The tale of an island ‘desk’

Dear Artist, Somewhere out in Lake of the Woods — a lake with 14,000 islands straddling the border between the US and Canada — there’s one very special island. After several searches, I located this island in 2004. It was special because, about 1926, one of my favorite painters, Walter J. Phillips, painted on it. We know he was there because he painted another rather distinct island that lay in a certain position nearby. Phillips later made his watercolour into a wood-block print called Sunset, Lake of the Woods.

“Sunset, Lake of the Woods”
woodblock print, 1928
by Walter J. Phillips

In my ongoing hobby of finding where historical artists have gone before, I often find the previous artist had chosen a certain type of place to set up. With a bit of looking around on this small, unnamed island — and keeping Phillips’ view in mind — I found a natural “desk” that was there for the taking. A rock to sit on, a place to put my feet, and a rock that took a paintbox and kept it level. There was even a little crevasse that neatly held a can of water. Naturally, I had to repeat the Phillips event.  

Robert Genn on Phillips Islet
Lake of the Woods 2004

Yesterday, Melissa Jean of Kenora, Ontario wrote, “I found it, Bob! You asked me to email a picture to you if I ever found the island (I call it the Phillips-Genn Island). My husband Bill and I found the island yesterday, and we went back today to find the “desk.” We looked at both little islands, and I found the “desk” where you and Phillips painted from. It took a while because it was overgrown with willows — they must’ve been little shoots when you were there. I trampled some down and set up right there. I also found an old tin can that was split open down the middle. It looked like it might have been used as a dish, and it looked pretty old. I imagined it might have been Walter’s. I left it where I found it, and also tucked one of my paint brushes under it, with my initials on it. I thought, maybe someday my kids might discover it with their kids on a little treasure-hunt of their own. The place sure made an impact on them, and our daughter Ruby painted with me there as well.”

Melissa Jean, Lake of the Woods
Ontario August 14, 2011

Thanks, Melissa. It’s stuff like this that makes it all worthwhile. Best regards, Robert PS: “The first thing a painter has to do is to find a good place to sit.” (J.E.H. Macdonald, 1924) Esoterica: There is a Brotherhood and Sisterhood of painters. Dead and alive, absent and present, we travel together and keep each other company. Members of the ‘hood are our friends, fellow students and occasional critics. We find them struggling and we find them triumphant on sunny shores and in quiet bowers. We honour them with our efforts as they have honoured us. The phenomenon of the ‘hood just doesn’t stop. As far as I can see, it’s eternal.   French treats by Susan Marx, Orange, NJ, USA  

“Spring rapture”
acrylic painting
by Susan Marx

When traveling in France, I spend my time doing the same thing, searching for the exact spot where Monet, or Van Gogh, or Matisse would have stood. It helps me to understand their work more. And whenever I have the opportunity, I set my own easel up in the exact same spot to see what Susan Marx will do with those exact same elements.           After Hokusai by Tom Relth, Casablanca, Morocco  

“Lake Suwa”
by Katsushuka Hokusai

What a lovely story. When I went to look at the photos and the original Phillips Lake of the Woods woodblock, I was a little overtaken with emotion. Also the ukiyo-e influence which I love and studied (i.e. Hokusai, Lake Suwa) is so obvious.     There are 2 comments for After Hokusai by Tom Relth
From: Liz Schamehorn — Aug 24, 2011

Wow…the universal appeal of pine trees and lakes!

From: Pam Relth — Nov 11, 2012

How wild is the coincidence of two Relths not only reading, but admiring the same art work. Cousin Tom, do you know of artist Tom Killion? He does woodcuts in this style, mostly of CA locations.

