Keweenaw Project:The Place Where One Crosses Over

The name Keweenaw is an Ojibway word and means the place where one crosses over – the Keweenaw Peninsula has a natural portage area which was used by the Ojibway as a shortcut along the Lake Superior shoreline.

The Peninsula has been extensively mined for copper since the mid-1850s. One of the by-products of copper mining is ‘stamp sand’, or tailings, which were dumped at sites along the shore. Nothing grows in these areas and consequently there are acres and acres of black sands where nothing lives or grows. Many of the sites have been remediated, but the Gay, Michigan site remains as it has for the past 70 years — a desolate and silent landscape that is slowly spreading along the coastline – moved along the shore by the waves of Lake Superior. Copper has a rich history of being used in healing and is found in many legends around the world, so it is strange that the mining of copper has actually destroyed the land through the by-products of the mining process. 

Copper is one of the oldest metals used by humans and has also traditionally been used for healing purposes, especially for arthritis and rheumatism. In Egypt copper mirrors were placed under the head of the body at burial, while the followers of Confuscious used copper basins for purification of their hands and feet and Christians used copper for candle holders. Spiritualists believe that copper has the ability to conduct spiritual energy, amplifying thoughts and receiving and sending psychic communications. North American Natives used copper for knives, awls and other tools. Copper Woman was the underwater goddess of the Haida on the Westcoast where copper was the ultimate symbol of wealth and was used to make shields, bracelets, pendants, neckrings and armbands. In Finland copper is known as kupari and is mentioned in the Kalevala where Vainamoinen, the chief hero of the epic poem, heads across the blue sea steering his boat with a copper oar on his way to the darkness of Pohjola. Ukko, the Great Spirit, has arrows forged from copper and Pikku Mies, who felled the over spreading oak-tree for Vainamoinen, emerges from the sea in a suit of copper, with a copper hatchet, while the brother of Vainamoinen, Illmarinen’s wife is made of gold, silver and copper. 

I spent a few days driving and walking along northern areas of the Keweenaw Peninsula, stopping at many places including: Gay, Eagle River, Eagle Harbour, Copper Harbour, Traverse Point, Lake Linden and places in between. Gay was my first stop and I was overwhelmed with the silence I found there — nothing was living in the black sands, yet you can see where the living land abuts the areas of darkness around it. I gathered approximately 500 pounds of stamp sand from the Gay site. At Eagle River, the next site I visited, I found a set of Canada Goose wings, still intact. Here I also collected hundreds of tiny red rocks from along the shore and brought these back to the studio with me. I had bought 24 shadow box frames in Ontario, intending to bring them back to Vancouver with me, but they ended up becoming part of the finished installation in the gallery. 

The gallery at the Finnish American Heritage Centreis made up of two rooms joined by a foyer area which acts as a space of transition, or movement, from one space to the next. These rooms sit to the West and East, with the foyer in the North and the entrance to the foyer from the South.

Viewers enter the gallery from the South direction which is associated with the colours red or green and the heart, emotions and innocence.

The West is associated with the colour black and days end. With this in mind an eight foot circle of black stamp sand was installed on the floor of the west side of the gallery. The room is quiet and darkened and was lit so that the circle of stamp sand glows, as if alive, on the gallery floor.

The Canada Goose wings were suspended in the foyer, between the two rooms, marking North, which is associated with the colour white, wisdom, purification and endurance. In some cultures the goose is known as the messenger between Heaven and Earth and in Egypt the goose is a solar bird and is believed to lay the new day, while in Rome the goose was a sacred animal and was the protector of the people. Shamans have been known to be aided by goose spirits in their journeys to other worlds. The Goose wings cast four shadows on the wall, as if moving from the West side of the gallery to the East.

The East is associated with the colour yellow, the dawn of day and new life and the installation that sits in the east is about regeneration, healing and growith. The wooden backings of the pine shadow box frames were replaced with glass, and air holes drilled into the tops, transforming them into small terrariums. Each of these terrariums sits on a sheet of copper – signifying the healing of the land – and are arranged in the shape of an Infinity symbol, signifying everlasting life. Inside the terrariums, stamp sand is the initial layer, followed by a layer of red rocks and soil – the colour red is associated with strength and health. The final layer is soil which was planted with five different types of grass seeds: Birdsfoot Trefoil, Rye, Sweet Yellow Clover, Alfalfa and Timothy. These grasses grow in the area and the seeds were chosen for their availability and germination times. It was not known if the seeds would grow, and thrive, due to the proximity of the stamp sand.

Once the exhibition closed, and as a gesture of return, the terrariums were auctioned off and the proceeds used to buy birch trees for remediation projects on the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Artist Residency, Finlandia University and Finnish American Heritage Center Gallery, Hancock, MI, October 2004