Lee Dassler (Artist-in-Residence, 1996)

A photograph shows the bow of a small boat
"A Ghost in Tobin's Harbor", 4 ¼” x 6 ¼” photograph, 1996

NPS/Lee Dassler

Isle Royale Reflection

"My artist’s residency in Tobin Harbor was part preservation, part art, part conspiracy. My family had been among the first summer families to set up camp in the harbor in the nineteenth century. Like many other summer families, we have been left to balance the public good of the creation of the National Park in the ‘30s with the private sorrow of losing rights to generations of family tradition. In my own life I have been searching for the source of the shadows, the ghosts of my family’s traditions. My actions and my art manifest what was lost and my hope that more remains to be found.

When I proposed to photograph the historic structures in Tobin Harbor, I did not realize that the project would include elements of archaeology. Documenting the standing structures was obvious and awe inspiring. The determination of these families to set up camp in this remote situation, and the determination of the materials of their simple cabins and docks to weather the extraordinary nature Lake Superior hurls at them, is inexplicable. Most often the lake won, but not without a good fight. I searched for and documented traces of human habitation: a charred sawn board overcome with lichen, a cut nail, a bed spring, a strip of rusted metal roofing. The most haunting of these ghosts were the dock cribs: massive and pristine below the water’s surface.

The structures in Tobin Harbor, even those still used by their families, have been frozen in time, since the creation of the Park. The families that chose to retain life-leases on their properties did so knowing that their lease would expire within the span of a generation. So in general the structures have been maintained but have escaped renovation. The details of the hardware and materials used to construct the cabins and boathouses reflect another age and another approach to life: paced, practical, and yet not without poetry. Even their interior gadgets and household objects reflect the convenience of the early twentieth century. Tobin Harbor is a window to another time, a window that is yet private and deserving of respect. Someday when the story is fully public these photographs will flush out the pace, elegance and frugal practicality of generations and traditions now gone."

- Lee Dassler*


About the Artist*

Lee Dassler was an Isle Royale Artist-in-Residence from June 14th to June 29th, 1996. She was born in St.Louis, but now lives in Otisfield, Maine, where she is executive director of a historic vernacular garden. Her degrees in Theatre Arts from Wells College and Architectural Preservation from Columbia University allowed her to travel around the world performing and restoring/documenting historic structures.

She has been traveling with a camera in tow since she graduated from high school. “Always there are glimpses of structure, buildings, built objects, unintentional compositions in my slides. The spontaneous theater sets that form the backdrops of our lives.” Her fascination with materials and history guided her towards preservation. She worked as a conservator, recording evidence, analyzing material culture, documenting and restoring deteriorated architectural elements. “I have spent the last three years of my life helping to save an endangered landscape in western Maine. That need, my need to preserve and honor the built environment, comes from Isle Royale.”

*[Source for all Lee's page content: Root, Robert and Jill Burkland, editors. (2000). The Island Within Us. Houghton, MI: Isle Royale Natural History Association. p 86. Print.]


Last updated: January 5, 2020

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