  Major collection of Phillips’ woodblocks by Yvonne Christensen, Oona River, BC, Canada   While I was at the Banff Center many years ago, I asked the curator of the Walter Phillips Gallery why the namesake? The gallery houses an entire collection of WJP block prints that he produced and are bound in a very large and thick book. I asked to view the book and with white gloves on my hands, I spent much time turning each page marvelling at the scope and skill of his work. It is QUITE a journey through his life and times and a wonderful legacy. Artists with an interest in woodblocks passing through Banff should ask for this privilege.   Knockout print! by Philip Koch, Baltimore, MD, USA  

“Pamet River Evening”
pastel painting, 4 x 8 inches
by Philip Koch

That Walter J. Phillips woodcut — it is a knockout! Years ago when I was an art student at Oberlin College in Ohio I did a lot of printmaking simply because of the three artists on the faculty. The printmaking instructor was the best teacher. I then moved on to concentrate on painting, leaving my printing days behind. Had I then seen a landscape print as good as this one by Phillips I might have stayed with it. There is 1 comment for Knockout print! by Philip Koch
From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Aug 23, 2011

What a stunning pastel painting! Thanks for showing it.

  Evidence of the Brotherhood and Sisterhood by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA  

“As the Sun Burns Off the Fog”
oil painting, 6 x 12 inches
by Diane Overmyer

I really enjoyed reading this letter. I can just imagine what a thrill it must have been for both you and Melissa to be able to paint from the exact location that Walter did so many years ago. I have been living and painting in Indiana for many years now. And I get a thrill just painting in the same part of the state that T.C. Steel and other earlier Hoosier artists did! There really is a bond that is shared by all artists through all time. I had a minister tell me one time that God prepares us on earth for whatever we will be doing in Heaven. I don’t know if there is any truth to that, but I got more excited about the thought of Heaven than ever before when I heard that! Streets of gold and pearly gates, don’t trip my trigger, but painting and sharing stories with amazing artists both from the past and the future, now that excites me!   Island rock used as a palette by Vicky Taylor-Hood, Newfoundland, Canada  

Jean-Claude Roy’s rock palette

Insofar as “island desks” are concerned, I found a rather nice one that I thought you’d appreciate. On Exploits Islands, a resettled community miles and miles out in the middle of Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland, Canada, there is a spot where Jean-Claude Roy painted a landscape. While painting from this vantage point, he used a rock as a “palette.”       There are 9 comments for Island rock used as a palette by Vicky Taylor-Hood
From: suzanne — Aug 23, 2011

i truly enjoyed visiting Jean-Claude’s site .The Newfoundland Embroidery is spectacular,what a project.

From: Jackie Knott — Aug 23, 2011

Defacing a rock in such a beautiful setting? I’m really surprised an artist would do that. Watercolor, maybe, but it’s almost akin to leaving trash in a wilderness or carving one’s initials over petroglyphs. And what if more artists decided to follow suit? Please don’t do this ….

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin TX — Aug 23, 2011

I guess if everyone such a thing, it would not follow Kantian ideals, but just one person did it and it is neat. I don’t think it will be there forever.

From: Nancy Wylie — Aug 23, 2011

I agree with Jackie Knott. This is akin to grafitti, in a beautiful place. It takes lichen 100 years to grow one inch, and this is above timberline which is even longer. Have you never heard of “Take only photographs, leave only footprints”? This is worse than leaving trash. This makes me sick.

From: anon — Aug 24, 2011

get a life! more significant things to be upset over and to do something about.

From: Anonymous — Aug 24, 2011

To the criticizers – don’t you admire traces that artists left in the nature thousands years ago? So how is this different? Why is what we do now considered trash and what people did long time ago is a treasure? That’s hypocrisy. Just as it is when people criticize expansions of housing developments into the nature while their own houses damaged nature just few years before. Why don’t we tear down our own house, or erase the petroglyphs?

From: Anonymous — Aug 25, 2011
From: Anonymous — Aug 28, 2011

What an interesting discussion! I’ve been back on this island until yesterday, so I missed the comments until just now. Intriguingly, “the locals” see this as a landmark and are quite proud of it. It’s a matter of local legend and is being able to find this rock among a hillside of them is considered a true sign that you are intimate with the island and know all of her stony secrets. It’s surprisingly not easy to find. We get a lot of artists on Exploits and none of the others have used a rock palette, to the best of my knowledge (although most seem to sketch in watercolours, pencil or pastels, for portability). As an everyday occurrence in a high-traffic area, I’d agree that this would be an awful occurrence, but on an unserviced island nine miles out to sea that is the treasured retreat of a select few hundred people? It’ll do. There are far bigger fish to fry in such places (like, why DO people empty their sewage into the ocean?).

