Madeline Island is one of 21 Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. This was my view arriving by ferry:
When I arrived at the Madeline Island School of the Arts, I gave myself time to be still and take in the vista from my window. In the mornings I could hear the loud, resonant wooden rattle of the Sandhill Cranes calling. I brought a couple books with me– including World Enough & Time by Christian McEwan. I was struck by this quote from Kafka:
You don't need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Don't even listen, simply wait. Don't even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet."
I wanted to find that part of myself– the part we know from being a child absorbed in observation, attracting "just the right people and creatures toward us" (Joseph Campbell). What does it mean to be still and solitary in our world? Are we losing touch with even knowing it is something worth reaching for? It seems to take a lot longer than it should to simply wait and receive the gifts that will come.
I did eventually leave my room. There were bikes available to ride into town, a couple miles down the road. I chose a blue Schwinn, like the one I had as a child, with no gears, and the brakes in the foot pedals. I loved sailing down the road, lined in woods, headed toward the water. La Pointe, the only town on Madeline Island, has character. It is perched on the shore of Lake Superior, and has galleries, restaurants and one "famous" bar. The signs below will give you a feeling of the island atmosphere:
Back in my room, I got out my watercolors, ink and scraps to write letters to friends.
In the evening the fog rolled into the meadow from the edge of the forest, and at dawn it began to recede. Each day the staff provided us with lunch and breakfast in a warm welcome atmosphere.
I signed up for a class that began a few days after I arrived:
Landscape Plein Aire Oil Painting with Joe Paquet*.
I am not a landscape painter, and I generally keep my oil paints in my studio or my backyard. This is partly because it is easier for me to transport my sketching and watercolor supplies, and also because I am messy. The learning is not only about the plein aire oil painting, but also the science of how to transport all the painting supplies to remote spots. Materials ideally include a fancy umbrella that attaches to your palette, and protects you and your painting from sun and rain. My more primitive umbrella that was attached by a bungee cord, landed in all 10 colors of my prismatic palette with the first wind. (Joe did put bungee cord on our supply list, but I am pretty sure this is not what he had in mind).
Joe gave us specific instructions in underpainting, the prismatic palette, and seeing light and shade. He demonstrated, making it look easy, and then helped us struggle through. He came around to each of us, offering detailed suggestions, and (in my case) avoiding profanities. We had a lovely view of the woods, filled with the song of the white throated sparrow. I cannot be sure of the bird, but the song was extraordinarily beautiful. On the following days we went to the shore.
After a day in the field, it was exhilarating to ride to town for wine and dinner. Joe was generous with his time and stories. In the end, all 18 of us had paintings.
Now I want to return to that line from Kafka: The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. This calls to mind the line from Mary Oliver's poem, "Wild Geese":
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
I will be teaching at Madeline Island Sept 21-26, 2015, I invite you to join me. Here are the links to the workshop information, and to Joe Paquet's website: