THURSDAY JULY 28th, 2011
The wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP) inspired Hemingway. Its sandstone cliffs have held many a photographer in awe. For Michigan native and New York City physician Rob Gorski, the UP is home to the best of his childhood memories, which is why he regularly checked Craigslist for property in the UP. Last year, while taking a break from jury duty, he struck gold – an island for sale on Lake Superior!
Located three miles east of the Keweenaw Peninsula, the island rises above the surface of the world’s largest body of fresh water. Ninety-one acres of pristine nature, untouched by development; a rocky, forested ecosystem that breathes rugged; and that’s just the way Gorski wants to keep it – except for one small piece that will soon be home to an artist’s residency.
On maps it’s referred to as Traverse Island, but Gorski, as well as the locals, call it Rabbit Island (because it’s adjacent to Rabbit Bay on the Keweenaw Peninsula). Rabbit Island is also what his Finnish grandfather called it, the man who instilled a love of the Upper Peninsula in Gorski.
Gorski was born in Troy, in Southeast Michigan, and grew up in the house his parents still own. But his typical suburban upbringing was woven with regular trips to the remote world of the UP. “I have vivid memories of driving from Troy and arriving at my grandfather’s house where there was always a big pot of barley soup on the stove.” It was where he spent many summers experiencing the freedom of this wild place, learning about its unique traditions and its history of copper mining.
It was those visits that gave Gorski a real sense of being tied to a place. “In fact, my ties to the UP became stronger than my ties to Troy. I feel like my roots are in the Keweenaw.”
Like many young people across the country, Gorski, now an emergency room physician in New York City, left his home state. He opted to do his emergency medicine residency in Brooklyn. “I wanted to get a broad base of skills, to see the entirety of everything – and New York City was the place for that.” The city also offered another colorful palette. Gorski lived in a neighborhood where he was surrounded by a thriving artistic community filled with painters, writers, and thinkers. He shared his first apartment (also found on Craigslist) with a group of artists. “I saw, firsthand, how ideas can develop in this unique environment, how art can impact the conversation.”
But it was a speech he heard from then-Governor Jennifer Granholm that brought his thoughts back to his roots. “The gist of what she was saying was: go out and learn, do, experience, and then come back.” Rabbit Island was his siren call.
He sent the Craigslist link to his brother who works on Wall Street. They deliberated for a while, but Gorski eventually put the idea aside. Still, he continued to check the listing on Craigslist. Each time, it was there.
Soon it was the fall of 2009 and the cold weather was about to set in. But not before Gorski decided to make a visit to the island. “When we first pulled up in the boat the water was so clear. It was such a beautiful thing.” He describes the island’s beauty as subtle-a shoreline of fractured sandstone that has created a pebble beach, trees that have been shifted by the elements. The island has never been developed, its trees never cut. “It’s a very rugged environment,” said Gorski. “The fierceness of the lake is present everywhere. The locals call it ‘hard land’.” Gorski calls it “developed by nature.”
He and his brother spent the winter trying to figure out the finances. “We couldn’t have done it without the help of the Keweenaw Land Trust and Public Act 446,” said Gorski. PA 446 allows the property owner to avoid the bump-up property tax if development rights are given up for good. It took several months, but in February of last year, Gorski became the owner of Rabbit Island.
Although he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do with it, he was certain about what he didn’t want to see happen on the island. It wasn’t going to be subdivided and cut up into little pieces. “Local food systems, clean sources of water, all require land mass. It’s just not available now in many areas because of all the slicing and dicing that’s been allowed to happen,” said Gorski. “It’s what I saw happen in Troy when I was growing up.”
The message of preservation also came into focus for Gorski while he was doing his clinical rotations for medical school in Marquette. Traveling back and forth across the state, he soon witnessed an unsettling trend. “You’d see this beautiful area and suddenly it would get discovered. In no time at all it was turned into something it was never meant to be.” Gorski was determined to not let that happen to Rabbit Island. “I really value the UP the way my grandpa saw it 100 years ago.”
Enter Andrew Ranville, a college friend and successful artist now living in London. Ranville wanted to start an artist’s residency and Gorski had the place – the seeds of a true organic partnership. But first, they needed some money. They got a web presence on Kickstarter, a platform created to help fund creative projects. It’s a way to dialogue about a project and test the waters to see if people will fund a project, get some momentum behind an idea. As of July 11, 2011 the partners had met and actually exceeded their goal of $12,500.
All the money raised will go into infrastructure on the island. The plan is to start with a few small cabins designed by Ranville. “Andrews’s primary medium is wood,” said Gorski. “His design is subtle, basic. It’s beautiful.” This would be a perfect blend for Rabbit Island. Ranville will be the principal artist-in-residence and will also construct the minimalist structures. His mission is to incorporate the buildings into the landscape of the island. He’ll be drawing from the experience of his current work, as well as other installations in wilderness settings in Europe and America. There will also be a studio, trails, a fire pit, solar energy, maybe a garden. A minimalist approach to the handful of artists the residency will support.
“We want Rabbit Island to become a symbol of an ethic,” said Gorski. “Only .03 % of the island will be developed for the residency. And that development will involve practices we’ve learned about through sustainable development over the last 300 years.”
“I’m not anti-development,” said Gorski. “What I am about is creating a civilization of simple and subtle, minimal things – a sort of leave-no-trace ethic.”
The island is raising all kinds of interesting ideas for Gorski and Ranville. “When you’re looking at a space that is cut off from everything, you can empty your mind and begin to look at things differently,” said Gorski. “Development can be as simple as building a bench on which to watch nature.”
“My thesis is Rabbit Island could be a new palette for creation,” said Gorski. “It is a big picture look at what’s necessary and what can be cut out. It will definitely be an interesting environment in which to think and create.”