Book Review: Sivertson takes on history in paint and story

Review The book: "Schooners, Skiffs & Steamships: Stories along Lake Superior's Water Trails," Lake Superior Port Cities, 2001. Author/illustrator: Howard Sivertson ISBN: 0-942235-51-7 Cost: $24.95 Recommendation: This book is sure to elbow i...

The book: "Schooners, Skiffs & Steamships: Stories along Lake Superior's Water Trails," Lake Superior Port Cities, 2001.
Author/illustrator: Howard Sivertson
ISBN: 0-942235-51-7
Cost: $24.95
Recommendation: This book is sure to elbow its way onto the shelves and compete for tourist dollars, and it's worth a look for us full-time Northlanders, too. It's an interesting project that's well executed.
In a tourism-driven economy like ours, it's hard to avoid getting swept up in the region's history. Numerous tourist attractions take on the subject -- from voyageurs and Father Baraga to shipwrecks and mines. It's a sort of Disneyed version of the state history most of us forgot after high school.
Howard Sivertson's "Schooners, Skiffs & Steamships" is something else. Sivertson, a renowned painter, fixes his lens on our history a little differently, and the medium he chooses for communicating it -- paintings accompanied by short prose stories -- definitely offers a fresh view.
Some of Sivertson's subjects are familiar -- Father Baraga's cross, the steamer America. Others are personal, the result of a lifetime spent on or near Lake Superior -- the story of Uncle Gust, for instance. But all of them arise out of a simple premise for the project: do a lot of research and then try to recreate long-gone history in a painting.
The result is really fascinating, and the execution is top-notch.
The beginnings of the book are strong, and that's a plus and a minus at once. Sivertson's introduction contains some of the book's best prose, and it sets a rich tone and context for the rest of the book. Unfortunately, when the stories start a page later, the writing doesn't maintain that same standard -- it's good but doesn't have the same sparkle. It's a few pages before that feeling of awe comes back.
But the paintings are another matter.
Many of us who live here and love the beauty of the region have spent lazy time pondering what things looked like before towns were carved out of the woods, before highways drew their penciled outline along the shore and the massive creations of industry came to be dominant features on land and water. Sivertson has done us an enormous favor by researching it and painting it, to help spur our minds.
His first images call to mind the world mentioned in his introduction, when life was quiet here, unmarked by engines or even the distant sound of a musket. The book gradually takes us to the days when the first steamers frightened people with their noise, and finally when the first gas engines plodded the lakes.
The paintings are rich in color and detail, giving us at least an educated guess at what the quiet place, and the not-so-quiet-place, looked like.
Sivertson draws on his personal experiences, as well, including a lot of family time spent on Isle Royale before it became a national park. I had my first Isle Royale experience this past spring, and it so moved me that I still become quiet and a little reverent whenever I think about it. Among the things that struck me were the silence of the place and its relatively undisturbed state -- no doubt part of Sivertson's inspiration in "Schooners, Skiffs & Steamships."
It's not surprising, then, that I found his Isle Royale stories particularly interesting, and I was most captivated by "Isle Royale Moose Mystery" and its accompanying painting. In four days backpacking on Isle Royale, I encountered about a dozen of the island's 900-odd majestic moose, a population figure which fluctuates much higher at times. Like many visitors, I wondered how they came to be on the island -- moose aren't known for their eyesight, and it's not easy to see the island even with sharp eyes, so what would possess moose to swim or march across an ice bridge, the standard explanations? And enough of them for a breeding population that grew to the thousands?
Sivertson presents evidence that moose may have intentionally been shipped there, from the Baudette area, although mysteries still remain. More than the explanation, I'm just happy to know I'm not the only person who was skeptical.
One other point about this book is worth noting. Throughout the stories, particularly as they become more personal toward the end, we get a sense of Sivertson's life, his priorities and his attitude toward work. This is brought to a close by the afterword by Donn Larson, who describes Sivertson's progression from commercial artist to fine artist. I found it inspirational, and think it's worth reading for any would-be artist.
With all that going for it, what could this book be but a success?

Kyle Eller is news editor for the Budgeteer News. Reach him at or 723-1207.

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