October 23, 2019
Dear Big Lake,
I’ve long admired your patience while being observed and immortalized—the thousands of brush strokes painted at your shores—the metaphors written from your inspiration—promises made by those standing in front of you—rocks that have been wished on and skipped—shutter speeds—iPhone selfies—Facebook posts. And I am, no doubt, one of your admirers. I have lived near you for almost six years now, and you still stun me with your changing moods and steadying horizon line. This, even as there are times when I forget your presence on my way to some task or another.
Remember when I first moved to Grand Marais? There was an article that ran in the Star Tribune that painted an honest, but probably idyllic, picture of the Northwoods and living off the land. Soon after it ran, a visitor stopped in who had read it and then decided to get in her car and drive to Grand Marais. She did not stop until she parked outside the Art Colony, where I was there to greet her. She looked at me with desperate admiration:
You people. You have so little and yet you are so happy. I want to move here.
Very much like what a kid from a barrio might hear, kicking a soccer ball while a visiting humanitarian looks at him with awe:
You have so little and yet you are so happy.
I’ve never seen that woman again.
As you well know, “getting out” was not my intention; neither was seeking after an idyllic place. My intention was to land at a place where I could work in the arts and that also had large swaths of forests where my husband could work. Getting out and existing in this borderland—one road in one road out, surrounded by you on the south, the Boundary Waters and Superior National Forest everywhere else—has, at times, been an uncomfortable and claustrophobic experience, and at others, liberating and stabilizing.
I can’t say I’m completely separated from any idyllic hope. After all, I’m writing to you in a sublime, personified way. But having lived here long enough, I also know this is a real place with authentic community challenges, just like everywhere else. Artists and others retreat to this landscape, but they bring everything they are with them, whether they’d like to admit it or not.
Since we talked last at the harbor, I have been mulling over those same words that have at times been used for the Art Colony: retreat and refuge. Certainly, artists have come for decades to your shores to get out and find a new path forward for their work and their lives. But by definition, neither of these words completely fits who we are:
Refuge: a condition of being safe or sheltered from danger, pursuit, or trouble.
Retreat: a quiet or secluded place in which one can rest and relax.
Far from being sheltered or relaxing, I see artists working their butts off and doing amazingly critical work: work that is hopefully true, good, and beautiful in their most expansive interpretations. And for those artists residing on the North Shore or another “out there” location, regional, not provincial (Hazel Belvo’s constant reminder) is an empowering mantra. We have, in a sense, gotten out, but our work need not be irrelevant, derivative, or predictable.
Maybe if we drill down more, it is not a question of physical location or urban vs. rural, a dilemma that can be solved by moving. But instead, it is an existential question that occurs when artists find themselves in the liminal, at a precipice, at an interstice. If, in seeking a change, he calls himself tourist, he then takes pictures, picks up souvenirs, and will treat each trip as a singular event. If instead, she calls herself pilgrim, she knows she is on a continuous journey where the beginning connects to the end. The pilgrim knows the journey will fundamentally change her. William Faulkner writes of the heart of the pilgrim:
They are not monuments, they are footprints.
A monument only says At least I got this far.
While a footprint says This is where I was when I moved on again.1
People come to you all the time in this pilgrim state, don’t they? Or maybe they don’t realize they are in this state until they stand at Palisade or atop Mount Josephine when, only then, you say something to them.
On the other hand, maybe the person who clicks the picture and plugs it into her scrapbook is better off. She has had a genuine experience and has personally benefited. She goes home with a painting or a set of ceramic tiles. She is self-actualizing her love of the art experience and layering it on the next, and the next. Does she have to contribute more to the art world in order to count? Does she have to see her work as driving deeper empathy and causing a fundamental shift in the culture in order to call it valid?
You’re right, it is true that she has no skin in the game. She is not trying to make rent with her Mod Podge box or find gallery representation or secure a collaborative effort. But her work, to the degree she can do it, is totally legitimate as a pure act of creation, from a vision only she can see and enact. And whose is the art world anyway? Maybe what she teaches those of us deeper inside is to stop taking ourselves so seriously, to recognize the liminal, to be satisfied with the work we are capable of at any point in time, and to let it rest more often than we do, in order to go skip a few rocks at Fall River. And what about that woman inspired by the article? What did you say to her?
In the end, I am, right now, neither tourist nor pilgrim. I am an architect of space and time for the tourist and pilgrim to enter in. I craft an opening for 5 – 7 year olds, 8 – 12 year olds, beginners, mid-career artists, and residents—hoping the experience will push them beyond retreat or refuge, and that they will continue to discover a bit of their own voice and way of conversing with the world—which, even way out here, is still complex, real, and consequential.
This piece is part of a series of letters under the theme Getting Out (on the outs, and ins thereof, of art), guest edited by Moheb Soliman.