Emilie Lee

Painting from nature


at Península de Osa, Costa Rica

at Península de Osa, Costa Rica

Escaping the polar vortex!  (at Costa Rica)

Escaping the polar vortex! (at Costa Rica)

Getting back in the groove with Monday #portrait sessions @gcanyc!  #sketch #drawing #pencildrawing (at Grand Central Academy Of Art)

Getting back in the groove with Monday #portrait sessions @gcanyc! #sketch #drawing #pencildrawing (at Grand Central Academy Of Art)

Happy New Year everyone!


Essay by Emilie Lee, realist painter and artist in residence on Rabbit Island in July and August, 2013. Originally published by Stio—where she serves as an ambassador—in their seasonal catalog. 

It’s 5:30 AM when I open my eyes, it takes a moment for me to realize that I’m not in my own bed in Brooklyn, NY, where the air is a crushing 100 degrees. I’m in a sleeping bag and lots of layers, savoring this warmth as a cold wind drives through sparse trees around me. I can hear waves crashing, it sounds like the ocean. Rob is already yanking on his wetsuit and saying “Waves like this could sink the boat, we’d better move it before this weather gets worse!” I spring into action and grab my own suit, soon we are chest deep in the frigid waters of Lake Superior, hauling our bodies over the bucking sides of the 17 foot Boston Whaler. I wrestle with the mooring ropes as Rob starts the engine and in a minute we are riding that heaving turquoise water away from shore. It doesn’t take long for us to round the southwest point of land and suddenly the boat planes flat and we glide safely through smooth water. Protected from the wind, this scene is a world away from the one we just left – the sun is beginning to warm the day and gentle waves lap the rocks.

The shoreline feels worn thin by the constant forces of wind and water. The trees on the edge are small and wiry, the sandstone bedrock has crumbled into chunks under the summer waves and winter ice. By contrast the island interior is a riotous jungle of thick moss, impenetrable undergrowth, and sturdy old trees. No mammals larger than mice live here, so the flora has grown unchecked. A nesting pair of bald eagles watch over this rare, fragile ecosystem that is contained by the impossible expanse of the largest freshwater lake in the world.This is how I began my first morning on Rabbit Island, a ninety-one acre oasis of wilderness located three miles off the Keweenaw Peninsula in northern Michigan. The island is home to a small artist residency, one where the artists sleep in tents, cook over a campfire, and go fishing for dinner. The only shelter from the elements is a three sided cabin that serves as a communal kitchen and dining area. Residents are responsible for cooking and doing chores around camp but otherwise are free to roam the island and find inspiration in this unique environment.

And what a lake it is! It’s immensity is hard to grasp. If emptied, it would flood North and South America to a depth of one foot, it holds 10% of all the earth’s fresh water, and it’s surface area is larger than all of New England. I had been aware of these facts before, but during my two weeks as a resident artist on Rabbit Island I gained a more intimate reverence for Lake Superior.

I spent my time making small oil paintings, standing still for hours at a time, immersed in observing the water, rocks, moss, and sky. For three days in a row we endured weather that was 45 degrees and raining with waves so big that some of the artists were able to take out their surfboards and catch some rides! On these days I was cold and shivering at my canvas, but transfixed by the challenge of painting the storm. With my easel set up on the wet rocks I was just out of the water’s reach while it reared and crashed in my face. I could peer into the cold clear water while the wind whistled around my head, sensing the threatening power of the legendary lake and the safe shelter that this delicate island was offering me.

It’s October now, and I’ve been back in New York City for a couple months. My paintings from Rabbit Island have joined others on my studio wall - like little windows into my memory, I can look into each one and be transported back to the day I made it, complete with all the sounds, sights, smells, and emotions that I experienced. I’m using these small paintings as inspiration for much larger canvases, and while I’m working in my studio I can almost feel the shivering cold of those stormy days. Digging into this remembered experience on a daily basis, I’ve uncovered more than just colors, shapes, and values for my artwork. I recall the simplicity of my daily routine on the island and how little I needed to be happy. A cold dip in the lake, a hot bowl of oatmeal, and I was ready to paint all day.

