Christian Raguse is a local photographer and outdoor adventurer who visited the Rabbit Island School program in early September to help document the students’ experience. This summer’s program received a New Leaders Grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs allowing artists and mentors like Christian to share his knowledge and experience with the students. Christian had been on an previous expedition with Summer Journeys (the partner organization who organizes Rabbit Island School) and had recently started his studies at the nearby Michigan Technological University. This was his first visit to Rabbit Island, but likely not his last.

My time on the island was nothing short of incredible. From the very beginning I felt very welcomed by the people and the environment around me. My experience began with setting a few down-riggers off the back of the Boston Whaler. I was soon introduced to the people of Rabbit Island School as we disassembled two fresh Coho Salmon on the rocky shore of the island. Without nagging technological distractions, I was able to fully engage with the island’s creative community and learn about the natural sciences of Rabbit Island. I took in all that my surroundings and peers had to offer, while telling my own experience-rich story with my camera. Invaluable is one word that I can pin down to the relationships and memories made during my stay on the Rabbit Island.

See his full photo series and read more thoughts about his time with the school and on the island at his website.

The application deadline for the 2017 Rabbit Island Residency program has been extended until Tuesday, 1 November 2016. We have received a flood of last minute questions about our new application system, and are planning to give our selection committee additional time to assess the review process. Take time and send us your best. We are looking forward to seeing your work and proposals.

Download the guidelines and apply at

2016 Island Notes

The combination of good weather, extraordinary residents and inspiring visitors provided an incredible residency season for 2016. Here’s a recap:

– 2016 Residents F. Daniel Rzicznek, Walter van Broekhuizen, Luce Choules, and the three-person collective comprised of Jack Forinash, Kelly Gregory, and Mary Rothlisberger, were prolific in their work. Highlights include the completion of an epic collection of poems, a number of temporary installations documented via drawing and photography, field experiments, and performances which will be used to create new work for the 2017 exhibition, and a comprehensive collection of data—both of the measurable and ephemeral—related to island life. The island’s journal also saw it’s pages grow as residents documented subtleties of daily life in real time.

– The first year of “Island Talks” went well and we hope to build on this success in the future. Island Talks are our series of informal presentations by resident artists and founders where we invite members of the public to visit the island and experience the residency firsthand. Weather prohibited attendance for a few of the talks, but two were very well attended and received. (Always Respect the Lake.)

– It was a stellar summer of foraging berries and mushrooms. Wild blueberries did best, followed by a respectable showing of raspberries. We also added to our local mushroom knowledge and enjoyed cooking several boletus variants.

– A talented woodworking duo consisting of Tom Bonamici and Anthony Zollo spent time on the island creating furniture for the sauna building and main camp. They were later joined by Michael P. Getz who assisted them in constructing a traditional timber frame structure in Rabbit Bay which will serve as a mainland “Ranger Station” beginning next year.

– Dancer/choreographer Nic Collie and filmmaker Chelsy Mitchell joined us for a week to collaborate on a new video piece that will be completed later this year. Nicola created a series of movements especially for the island's Perch installation situated in the trees along the south ridge. Some incredible underwater movements were also captured.

– Fishing was excellent this year. Neighbors in the bay had some nice catches and we were able to bring in several steelhead, over 40 prized lake trout (mostly caught and released), eight coho salmon, and even a few king salmon that were hanging around Keweenaw Bay this summer.

– Rabbit Island School 2016 continued our annual art and ecology program with high school students in fine style. Record-breaking saunas, countless swims, surfing, cliff jumping, spoon carving, fishing, photographing, art and music making, dancing, campfire chats, foraging, and an incredible back-to-back display of the northern lights are just a few items on a long list of good times. This year the program was supported by a New Leaders Grant from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

– During the whirlwind tour of State of the Union, an opera composed on Rabbit Island in 2015, members of Helsinki Chamber Choir visited the island on their one day off. We recorded a few special moments as the choir sang at The Amphitheater, a forested clearing in front of a large upturned root at the center of the island.

We’d like to say thank you to all involved this summer and to those who support our project from afar. As we unpack the beautiful documentation and stories that were experienced this year we will continue to share details in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

Calling Dr. Glowacki: Saving Opera from Itself

Composer Eugene Birman likes to say that opera was started by a bunch of elites trying to recreate Ancient Greek dramas in their living rooms. It may have been doomed from the very beginning.

But opera did have redeeming qualities. Before the 20th century it was actually fun. There was booing, hissing, exiting en masse, food throwing, and sometimes even rioting. In the opera house one encountered prostitutes, beer sellers, thieves, businessmen, as well as members of the proletariat. Opera of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries was “live” in the best sense of the word, and it likely had more in common with a World Wrestling Federation triple cage match than with an operatic production of the 21st century.

