s of the project:

“Wilderness is Civilization.” For so long the wilderness was seen as something to tame for the sake of civilization. Now we see the shortsightedness of this and Rabbit Island argues that the restraint exhibited in keeping a piece of land undeveloped, in spite of all possible development alternatives, is evidence of a civilized perspective in the most contemporary context. Even more than a symphony orchestra or a ballet in New York City! Our wish would be that everyone experienced the feeling of contributing some amount of their personal means to preserving wilderness. This feels so good!

Have you ever had anyone out there who didn’t buy into the concept of wilderness as precious?

RG: Not really. We have had many Europeans visit the island over the years and have found that the culture of wilderness differs between those raised in North America and those raised in the “old world.” An artist that will be living on the island in 2016 highlights this well. He recently wrote, “I come from a country that nearly a thousand years ago was neatly divided into parcels, and now has no naturally wild places left. The Dutch relationship with nature is to tame it—until a few years ago, even deadfall in forests was cleared because it was considered ‘unnatural.’ And nowhere in the entire country does the possibility exist to be somewhere and see no other human being.” This reality is difficult to imagine from the perspective of North American wilderness culture, yet the fact highlights a very important idea: Many people may never be able to learn the fundamental instruction of nature due to the misguided development that surrounds them. Considering this is the first step toward changing it.

Do you think our generation has our own Thoreaus and Muirs? Who are they and what are their challenges?

RG: Our generation is still waiting for its Thoreaus and Muirs, though we’re confident the culture is strong enough to nurture them. Today, becoming a relevant artist is harder than in past times given the need to account for so much new an conflicting information, yet this is what is demanded of us. An artist, it is said, is meaningful to their time when they successfully express the undercurrents that shape their time. The last 20 years have seen the dawn of the Internet, daily satellite perspectives of the world, concise understanding of watershed ecology, genetic understanding, global migration patterns, and so forth. Our spectrum is much wider than it was in previous centuries. The Thoreaus and Muirs of our generation will exemplify wilderness ideas that have similarly evolved. It is no longer enough to simply celebrate wilderness that was created by previous generations. Today’s Muirs and Thoreaus must look further. They must influence our generation to perceive the piecemeal environment we have inherited in new ways and help align our collective consciousness with modern ecology, politics, finance and so on. The tradition of individual liberty has yielded chaotic development over the past 400 years in our country, yet we now understand the world more comprehensively. Mitigating this divide artistically will yield works of great cultural value.

We do find inspiration in several projects that exemplify an informed modern wilderness ethic practically. In Montana the American Prairie Reserve organization is manifesting an amazing idea. This group is in the process of reaggregating a grassland reserve of three million acres which was previously ranched, fenced, and subdivided. When complete the project will have restored both an ecosystem level of environment function as well as a native bison population, and represent the largest contiguous tract of open space in the continental United States. Another example is Roxanne Quimby’s conservation efforts in Maine. She has individually purchased tens of thousands of acres of forestland adjacent to Baxter State Park and is attempting to donate it to the National Park Service to create the “Maine Woods National Park.” And of course Doug and Kris Tompkin’s work in South America is perhaps the iconic measure of such ideas. Lastly, there are the thousands of bright twinkling stars that are the smaller community conservation projects and land trusts around the country. One day these efforts will be looked upon in aggregate as pure genius, 80 acres at a time.

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Artist Lucy Engelman works on a bird study during her residence on Rabbit Island, Michigan. Photograph by Ben Moon

What all of the individuals involved in these projects have in common is that they are manifesting a value system that looks beyond financial profit. They are all exhibiting an outward facing set of priorities focussed on the environment, science and the community, rather than the self. This is the most important part. Art will come of it.

Is it possible to take a day trip or camping trip to Rabbit Island? How would someone do that?

RG: During the summer of 2016 we will be having artists talks hosted on the island. Whoever is adventuresome enough to make it to the island is welcome to attend, though visitors must remember that traversing four miles of open Lake Superior can be a formidable experience. Always respect the lake! As for general public visitation, as much as we value our mainland and internet communities the sensitive nature of the island wilderness precludes an open invitation. That said, we’re confident that people who have a desire to visit will always find a way. Our organization is very open to collaboration and we’ve found that like minds lead to exceptional projects. Please drop us a line and lets discuss.

When there’s a storm on Rabbit Island, does it feel like you are in Moonrise Kingdom?

RG: It can indeed feel otherwordly out there. We’ve seen 60-mile-an-hour winds, minus-11-degree days in February, 15-foot waves blowing across the lake from Canada, snow flurries in July, a sheet of ice 13 inches thick stretching between the mainland and island in February. We’ve capsized boats. We’ve been scared. Yet tucked in the back of the shelter amidst inclement weather, however bad it may be, or while warming yourself in the wood-burning sauna, you can find enough basic comfort to maintain the mental clarity to take in what is going on around you. This diversity of elements, observed in real time during weeks of immersion, is often the punctuating experience artists have on Rabbit Island while going about their business. There are no mountains to climb or feats to achieve, there is only time to think about the society you can barely glimpse on the horizon, regardless of what Lake Superior has in store that day.