Olson’s Fox Island Cabin: Resurrection Bay’s First Writer’s Residency

A guest post by Jonas Lamb:

The discussion at 49 Writers about writers’ residencies and retreats prompted me to take a historical look at an artist whose work has had a profound influence on my own. Rockwell Kent, like many of us today, felt the need to leave behind the pressures of daily life and spend some focused time with his art.

In 1917, Kent was making preparations for an extended retreat in Iceland. Having grown tired of the social expectations of New York life, Kent had spent the better part of three years living and working in Newfoundland, supporting his family on a $50 a month stipend from his mother and whatever he could earn from the sale of his paintings. With the United States’ entrance into the War in 1917, Kent was forced to turn from Iceland because of unfounded rumors declaring him a German spy mapping the Newfoundland coast.

Kent took on varied work from cartooning to architecture, turning down an offer of free transportation from the Southern Pacific Railroad in exchange for series of paintings of the Apache trail because he preferred cold, maritime climates. At last Kent received an offer from collector and art patron Ferdinand Howald to financially support the family while Kent took sabbatical to explore new work. Arrangements began immediately for a new voyage, one to a land as mystical and transcendent as Iceland – Alaska. Despite his excitement at the prospect of the trip he feared the possible loneliness and following much debate between the parents, it was decided their son, Rockwell, would accompany him.

The two Rockwell Kents rode by rail across Canada, from Montreal to Vancouver, spending much of the time on the observation deck, bewildered by the majesty of “land so monotonously bare and flat that it suggests the infinite as the sea and sky do”. From Vancouver and then Seattle they went via the Inside Passage through narrow inlets between island mountains of “land that seem to have been made for poets or romantic painters to live upon.” Despite his admiration of the landscape, Kent was disgusted by the filth of Petersburg and at man’s destruction of the lands surrounding their communities.

Arriving in Yakutat Bay, Rockwell senior took a job in the cannery and spent evenings exploring the surrounding lands in hope that this wild river bay would be suitable for a winter residence. Finding the area too wild, the Kents went on to Seward where they explored the Resurrection River valley. This time, they found the land too tame. Gifted with two large cigars, a tinsmith took Kent and his son on a berry picking trip near the mouth of the bay. The Kents rowed from there. But after an hour at the oars brought the Kents no closer to Fox Island, an old Norwegian, Olson, threw a tow line to the dory and brought them across the bay and ashore at his homestead. Having two cabins in a small clearing at the back of a cove, one for himself and one for his goats, Olson offered to put out the goats, making the second cabin a winter home for the artist. This was exactly what they were looking for.

After purchasing provisions for the better part of the winter, the Kents set off in an overloaded dory powered by a 1 HP outboard, sitting high atop burlap sacks of flour, potatoes, piles of books and, in the stern, a Yukon stove and 6 feet of pipe. The motor promptly quit and the young Rockwell took up the oars, demonstrating to his father that he was most certainly ready for the challenges that lay ahead, rowing the craft 13 miles to Fox Island in the fog. I once did this same paddle in a double sea kayak when the fog prevented our water taxi from picking us up on Fox Island. Maybe it was because we rounded Cape Resurrection in 6 foot swells, but young Rockwell must have been twice the man I’ll ever be.

The winter of 1919-1920 was spent cutting endless cords of firewood (which would be burned green), drawing and writing both inside and out, and building the relationship between father and son. Kent’s descriptions and samples of the many drawings, which resemble woodcuts in their detail, were published in the 1920 book, Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure in Alaska. I was introduced to this book by a fellow librarian in the fall of 2006 and have been returning to it each winter since, longing for that isolated retreat where despite difficulties, great work was created and notions of what it means to live and work were put to the test by choice. While I find many of Kent’s views on “pioneering” in conflict with my own views of conservation and land use, they were rather common for the time.

Landscape cannot help but exert its influence on a writer who seeks a quiet, magnificent place in which to work. The folks at the National Park Service figured this out a while back and offer Artist In Residence programs at many parks across the country, including one at the Grand Canyon.

Here is the first in a series of poems which emerged from my own sort of retreat within the pages of Rockwell Kent’s book chronicling his stay at Olson’s Cabin, Resurrection Bay’s first writer’s residency:

“Zaruthstra himself led the ugliest man by the hand, in order to show him his night-world and the great round moon and the silvery waterfalls nigh unto his cave”

By Jonas Lamb

for the first time
calm this late summer day
departing Seward
September 1918
in oar driven dory
the artist and son
“on a dreamer’s search”
across southward
facing bay
opening upon
“limitless, Pacific Ocean”
for some forgotten shelter
on the shores of
a lost coast
then enter
in motor-driven dory
one old Norwegian
call him Olsen or Zaruthstra
if you prefer
without hesitation
a tow line thrown
an insistent invitation
“come and I show you the place to live”
a carefully cleared cove
and three cabins
home to Angoras, bluefox
and now
a man and a boy
guests for the old man
in “his night-world beside
the great round moon
and the silvery waterfalls”

For more poems inspired by the book, visit http://jonaslamb.wordpress.com/2007/01/05/poems-for-kent/; for an abbreviated review of Wilderness: A Journal of Quiet Adventure, http://juneaubookblog.wordpress.com/?s=Wilderness

7 thoughts on “Olson’s Fox Island Cabin: Resurrection Bay’s First Writer’s Residency”

  1. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks for that, Jonas! I hadn’t thought about Rockwell Kent for a while, forgetting that his wilderness journal was one of the first books I read while getting to know southcentral Alaska (including Seward) over a decade ago. What a pleasure that an ongoing conversation here at 49 writers stimulated this post. And I love the fact that you were inspired by Kent’s work to write your own poetry.

  2. The Park Service also offers an artist in residence opportunity in Gates of the Arctic, which is actually pretty cool, because you get to go on patrol with a backcountry ranger. (Sorry, I’ve no link for this.)

  3. I had to slog through a lot of old-style primary source material for Picture This, Alaska (just got the ARC a few days ago). Much of it was overblown nonsense – and talk about issues with truth in advertising. But Kent I enjoyed much.

  4. Thanks for taking the time to journey back to Resurrection Bay circa 1918 with me. There was a workshop at last year’s Kachemak Bay Conference led by
    Elizabeth Bradfield about Ekphrastic writing, which I’d never heard of, but now realize that my Kent poems fall into this category. Her workshop really evoked some great work from the group, incredible poems written in the 10-15 minutes we had with a selection of photcopied artwork. Here’s
    two poems inspired by Bruegel’s “Fall of Icarus”.

  5. All these years later I notice an error. The Kents spent the winter of 1918-1919 on Fox Island, not 1919-20 as indicated in this post.

  6. All these years later and I notice an error while recording this post for a soundtrack to a Rockwell Kent exhibit we are building at the Juneau Public Library this summer. The Kents spent the winter of 1918-19 on Fox Island, not 1919-20.

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