Not only was opera fun, it did not fear politics. The operagoer got both drama and commentary. Take the works of Verdi. Although a true opera buff might offer better examples, I vespri siciliani depicted the French as evil oppressors, Attila addressed the Austrian occupation, and Un ballo in maschera dealt with regicide.

But something happened between then and now. Eugene likes to blame Germany. After all, it was Wagner who brought us a 16-hour story about a magic ring stolen from a dwarf. Parsifal (only five hours) has a two-hour first act where nothing happens. To attempt to make up for it, Wagner impresarios have had tenor Jonas Kaufmann appear shirtless, and magazine articles are published about why it’s okay to fall asleep during opera.

It seems opera in our day and age has become little more than an upper class ritual, where old white people applaud 200-year-old Greatest Hits by Verdi, Mozart, and Bizet. In “modern” works you get the operas Anna Nicole (as in Smith), Jerry Springer, or Two Boys (about online bullying). John Adams commemorates Nixon for going to China and Klinghoffer for being murdered in his wheelchair by the PLO, making opera more of a monument (something dead) than a vehicle to provoke thought and discussion.

In Florida (God’s Waiting Room) it’s not uncommon to see someone die in a restaurant, and it’s somewhat surprising this doesn’t happen more often at the opera. If young people are present, it’s likely because they’ve been given tickets by their company or have been forced to attend by a humorless teacher. Even in Europe, which has a more active opera scene than the US, the audience usually encountered is largely white-hairs. I once attended a performance of Rigoletto in Tartu, Estonia, with an audience populated mainly by people in their 30s. I thought perhaps the Estonians had figured out how to save opera, but upon further investigation the audience proved to be out-of-work Danes on a “training mission.” Sending them to the opera in Eastern Europe was cheaper for their government than feeding them in Scandinavia.

Opera continues to make itself more irrelevant. Despite efforts by the Met to stream it into theaters worldwide –and I fail to see how a broadcast of an opera can compete with a movie – it seems there is no worse idea than watching a movie of an opera, when the concert down the street offers a mosh pit.

In State of the Union, we’ve tried to remedy all this by writing an opera we ourselves would like to attend, about a topic we believe matters.

Early on we were asked what our elevator speech was for SOTU. I tried: “An opera about everything wrong with the planet…” But the problem here is that there’s actually nothing wrong with the planet. There’s something wrong with us.

SOTU is four characters – the environment, the rich, the middle class, and the poor – meeting and interacting over seven movements. It reflects my belief that many of our problems stem from how we view and treat one another. As a society, at least in the US, we equate wealth with wisdom, and poverty with personal shortcomings. SOTU attempts to offer the perspective of each character, without being so depressing that a concertgoer would go home and kill himself. It offers hope, in its own sobering way.

We also like the idea of this opera being performed somewhere unconventional, that it should not be so easy to access. In an era where music can be downloaded and shared essentially for free, what if some SOTU performances could say something about what it means to be a listener and how to appreciate music?

Eugene has suggested SOTU be premiered on a difficult-to-reach island, where you have to take a Boston Whaler, then a dinghy, and then scythe your way through a dense forest to reach the performance grounds. It would offer an unconventional experience and attract a rather special audience.

We’re not alone in this desire. There are writers, composers, artistic directors, as well as performers out there who also would like to give the audience a better experience. But their efforts are not always positively rewarded.

In 2014, the Bristol Old Vic theater’s artistic director invited the audience to “clap and whoop” during a performance of Handel’s Messiah. One audience member, the scientist David Glowacki, took the director at his word but was then dragged from the theater by audience members when he tried to crowd-surf during the Hallelujah Chorus.

If you’re out there Dr. Glowacki, and you happen to be reading this, you are exactly the audience we want. We hope we’ve created something worthy of your attendance.

Scott Diel

July 2015


Hi Scott,

Thanks for sending this through! Sounds like a great piece and right up my street, actually. I really like the idea and your email provided me a hilarious excuse to revisit the circumstances of the whole Hallelujah (praise the lord!) fiasco.

I have no plans to be in the US during the time you say. I did actually briefly consider arranging an excuse to make it across, but there’s simply too much going on at the moment for me to pop over to NYC.

Good luck with it though. We need artwork that directly addresses our potentially catastrophic cultural malaise. If art can’t awaken it, then ideologues like Donald Trump might do it…

You might commission a plant who can turn up at the show with a surfboard and sit in the front row for the duration of the performance; if anybody asks why he’s got a surfboard, he should tell people that his name is Prof. David Glowacki and that’s how he rolls when it comes to classical art forms. I’ve often fantasized that this would be a great follow-up to the whole affair, but I haven’t yet been organized enough to pull it off.