From: Vicky — Aug 28, 2011

That last comment was mine. Sorry – I missed the “name” space!

  Following John Constable by Judi Pedder, Comox, BC, Canada  

“Flatford bridge”
watercolour painting
by Judi Pedder

I was born and lived close to John Constable’s home in Suffolk UK and have painted several of his scenes in watercolour. I used to go frequently to Flatford for picnics and boating on the River Stour. Just down from the bridge is where Constable’s The Hay Wain was painted. The mill, owned by John’s father Golding, is still there, as well as other buildings including the bridge and Willy Lott’s Cottage. The thatched cottage beside the bridge is pre-Constable, was a tea room when I was little, and now is a museum of John’s work. A new tea room was built and the excavators found Golding Constable’s “dry dock” where he had repairs or new barges built. The 200-plus year-old timbers are still there — I painted those too! The dock has a hollow tree stump into which a stopper could be inserted. Stopper in = dry dock, stopper out — tide in and barges could be floated out into the River Stour. More recently, a dam was built downstream so the River Stour is no longer tidal. As I was born in a red brick house (built with the same brick as Golding transported to London) and that was built the year of JC’s birth, some time I’d like to present my work with the connecting history and reproductions of John Constable’s work. There is 1 comment for Following John Constable by Judi Pedder
From: Anonymous — Aug 24, 2011

Lovely thought, but think about what would be a message of that exhibit? Just showcasing your paintings with a narative what the inspiration was would probably work well.

  Camaraderie out of past and present by Melissa Jean, Kenora, Ontario, Canada  

“Rain drops and puddles”
oil painting, 36 x 36 inches
by Melissa Jean

That was such a treat to read your letter this morning! I love what you said about the brotherhood/ sisterhood of artists dead or alive… In my experience of that day, I felt camaraderie, and I also felt like I was in the presence of my elders, artists I admire, who stepped there before me… It’s good company! By the way, I’m a little hooked to this and I will find those other 2 places you mentioned to me. Maybe one or two a summer… it’s great to get out of the normal painting and create those new memories for myself and, if they feel like it, with the kids. If you don’t mind, I’d like to carry on your traditions… have this game a lifelong hobby as well… it was great fun for me!! Thanks for that! And, also, so much of what I’ve learned at the Hollyhock workshop has followed me home. In many ways, what you and Sara casually said about being playful and also, in the morning, saying, “What do I want to paint today?” has really hit home. Sometimes I make an agenda of what I should paint, and now I make it my agenda to paint what I want. One thing is for sure… if I do this every day for the rest of my life… I will die a happy, happy woman! There is 1 comment for Camaraderie out of past and present by Melissa Jean
From: LD Tennessee — Aug 23, 2011

This is gorgeous! Love the play of color and transparency…

  Memories of wonderful places by Connie Cuthbertson, Fort Frances, ON, Canada  

“Hilltop village”
watercolour painting
by Connie Cuthbertson

I, too, have been trekking around this wonderful world discovering places where artists have worked before me. In past years I have travelled to France, Italy and England where many of the great painters lived and worked. I also felt a deep connection to those who immortalized these places with paint. When exploring Monet’s water lily gardens I felt his presence and imagined him looking out from his bridge in search of his next subject. Recently I had the good fortune to combine my writing and painting and found myself on the Island of Elba, just off the west coast of Italy. It was here Napoleon was exiled during the French Revolution. I know this only from reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Great book… great island. There were many wonderful places to paint and I beat the tourist rush visiting in May so I had no problem finding quiet places to create. It has been a wonderful experience combining my love for writing, painting and travel. I am now working on a book doing just that. It may take me a lifetime to complete, but boy what a ride. Memories (Italy ~ 2011) Sitting in the gardens Birds singing, warm sun upon my back The water gently ripples as a sculler passes in silence Church bells ring eight As a new day is born I am now caught in her rhythm This timeless endless quality of life Living in a moment that is true and perfect My mind drifts back to days gone by Of when life was as new for me As this day that now unfolds Marbles with colour swirls Fresh new box of crayons Mud pies with my sister Exploring with my brothers Always curious about the day Now back in the present I find myself asking questions For which there are no answers I believe at least none of which I am meant to fully understand For this I am grateful for I really don’t want to know all Only to accept and live this life I’ve been given Full of hope ~ the way it was intended One day this day will be a memory From days long passed The thought of this makes me smile I hope I will still be wondering In my future life With childlike innocence Of this day, this gift we each have been given May I always see the hope in a sunrise And comfort in the setting sun.   There are 2 comments for Memories of wonderful places by Connie Cuthbertson
From: Dottie — Aug 23, 2011

