"The Beauty of Wilderness: An Artist’s Dilemma" by Phillip Sterling, 2014 Artist-in-Residence

A poem and woodblock print
"Cabin", 11" x 8 1/2" poem and linoleum block print, 2014

NPS/Phillip Sterling

"When Greg Blust called early in 2014 with the news that I was selected to be Artist-in-Residence, I was excited because I had never been to Isle Royale, though I had heard and read a lot about the place. Jane, my partner, had backpacked the island while in college some thirty years before and often spoke memorably and fondly of the experience. And more than a few of my Advanced Composition students at Ferris State University had written research papers about the wolf, moose, or lichen studies being done there, as well as more personal essays about visiting the island with friends or family—backpacking, kayaking, encountering wildlife. Having grown up in the woods of Northwest Lower Michigan and witnessed in the fifty years since how civilization and development had domesticated my fond childhood stomping grounds beyond recognition, I longed for any opportunity to rediscover “wilderness.” If I’d ever given a thought to writing such a thing as a bucket list, surely a visit to Isle Royale would be toward the top.

At the same time, I was concerned. I would not be hitching a ride on the Ranger III as a mere tourist. Instead, I was going as a poet and artist who would be expected during my residency to create something worthy of donating to the National Park Service—that is, worthy of Isle Royale, a place that, in its own well-advertised right, is unique. Such expectation posed not only a particular challenge but also a dilemma.

I had applied for the residency as a poet and print-maker. Linoleum block prints were something I have done for forty years—generally one or two a year, at Christmas. While I have occasionally designed a few notecards as fundraisers for non-profit groups, or accompanied a print with a poem to be published as a limited edition broadside, I would not call myself a printmaker in any sense of the word. My linocuts are purely amateur, folksy stuff—though predominately “natural” in image (lots of trees and moons—the positive/negative aspects of moonlight particularly conducive to light/dark single color block printing). A residency on Isle Royale, however, if I honored my application, would mean taking that avocation to another level. And that was a daunting thought.

To complicate matters, I’d also not been writing very many poems in recent years, concentrating my time more on fiction and non-fiction. The few poems I had written were unsatisfying, at best. At the same time, writing poetry was second nature to me, and so I was confident that committing myself to both literary and visual arts during a residency on Isle Royale would prove to be generative. Besides, not only had poetry been part of my life for at least fifty years but it was something I continued to do “old school,” often composing poems in my head as I walked or biked, then writing them down and revising them later, in longhand. Unlike fiction, which I revise extensively and repeatedly on the computer (saving, I’m sure, millions of trees in the process), poetry would be a “natural” genre for the limited resources available on Isle Royale.

Needless to say, my affirmation to accept Greg’s offer was intense—both exciting and scary.

Fortunately, it all turned out well. I was invigorated and awed by my time as an artist-in-residence for Isle Royale. I found the island enriching, the time productive. I had discovered in the wonderful journals left in the Dassler Cabin by previous artists (my first week’s self-imposed “orientation” involved a study of those journals) that I was not alone in my feeling of enthusiastic uncertainty, my creative dilemma, for Isle Royale indeed presents a challenge to artists and writers. Remote and undeveloped, an archipelago of rocky grandeur thrusting demonstratively from the wild northern waters of the greatest of Great Lakes—Isle Royale offers untold beauty, a beauty that one finds difficult to replicate in mere words or images. A beauty that is perpetuated in large part by a concerted effort to protect and manage its wilderness, its isolation. As a consequence there is a certain amount of constancy in its ecology and habitat, in its beauty. Even the astonishing sunrises may become predictable. While a boon for scientists, who appreciate the opportunity for (carefully controlled) scientific study, such constancy and redundancy of wilderness is not necessarily “inspiring” to artists.

Isle Royale’s challenge to a writer or artist, then, is to make the unique even more so—to make the place his/her own. And it is a challenge well worth the effort, as I learned during my residency—an immersion in wilderness that continues to inspire me to this day."

Phillip Sterling, 2017

*Adapted from the Introduction to Isle Royale from the AIR: Poems, Stories, and Songs from 25 Years of Artists-in-Residence (Caffeinated Press, 2017)

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Last updated: January 3, 2020

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