If you do decide to commission a plant please send me a photo of him sitting politely in the front row with his surfboard. Good luck!


David R. Glowacki
Royal Society Research Fellow

Beau Carey, Rabbit Island
Opening, Friday, September 16th, 5 - 8pm
Goodwin Fine Art
Denver, Colorado

In the summer of 2015 I spent 3 weeks as a resident artist on Rabbit Island, a 91 acre island in the Lake Superior. During the bulk of that time I was the island’s only human inhabitant. I had planned to continue research on coastal profiling and it’s effects on the construction of landscape paintings. However, extended periods of solitude can erode even the best laid plans. As is often the case the primacy of experience overwhelms the mutability of preconceived notions. From the shore, from the trees and from a tiny raft I was able to make a dozen or so oil paintings. These works and the starts of ideas in them became the subject of the following years studio canvases. 

Lake Superior feels immensely deep. It also, depending on the weather and the craft you have to navigate it, feels like an insurmountable barrier. In the cliff paintings I raised the horizon line and eliminated surface detail to create a kind of wall/void. Rabbit Island doesn’t have the huge rocky cliffs seen in many of the studio paintings. The island is rocky, but I took certain liberties with scale and surface that better fit with the psychological and philosophical ideas experienced. Standing on those cliffs one is staring into an impenetrable abyss. Other works look at that tiny space between shore and open water by subtly examining views from each position. In them I was reminded of a favorite quote from the 1975 movie Jaws, “It’s only a island if you look at it from the water”. They are reminders that our labels for things are dependent on our vantage points. Together all these works synthesize my experience on Rabbit Island.

Beau Carey, 2016


July 14th, 2015

9th Full day on the Island

North winds 15 to 25 knots diminishing to 10 to 20 knots by mid-afternoon. Areas of fog this morning. Waves 3 to 5 feet subsiding to 1 to 3 feet.

…Rabbit Island doesn’t need to be mapped, it’s been mapped enough. Any attempt to do so is to see it in parts.

The map is key to sub-division. To see this from that. I own this; you own that.

So what then?  How to leave it whole yet comprehensible? In the words of Hakim Bey how do we make the island ‘invisible to the cartography of control’? To remove Rabbit Island from the process of mindless sub-division is in a very real way an attempt to remove it from the map, not as Terra Incognita (Unknown Territory) but as Terra Invisibilis (Invisible Territory)? How do we un-see something? Or how do we leave enough of the right parts to stitch together the right whole?

The above might be impossible or nonsense, the loose, unorganized sketchbook thoughts of an isolated artist on a remote 91-acre island in Lake Superior. As a landscape painter my very task is to divide and omit. I paint this and not that. I condense or expand details according the whims of the genre. I cram the world into neat little squares and rectangles of foreground, middle ground and background. I divide and sub-divide the visual into comprehensible organized space. It is folly to believe that any landscape painter paints the world as it actually is. The history of modern western landscape painting itself is rooted in imperial ambitions and environmental dominance (1), a language of division and sub-division. Rabbit Island is a chance to paint a space that envisions itself as different. The resulting work strives to say something new with old words, knowing the limits of knowledge are the limits of the language. The hope is that the encounter creates a new visual vocabulary.

What emerged was the abandonment of the rectangle as an acceptable format to start a composition. The ‘tondo’ or circular painting, largely a Renaissance tool, was used to leave those right-angled edges behind. Perception is anything but square and with the ubiquity of cameras our vision and experiences are increasingly being squared off, life as an instagram feed, an endless scroll of square memories. So two days into my stay I was tracing the main camps largest frying pan making most of my rectangular paper into circles. The X’s are both a form of division, a measurement, a survey, a reference to what I’m trying to avoid in the square, and they are a negation, a literal crossing out of the painted view.  Some of the X’s are exposed under-painting, flat spaces beneath the painted surface that subvert the illusion of deep space that defines the landscape genre. And finally to paint coastal profiles from a boat even in calm glassy water is an exercise in futility. Traditionally profiles were used in navigation requiring a type of preciseness that a moving boat in my experience makes nearly impossible. It was with this revelation in mind that the July 14th sketchbook entry was written. The idea that Rabbit Island doesn’t need to be mapped and profiled at least not in the way it has been done in the past. Those tools lead us to a sub-divided world of haphazard development. What is required is the long project of developing new ways of seeing, of talking about spaces. What is required is more Terra Invisbilis.  