Beautiful comments! Thank you so much through your words to help me look for and find some comfort in this sometimes difficult journey called life.

From: Connie — Aug 25, 2011

Thanks Dottie. Glad to know you’ve enjoyed. Life really is quite a wonderful adventure. Love it!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The tale of an island ‘desk’

From: robin — Aug 18, 2011

I loved this story, thanks for sharing it. I have looked at some of the lakes in Algonquin Park and thought of the group of seven paintings I grew up studying in school but I have never had the chance to paint there. You have given me a new challenge. Thanks for sharing….an easel weasel from prince rupert

From: Dusty Gibson — Aug 19, 2011

Among the black Pines and the White pines around Lake of the Woods, you see the occasional areas of oak. These Oak trees indicate the former presence of Native Indians who collected acorns and stored them for food in the winter.

From: Margot Hattingh — Aug 19, 2011

There are times when I deeply envy those painters whose work is grounded in physical landscape, especially when they can really tread in the footsteps of the great painters who went before them. What an incredible feeling of connection across time and space.

From: Leslie Parke — Aug 19, 2011
From: Theo Nelson — Aug 19, 2011

Our company does consulting and service in the computer / network fields. A client of ours had moved their business to their home somewhat west of Calgary. I hadn’t been to their home on a service call until just recently. I walked into the main foyer and saw paintings large and small covering the walls.. My heart leaped into the clouds. Several large canvasses by Walter J, a few by Group of Seven artists and an oil sketch on paper by Emily Carr. Going downstairs to the their offices took us through another large sitting room overlooking the backyard. Filled, along the back wall were Walter J. block prints, one of them, if memory serves me (which it doesn’t very often) was “Sunset, Lake of the Woods”. I was thrilled to know one of our clients had such an impressive collection of art and Canadian history.

From: Melissa Jean — Aug 19, 2011

Great letter! I love the “game” that Robert plays… about holding a painting up to various rock formations or landmarks and doing a little research to find the place where an admired artist once painted… now that I’ve done it, I’m a little hooked… ! It’s a great way to break out of the norm of painting and connect, in a way, with “elders” who’ve gone before.

From: TeresaMaria Widawski — Aug 19, 2011

Today is my birthday and I awoke to read about your island “desk” and the connection between me and all artists. I should say the connection was more felt than read about. What a great birthday gift! It’s as if some surprise and honored guests have joined my party and this delights me no end. Thank you for the up-lifting post – and for all your posts. Loved the photos too.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Aug 19, 2011

It is very interesting to learn about the “island desk” where famous painters have found a special place to draw inspiration. It sounds very mystical as if their spirits are still there lending more inspiration to others, each vision different from one to the other. It sounds like an idyllic place; perhaps a “Camelot ” where dreams are made. A painter’s dream that somehow that a painting from this place will generate a master piece for all the world to see. A magical place that only a true visionary can see! I wonder if would I ever find a place like that? We hope that places like that will retain their original beauty where other aspiring artists can be inspired to paint that masterpiece they are hoping for. Thanks for the letter.

From: Glen McCafferty — Aug 19, 2011

Thank you for your wonderful letters. They inspire and prod and poke me. I am just returning to watercolor after a four year hiatus. It’s a magnificent struggle. Your writings not only encourage me, they sometimes bring tears to my eyes, like an arrow to the heart. I do indeed have much to be grateful for and your generosity is among the best of those things.

