Michigan natives plan artist residency on Superior’s remote Rabbit Island


The location of Rabbit Island, three miles offshore of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. Photo via Rabbit Island kickstarter website. Click to enlarge.

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.”

A place for artists

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.

An overhead image of Rabbit Island. The island itself is 91 acres. Photo via Andrew Ranville.

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.”

Supporters can name boat, visit island

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:

  • $10 or more– a special thanks on the website and a thank-you phone call directly from the island
  • $25 or more– an organic cotton tote-bag with a Rabbit Island screenprint OR a hand-screened Rabbit Island organic cotton t-shirt
  • $40 or more– a Northern Michigan-inspired mixtape created by Gorski and Ranville
  • $75 or more two limited-edition 8×10 photographic prints, one made by Gorski, the other by Ranville
  • $100 or more the opportunity to adopt a white pine on the island, including a placard with the backer’s name
  • $150 or more a hand-crafted reclaimed wood box made by Ranville containing a rock selected from the island
  • $200 or more – dinner out with Gorski or Andrew good only for their respective locations of New York City or London
  • $300 or more a hand-carved and polished walking stick made from Rabbit Island wood
  • $500 or more– the opportunity to name the boat that will offer transportation from the island to the mainland
  • $1,000 or more– an original artwork by Ranville, to be completed during his residency
  • $2,500 or more– an all-expenses paid trip to the island with the group who goes to build the residency during the summer
  • $5,000 or more– a fifty-fifty split donation to the Rabbit Island Residency and the Keweenaw Land Trust

“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.”

Locals also benefit from new way of thinking of U.P.

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.

A view of Rabbit Island along the horizon. Photo via Andrew Ranville.

“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.”

11 thoughts on “Michigan natives plan artist residency on Superior’s remote Rabbit Island

  1. My Great Grandparents, Jig Erik Bergh and Hansine Henrietta Bergh settled on this island when they came to the U.S. from Norway. My grandfather was a commercial fisherman. At that time, the island was called Bergh’s Island. I would love to be able to go to the island and see where they lived. I understand there may be remains of their little home still there on the island.

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  3. I own a summer house on Rabbit Bay, on the main land across from the island. Rabbit Island is right in front of my house. It’s three miles away but looks closer because it is a good size island. I fully support this project. I would encourage getting some Finnish artists involved with this as the areas has a rich Finish heritage. I don’t know any locals who have ever met any of the artists, but that’s understandable if they want to be secluded. I wish it all the success in the world.I’ve been on the island many times prior to it’s recent purchase and I can see how it could be a great place to be inspired.

  4. What an incredibly noble idea, I wish you all the
    Best and will follow with interest, and a donation!
    Are you familiar with Northland College? It is in Ashland WI
    and if I am reading the map correctly not far from the
    island. They have a very strong environmental
    commitment, you should get to know the place
    and their philosophy if you don’t already. Seems
    a logical match! Best of luck to you. By the way
    does the project have a presence on twitter?
    Would be fun to follow.

  5. Linda,
    Thanks for your interest. We have yet to finalize details but tentatively plan on working over the late fall and winter on the application process. Anyone interested can send me an email at robgorski@gmail.com and we will be sure to keep you posted. Also check in on our website and blog on occassion for updates as well. Hopefully we will have a site dedicated to the residency specifically in a similar timeframe.

    The slight bend in the road arose when the local assessor sent this year’s tax bill at the “bumped up” rate. I called him and he said he was unsure of the validity of the conservation easement in spite of our strict efforts to make sure we followed the letter of the conservation law as well as the transfer affidavit.

    After several discussions between him, me and a member of the Keweenaw Land Trust (www.keweenawlandtrust.org) as well as attendance at a Tax Board of Review meeting everything was cleared up. In the end the land ended up protected in perpetuity for the State of Michigan and the tax legislation allowed this to happen. Thanks for the link you mentioned and the words of support.

    There is little way a project like this could happen by people such as ourselves of average means without such a program. Without it the pressure to make a profit (to cover whatever the cost of the land) via development and subdivision is too great and is the only way to not loose money in a system existing without a conservation tax relief program–at the expense of the natural environment, of course.

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  7. Rob,
    I assume that you filed a Property Transfer Affidavit after you purchased the island. One can be found at: http://www.michigan.gov/documents/l4260f_2688_7.pdf
    The exemption noted for conservation easement property is very clear cut, so I’ll be interested to hear of your experiences with the local assessment folks. They should know their jobs but, unfortunately, many in Michigan simply do not. Good luck on your great project!

  8. Harold, that is exactly right. It was a win/win/win for land/buyer/seller. Public Act 446 is very wise piece of legislation for the state. My hat gets tipped to whoever brought it to Michigan congress. I know little of how it came to be. This link has more info: http://bit.ly/kqyD5N

    I had a hard time finding out about the specifics of the legislation at the time and plan to write about my experience with it including hiccups with the local tax boards who were unfamiliar with the law, the seller’s lawyer’s concerns, the conservation easement creation process, etc. The Keweenaw Land Trust was extremely helpful with regards to all of this. Many thanks to them. Great organization. Overall I’d do it over again this way in a heartbeat and would recommend looking into PA 446 to anyone who desires land for the sake of land and not development or subdivision for resale.

    Also many thanks to the author, Laura Fosmire, for taking the time to write about our project.

    Rob G

  9. This is such an inspiration! Thank you for the awesome story and I am very excited to help support it.

  10. This is a unique way to protect natural habitat. One correction though: a conservation easement enables the seller (in this case) to be eligible for a FEDERAL income tax deduction equal to the amount that the conservation easement reduces the value of the property. In Michigan, properties protected by conservation easements have their taxable values capped for assessment purposes–and that can greatly benefit the purchaser (the taxable value is not uncapped at transfer). In fact, anyone who is considering purchasing a large property (e.g. hunting camp, forest, farm, etc.) should look into having the seller first put a conservation easement on the property. This could save the purchaser thousands of dollars a year in property taxes.

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