Beau Carey, 2015

(1) Landscape and Power, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell

State of the Union: A Listener’s Guide

What is New Music? And why should you care?

Attending a new music rehearsal of a work not our own, composer Eugene Birman and I quietly passed notes on an appropriate title for the piece:

“Sounds kids are not allowed to make at the table”
“Object dropped from great height”
“Indian war whoops”
“Use this time to pay your bills”

Having reached the conclusion that the work left us with nothing, we exited the hall and entered the elevator, where we were serenaded by “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Seasons.

“Of course this was new once,” remarked Eugene. But it was hard to imagine that “Spring” ever caused people to flee a concert hall or could possibly be conceived of as outside the canon.

But attempt to listen to it (first movement, allegro) with an open mind and you might come up with titles like “Prematurely elated newlywed bride” or “Floor five; going down.” Try to listen, being open to the possibility that the piece has qualities that could conceivably make a person want to run through the orchestra smashing violins with a baseball bat.

So why exactly do we like Seasons? Is it because we’ve been told it’s great so many times that who are we to argue? And who (other than Martin Bernheimer) really goes to a performance actively looking for things to dislike?

As members of a modern society, whether we recognize it or not, we are programmed to feel certain ways when we hear certain music. Music with a purpose. Or perhaps music that has found a purpose.

Take the “Ride of the Valkyries.” Listening to this, who among us couldn’t enjoy a conversation with those of another ideology while hovering overhead with a M60  machine gun? (“Outstanding, Red Team, outstanding. Getcha a case of beer for that.”)

Or consider the Tristan Chord heard in the opening phrase of Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde. Even non opera fans know it from movie scenes where someone’s drink gets poisoned.

Or, departing from Wagner, there’s Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (“O Fortuna”), perhaps the most used mood setter for cataclysmic events.

Grace Slick recently remarked on “White Rabbit” in the Wall Street Journal: “Minor chords have a certain darkness and sadness… I shifted to major chords for a release and to celebrate Alice’s courage…” No secret there, generally speaking. It’s just that we non-music people don’t really think about it that much. But there are composers who do. New music composers like Eugene.

“Why should I be attempting to do what so many dead white guys have already successfully done?” I’ve heard him ask.

New music composers find greater challenge in abandoning the the conventions and attempting to create new musical triggers.

“With SOTU,” says Eugene, “it’s the idea that, from the first moment, the music must put you in this new, undiscovered world and then you lose your free will and are at the mercy of the composer and librettist. At least, ideally.”

So new music is an attempt to create something that we, as listeners, can react genuinely to, a virgin experience, or close to it. Part of the fun of new music is that you don’t know how it’s going to make you feel until after you’ve had the experience.

Some say new music is about being challenged. “Because you have to think and feel,” as Heta points out in her video. It’s music that goes beyond your programming.

You may not like it all, of course. I have heard composers say that most new music is created to be performed once. Most of it will vanish before it is even recorded (not SOTU, as fate would have it). Some of it may be rediscovered in a couple hundred years.

And of course Eugene and I certainly aren’t the first to have passed notes about music we weren’t fond of. This note was passed from John Ruskin to John Brown in 1881:

“…upsetting of a bag of nails, with here and there also a dropped hammer.”

Ruskin was commenting on Beethoven. Roughly a couple hundred years ago.

Scott Diel is the librettist for “State of the Union”

The Rabbit Island Foundation is excited to present the first ever Island Talks series. This summer we will be hosting five public conversations on the island with artists from around the world. Weather permitting, we hope you will join us. The Island Talks will occur on selected Saturdays in July, August, and September. Rent a boat and come on out! All are welcome. 

Our resident artists will be in the midst of spending two to four weeks on Rabbit Island pursuing work and research related to their residency proposals. Artists will field questions and speak about their backgrounds and practices relative to island’s creative and conservation-minded themes, as well as their daily experience living on Rabbit Island. The island will also be available for picnicking and self-guided tours of the forested interior. 

Island Talks begin at 12pm.

Visitors must arrange their own transportation. Rabbit Island can be reached via sailboat, power boat or kayak. Volunteer transport may be available on the day of the talks. If you would like to volunteer space on a boat please post specifics to our Facebook or Instagram pages. Though not required an RSVP would be greatly appreciated. Please send an email to with details of your arrival plans.

There are public boat ramps in Jacobsville and Big Traverse Bay. Travel distance to the island from both is approximately 8 miles. When approaching the island you will need to pull your boat up on a sandstone ledge or anchor it offshore in shallow water. A small inflatable dingy will be available to bring you ashore from your anchorage. Be sure to bring your own anchor, however. (BYOA!) Please visit our comprehensive Rabbit Island Navigation website and check out the latest updates on the day of to confirm any last minute details. 

