Rock Garden Rocks My World

Private symbols are always a tricky thing when dealing with art. Poet William Butler Yeats is perhaps best known for using private symbols in his work and still managing the incredible task of having the poems mean something to others. The risk is they will only be important to the creator, but in some ways, that’s inherent in all creative endeavors, isn’t it?

I was on vacation over the Labor Day weekend with my wife in Voyageurs National Park, a more than 200,000 acre wilderness along the Minnesota border with Canada. The park is mostly only accessible by boat, so this particular art exhibit is not easy to get to, but it’s worth it.

Ellsworth Rock Gardens are the result of more than 20 years of work by Jack Ellswroth, who built them between 1944 and 1966. Despite, or perhaps because of, decades of decay, the gardens have become even more impressive in the intervening years.

Jack Ellsworth was a building contractor in Chicago, and spent his summers on Lake Kabetogama. So far from civilization, he used what was at hand to build and create a home and his life’s artistic work: the Rock Gardens.

The gardens lie on a 60-foot high granite outcrop of the kind found throughout the region, and by adding terraces, flowers and hundreds of rock statuary, Ellsworth created a unique vision of man intersecting with nature. Visitors are guided through the gardens via a path made from mortared stones. This controlls the scenes set up for visitors and allowed Ellsworth to maintain a system of modified natural depressions to guide rainwater.

Today, the garden shows its age. It’s like looking at ancient ruins. But the vision is still powerfully apparent. The sheer amount of work that was needed to create 62 terraced gardens and dozens of carefully balanced and mortared native stones arranged in tables, chairs, gates, a bridge, and vague animal shapes. And it was all done by one guy. It’s simply amazing. It’s easy to see the history of the place, a hill surrounded by nature that has been barely touched for millions of years, and in this one spot, a man has added his own order and vision while retaining nature’s beauty. After his death in 1974, nature slowly began to reclaim the spot.

It’s difficult to determine what these various shapes and statues meant to Ellsworth – why he spent so much time on this one, massive project. The symbology seems very particular to his vision, yet accessable. The tables seem to be communal in nature, and invitation to sit and partake in nature’s simple beauty. He filled the terraces with 13,000 lillies and other annuals and perrenials. One of two teepees he erected on the site remains with worn wood and tattered cloth. Volunteers and park staff have worked to maintain the place, but without the constant, unifying presence of Ellsworth, little can be done to return the gardens to what once was.

Ellsworth Rock Gardens are a testament to a man who decided to take on the monumental task of incorporating order into wilderness while at the same time showing how wilderness is patient and will eventually come to reclaim its place. It’s breathtaking to witness, and well worth the trip.

JACK ELLSWORTH, ELLSWORTH ROCK GARDENS, VOYAGEURS NATIONAL PARK, OPEN YEAR ROUND

Two historical photos courtesy of Voyageurs National Park.

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden

Jack Ellsworth, Signature Stone, Ellsworth Rock Garden, Voyageurs National Park

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden, Voyageurs National Park

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden (pre-1965), Voyageurs National Park

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden (pre-1965), Voyageurs National Park

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden, Voyageurs National Park

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden

Jack Ellsworth, Miniature Chair, Ellsworth Rock Garden, Voyageurs National Park

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden

Jack Ellsworth, Teepee, Ellsworth Rock Garden, Voyageurs National Park

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden

Jack Ellsworth, Mythical Animal, Ellsworth Rock Garden, Voyageurs National Park

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden, Voyageurs National Park

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden, Voyageurs National Park

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden

Jack Ellsworth, Ellsworth Rock Garden, Voyageurs National Park

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by Joel Hagen
in Focus on the Midwest

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