During her recent three-week stay in Alpena, artist Mollie Oblinger of Ripon, Wis., spent some of her time photographing or sketching at the Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary. Other days found her reading, writing and researching unique facets of the area.
Still other times, Oblinger kept busy by rolling up her sleeves and helping to build a canoe at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center and planting flowers at the Duck Park alongside members of the Alpena Garden Club.
"I think the best way to learn about the community is to get out in it," Oblinger said. "Everyone has been so supportive when they find out what I'm doing here."
Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary artist in residence Mollie Oblinger of Ripon, Wis., gives Jim Szczukowski of Alpena a hand with building a canoe at the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center. Oblinger just finished up a three-week residency in Alpena.
What Oblinger was doing was serving as this year's artist in residence for the Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary. As such, she sought inspiration and information while visiting the area. She has since returned to her studio in Wisconsin where she expects over the next year to produce a body of work representative of the sanctuary.
In keeping with the artist in residence program, Oblinger will donate a piece of her artwork that ultimately will be exhibited in the proposed River Center once it is constructed.
"The primary goal of our artist in residence program is to develop a museum-quality collection of freshwater-themed art that will eventually hang in the proposed River Center," said Karen Magness-Eubank, an Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary volunteer. "We also hope it will help promote Alpena as a cultural destination for both those who are interested in the arts as spectators and those who create art."
According to Magness-Eubank, the sanctuary's artist in residence program is in just its second year, but already is promoting Alpena outside of Michigan. Works that feature the sanctuary, created by Catherine Jennings as last year's artist in residence, have already been displayed in galleries and museums in other areas of the country.
The effort to attract new artists for future residencies continues.
"We are currently developing a network of artists, gallery owners and academics nationwide who are keeping their eyes open for likely artists for future residencies," Magness-Eubank said. "Currently, artists are coming here and creating a work, then donating it to the Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary. Once we are established, we hope to move to a juried system in which artists would be required to submit a freshwater-themed work from another area of the world in return for their residency in Alpena. That work would then be donated to our collection. In this way, we hope to develop a nationally-significant collection that would highlight the importance of freshwater to the world in which we live."
She said Oblinger was selected because her work seems uniquely suited to the artistic interpretation of the sanctuary and the Thunder Bay Watershed.
"Most artists look at the big picture the landscapes, waterscapes, vistas and horizons," Magness-Eubank said. "Mollie approaches the world more as a naturalist or a scientist, and looks beneath the surface, focusing on details and interactions that are often obscure, hidden or overlooked. Using tools such as water scoops and microscopes, she delves beneath the surface, looking for relationships that most of us never see or consider. The choice seemed perfect."
A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, Oblinger creates art in the abstract. She received a BFA degree from Syracuse University and an MFA from the University of California - Davis. She currently teaches sculpture and ceramics at Ripon College.
In her work, Oblinger often is intrigued by the "mysterious processes" that go on behind the scenes, such as veins or glands within the human body, ants constructing colonies underground or water aquifers branching out beneath the surface of the earth. She studies in depth the patterns and forms these processes take, and they ultimately serve as her muse when creating her abstract sculptural installations.
"I use really humble materials," Oblinger said, referring to the felt, wood composite and even pipe cleaners that are sometimes her mediums of choice. "My palette comes from educational materials for children items generated for kids with bright saturated colors and patterns on top of patterns."
Elements of the Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary that struck a chord with her included the tangle of tree roots she found growing by the water and the lichen that covered many natural surfaces that she explored. By peering closely at the lichen and photographing it, she was able to discover tiny insects inside the crevices of tree trunks and rocks.
"This area is so rich," she said. "The way the trees grow near the water line really interests me. Their roots are so much like veins and muscle structure. So too does all the natural life I saw while here the plants near the water, what was growing in the water, dragonflies molting out of their infant stage. I found an awful lot be excited about."
Oblinger said she had an outstanding experience while in Alpena and that she hopes to return to the area to drop off her donated piece once it is completed.