Back in New York, my life has more complexity, and at times I feel like I’m fighting upstream to carve out the uninterrupted hours I need to paint. During this past month of transitioning I’ve seriously questioned my choice to live here, is it time to move on and find my nest in the woods? Weighing my options, my instincts voted unanimously to stay put. I don’t feel ready to flee the city for a more secluded life. Instead I’m thinking about ways to simplify my routine and make room for the things that matter: painting, family, friends, and time to be reminded of nature’s beauty and power. I need the opportunities to expand my mind, to continue learning, to be challenged and inspired by the rich culture of art around me.

A story I wrote about my residency on Rabbit Island

Last week at Rockaway #nyc #surfing

Today in my studio. #oilpainting #painting #art #artprocess #coffee

Today in my studio. #oilpainting #painting #art #artprocess #coffee

Report from Rabbit Island

Rabbit Island, a 91 acre oasis of wilderness in Lake Superior, first came to my attention in 2011 when a friend emailed me about a Kickstarter campaign.  An artist residency was planned for the island and when I read about the fledgling project online my heart skipped a beat as I realized how much I would love to go there. The Great Lakes have captured my imagination for many years and this summer I had the chance to be one of the artists at work in this magical setting.

Under the creative vision of Rob Gorski, the residency has been developed with considered restraint - the only shelter from the elements is a 3 sided cabin that serves as a communal kitchen and dining area.  Artists sleep in tents, cook on the campfire, and swim in the frigid water. The intention is to leave behind all distractions of modern life and live close to nature. We tried to cultivate an ethos of simplicity by keeping our off-island imports to a minimum. For instance, processed food and beer cans were discouraged in favor of a “less is more” approach.  We were constantly asking ourselves “what else can we live without?”  This being the third summer of the residency, we were essentially part of a beta testing phase and learned so much that will help shape the experiences of future residents.

I shared the island with a colorful cast of artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and chefs.  The atmosphere was abuzz with creative energy, and adding to that dynamic was the presence of a New York Times journalist and photographer who were writing a story about us. I felt some conflict between my desire to find solitude, and the excitement of the activity around me. In my normal routine I spend a lot of time alone but I recognized the value of this opportunity to work alongside such a diverse group. I loved seeing what fascinated other people about this unique environment and imagining how it would manifest through each individual’s creativity. While I was out painting, completely absorbed in my canvas, I could occasionally look up to see one of the other artists at a distance, equally absorbed in another kind of work. Once when I was walking back to camp, I passed Jessica Kilroy, who was standing on a wobbly rock, shifting her weight side to side and listening intently to the hollow clunk underfoot. I knew she was collecting field recordings to use in her music compositions … I had never thought of it on my own, but now I heard a melody every time I wobbled across those rocks! This is just one example of the kind of energy that was sparkling around me this summer, and I encourage you to visit the Rabbit Island blog to read about all the different projects that took place.

I spent my time making small plein air paintings, choosing my subjects based purely on a fascination with light and form. The warm sandstone bedrock of the island as it disappears under the deep turquoise waters crashing over it was a fun challenge for me to decipher. As a group, these paintings are a collection of intimate moments, each one exposing a piece of Rabbit Island’s character.  To me, they serve as windows through time, bringing me back to the moment I was painting in quiet meditation surrounded by waves, wind, rocks, and sky. Those afternoons spent in focused awareness were precious for their lack of distractions.  Even though we had cell service and I was able to use my phone daily, it was often out of commission with a dead battery. If I were to repeat this trip, I’d give myself a true digital detox and I might even give up the ability to take photos altogether, that way I’d be forced to use my drawing and writing skills to record my memories.

Exercising smart-phone restraint has been a popular topic of conversation around me this summer.  They are such powerful tools to connect us, and as an artist it is an invaluable way to promote my work and share the journey behind how I make it.  My instagram feed has allowed me to stay in touch with my friends and find inspiration in their adventurous lives.  Maintaining this sense of community has been a positive gain, but at times I feel overwhelmed by information and I struggle to find the presence I need to fully develop my thoughts. On the morning we were packing to leave the island and re-enter the outside world, I considered how I could simplify my life and bring more presence into my daily routine. I realized there were quite a few things I could live without - in material possessions, habits, and thoughts. So, in keeping with the “less is more” motto we had on Rabbit Island, I’ll be doing some spring cleaning this fall!

to see more photos from this trip go to my wordpress blog or my instagram feed