From: oliver — Aug 19, 2011

Hey good places to work from are great – Disneyland/Kodak used (still does?) to mark places to shoot pictures from. It is what you do with the inspiration that counts. That said part of the fun is often finding the new great places.

From: Muts Watanabe — Aug 20, 2011

I’m grateful to be a member of the ‘hood. It makes me feel I belong.

From: Gins V. O. Doolittle — Aug 21, 2011

Regarding Walter J. Phillips, when I worked for the Alpine Club of Canada as a volunteer to repair the huts along Banff trails, I found time for the Banff Centre and anywhere Art was found. I felt I had discovered “him”, because no one ever told me and others in Canada about this artist. Today Nancy Townshend (Calgary) is writing an illustrated book about the Canadian Rockies from the perspective of Canadian artists. Phillips is a favourite of hers. Imagine .. she figured out that this subject is novel and an untouched niche.

From: Jorgen Sjolseth — Aug 21, 2011

When we work on the location of another, perhaps deceased artist, we are honoring that artist in a way that a church service or memorial could not. We continue the continuum and proclaim once more the truth that “life is short but art is long.”

From: Nader Khaghani — Aug 21, 2011

Thanks for your insightful comments that you share with your painting brothers and sisters. Yes, creativity is a life journey that we do with all fellow creators. Dead or alive is besides the point, since arts are eternal. Fauvism (or any other artistic expression for that matter)is as alive and lives in present tense as or post-modern creations that we engage in. The creative process is the same regardless of classification to good, bad, ugly and by skinny dipping the soul in the same creative waters we join the hood. It is a romantic notion, but brothers and sisters even congregate post mortem! Yes colonies of creative thinkers await our souls, but let’s not rush there yet. They can wait a bit, and we got some more paintings to do. The canvas is up the brush is ready. Go. Those delicious paint tubes want to be squeezed and come to life in the image. With much brotherly love to you and dear Sara.

From: Marcus Al Kurnish — Aug 22, 2011

By announcing that she has put her initialed paintbrush under the Phillips can, Melissa has invited treasure hunters to go find that island up there on the lake that straddles US and Canada–who knows, she may start an international stampede and more willows will be trampled.

From: Jules Fine — Aug 22, 2011

Now I get it, we are taking part in something much greater than just painting pictures–we are on a time line continuum that started in the prehistoric caves in France and will not end until we hang a show on Jupiter or some art-starved planet beyond the Milky Way.

From: Gillian Perrett — Aug 22, 2011

Several years ago I was on a beach in Costa Rica and I went to the area behind where there was shade from some palm trees, I sat down in some grass and noticed, on the tree trunk beside me, a variety of very dried oil colors spread around here and there about three feet up the trunk. It was a good range of tones, with a few mixed colors that matched the color of the sand and the sea. Someone like me had been here before. The thought of this gave me a spooky feeling and made me feel a bit guilty that I was totally in vacation mode.

From: H. George Fergusson — Aug 22, 2011
From: Brian Warner — Aug 23, 2011

I love all you letter Robert. and this one was more interesting than some. Just to keep history straight, the French Revolution is seen to be 1789 – 1799. Napoleon was exciled 1814 – 1821.

From: Duke Crawford — Aug 24, 2011

What Napoleon has to do with this is beyond me. Unless he wanted to refight Charlemane’s battles and shoot his gun from the same spots.

From: Vladimir Bok — Aug 24, 2011

It’s just a bit of sentiment, and sentiment is a great human quality that makes us more human. I say why not paint again in the paths of greatness. It’s not like it’s the only thing we do.

From: Sharon Cory — Aug 25, 2011

Walter J. Phillips lived and worked in Winnipeg, Canada for 28 years. He painted the city landmarks and the beautiful lakes of Manitoba, where his children spent their summers. His work is well-represented in a special section of the Pavilion Gallery in historic Assiniboine Park.