Getting to the island will be half of the adventure. However, in the event of severe weather or wave conditions Island Talks may be postponed or cancelled. “Always Respect the Lake!” 

2016 Island Talks

F. Daniel Rzicznek
July 2nd

Walter Van Broekhuizen
July 16th

Founders’ Talk with Rob Gorski and Andrew Ranville
July 30th

Luce Choules
August 13th

Mary Rothlisberger, Jack Forinash, Kelly Gregory
September 17th

Introducing State of the Union

There’s really nothing wrong with the planet; it’s more about what’s wrong with us.

World Premiere: September 29th, 2016, Marquette, Michigan

Rabbit Island is proud to present a bold new opera addressing the pressing political and environmental issues of our time. The opera was conceived in 2015 while Juilliard-trained composer Eugene Birman and librettist Scott Diel spent sixteen days on Rabbit Island.

This fall, Birman and Diel will present their work, State of the Union (SOTU), a 40-minute operatic work for twelve voices, in Marquette, Michigan, on the campus of Northern Michigan University. The piece will be performed by the Helsinki Chamber Choir, the leading vocal group from Finland and one of the most notable contemporary choirs in all of Europe. Part opera seria, part satire, SOTU considers environmental crisis, economic inequality, and the general obliviousness of society’s confused march forward. The opera condemns no one and everyone, yet its finale doles out redemption to those open to it. 

SOTU is four characters – the environment, the rich, the middle class, and the poor – meeting and interacting over seven movements. It reflects a belief that many of our problems stem from how we view and treat one another. As a society we too often equate wealth with wisdom, and poverty with personal shortcomings.

This work pushes forward the genre of classical music and also advances the medium to underscore a new subject: humanity’s relationship to its natural environment in the context of modern society. 

According to Birman, “SOTU’s relationship to the very beginning of opera is quite strong, in that opera was invented as a genre for communicating revolutionary ideas. But political and conventional limitations on the form were nevertheless too limiting, so it was quickly subsumed into ‘music as entertainment’. SOTU is commentary on that role, for while the piece will be entertaining, I see its purpose as bringing opera back to what it was meant to be… as a Gesamtkunstwerk with a specific purpose, not just one that brings together art forms for the delight of audiences. I think that the genre needs this shake-up because it has, with each new addition, become more and more anachronistic and baroque—ultimately, irrelevant and silly.”

Rabbit Island is a laboratory for artists to consider the modern relationship between art and the environment, and this is what Birman and Diel have done. Historically this type of leap was not accessible to composers for simple reasons: precise environmental consciousness did not exist in centuries past. Therefore, in its stead, interpersonal dramas became the primary focus of the operatic medium.

For centuries Handel, Verdi, Puccini, Beethoven and Berlioz explored subjects of power, politics, tragedy, mythology, love, and death. Classical wisdom of the sixteenth to late twentieth centuries, after all, was based on texts written in a pre-scientific era, and had significant omissions. Today, however, as we transition away from a time when drama between people and states represented the sole pinnacle of moral concern, to an era where the relationship between society and nature has become the most pressing agenda, an artistic and cultural evolution is needed. SOTU represents an attempt to illustrate these ideas in the medium of new opera. 

In this context does Puccini’s famous 1904 Madame Butterfly and its popular lesson of cultural and sexual imperialism still represent a “classic” idea that we should be concerned with? Of course it does—this theme, any many others, will not expire. However, in addition, should we not desire art that serves to clarify and celebrate new measures of our moral and environmental understanding? Climate change is new. The Anthropocene is new. COP 21 is new. Asian Carp are new. Superfund sites are new. Emissions laws are new. These are the kinds of discussions we strive to keep in mind and this is why we are excited about State of the Union; it attempts fresh thought that is grounded in moral tradition, expressed via art. We must, after all, always remember to take the old masters as meaningful guides, yet be wary of letting them intoxicate us to the point of failing to move ahead when necessary. We can’t wait for its September premiere and hope that you will join us!

SOTU has been brought to life thanks to generous support from the Rabbit Island Foundation, Northern Michigan University’s Northern Nights concert series, DeVos Art Museum, the Finlandia Foundation, the Finnish Cultural Foundation, and the U.P. Beaumier Heritage Center.

We are particularly excited to welcome the Helsinki Chamber Choir to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where a large percentage of residents can trace their roots back to Finnish immigrants.  In the U.P. we proudly celebrate Finnish language, culture, sauna, surnames and, of course, sisu.

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