From: Liz Reday — Aug 25, 2011

I truly feel that there are sacred places on this planet where men have celebrated and connected with some kind of spirit. I felt it at the top of Ayers Rock years ago when it was O.K. to climb. I felt it in Madurai, India and also on the Ganges at Varanasi. Visiting a small fishing village in Cornwall,Newlyn, I was surprised to see a small bronze plaque set into a street corner – it depicted (in 3D), a pallette, brushes and even a couple of squeezed out tubes of paint – all in bronze – commemorating an artists’ colony in the early 19th century (who knew?). The museum in Penzance exhibited many of the paintings done there. Other places in the world have inspired cathedrals, temples, works of music, ballet, performance art, poetry and paintings. Many have some distinctive geologic formation, or are at the confluence of two or three rivers. At all these places I have felt a sort of vibration coming up from the earth, (which may be why one must remove ones shoes in temples in India) and I believe these nodes are like the “songlines” of fellow traveller Bruce Chatwin. There is a familiarity to them, a bit like facing the island with its corresponding “desk”- all of WJP’s work captures that feeling of spiritual magic. May we all celebrate this earth and our own creativity!

From: Nic Chu — Sep 02, 2011

The art galleries of the world are filled with members of the ‘hood who have passed on and left their art.

From: Gina Lento — Sep 02, 2011

This was a really nice post….thumbs up….

From: Sandor Junkunc — Sep 03, 2011

What a great story you told about “The Tale of the Island Desk”. Such an exciting find! It brought back many wonderful memories of my time in Canada. Although I live and pursue art in Southern California now, I had an exciting two year adventure in 1961 when I was 23 years old! I had read many books about the North Woods and wanted to experience it first hand. So, I immigrated to Canada with all my worldly goods packed into a 1949 “woody” station wagon, having landed a job as assistant manager at the Red Indian Lodge in Sioux Narrows, Ontario…right on the shores of Lake of the Woods! What an incredibly beautiful place: the crystal clear waters, gorgeous pines, aspens and birches, the hundreds of mysterious islands!! Though my work schedule was busy with long hours, I managed to get out, do some canoeing and make pencil sketches of the surrounding scenes. What a spiritual feeling it was to sit on the misty shore in very early morning. Back Door Bay and Whitefish Bay were my favorite spots . It was so peaceful being entirely wrapped in the arms of nature. I only wish that I had more time to get out and explore and sketch! But exploring came later when I traveled east and ended up in Dryden, Ontario, eventually working at the paper mill. There, I had many adventures of hiking, canoeing, camping and photographing. With more time, I was able to become more involved with pencil sketching that went along with my journal. My favorite, out of the way places were the Kawashegamuk River and Lake Minnehaha off the south end of Staniwan Bay of Lake Dinorwic. These are wonderful, pristine places where one can just let go, getting fully absorbed with nature and art! The print you showed, “Sunset, Lake of the Woods” by Walter J. Philips brought back the memories I have of Lake of the Woods. I connected with a website devoted to his work. It makes me want to get involved again with printmaking and do another wood block or linoleum block print.

From: Jeannie McDermott — Sep 14, 2011

That island looks a lot like one I painted which is east of Ellsworth, Maine along the coast, but I did not have nearly as comfortable a painting spot. I also read your letter, “Mystery of Art” aloud to my husband as we set out to find a good painting spot in Iowa’s Loess Hills. Your words are inspirational — thank you.

     Featured Workshop: Stephen Quiller
082311_robert-genn2Stephen Quiller workshop   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Upper back pasture

acrylic painting, 30 x 36 inches Charles Spratt, Ottawa, ON, Canada

  You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013. That includes Teresa Sharp who wrote, “I reposted this on my live-create-connect page, perfect story about creative people connecting.” And also Leo Proust who wrote, “Even though I have never been to America, I feel the power of the sentiment you must feel for historical artists and the Brotherhood and Sisterhood you mention. Here in Europe we are spoiled and it is easy to forget our legacies.” (translated) And also Bruce Noel Griffiths of Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, who wrote, “Give me a palette and a place to stand, then I will paint the world.”    

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