Get Away to New Island

Lee Mothes’ 12,000-square-mile art project

Kaukauna artist Lee Mothes has spent about 30 years collecting souvenirs from a destination he’s never visited. His home is filled with stamps, flags, sand samples, maps and historical records from New Island, a 12,000-square-mile landmass in the Indian Ocean, west of Australia.

“I know everything about it,” Mothes said. “I could go on for hours.”

But he’s never set foot on the island – because it doesn’t exist. 

All of his “souvenirs” are part of an extensive art project titled New Island, which is on exhibit in the Miller Art Museum’s auxiliary gallery, M3, throughout March.

“Over the years, he’s created a society on the island, making topographical maps and coins, making up history, writing a book about the island,” said Miller Art Museum curator Helen del Guidice. “It’s really unique.”

And Mothes’ creation inspired M3 staff members to make an island of their own: a large, three-dimensional model to which visitors can contribute. 

“People can paint on a waterfall, or use clay to make a marina,” del Guidice said.

A map of New Island. Photo courtesy of Lee Mothes.

Breaking Ground on New Island

While the New Island exhibit is taking over M3, the Miller Art Museum is also featuring some of Mothes’ more traditional art through his Oceans and Beaches exhibit, which consists of painted seascapes.

He grew up on the coast of California, and his love of the seaside has remained with him throughout his life. He’d often take pictures when he went to the beach and use them as references for his paintings at home.

But in 1987, he and his wife decided to move to Wisconsin to raise their children closer to extended family, meaning that Mothes would no longer have easy access to the ocean. Instead, he started relying on his imagination to fill his seascapes. And when he did so, he heard the same question over and over. 

“People would ask, ‘Well, where are these beaches from?’ And I’d say, ‘I don’t know,’” Mothes said. “One day, I decided to create an island, and I put a lot of those paintings on the map. This one is on the eastern side; that one is on the north end. That’s what started it.”

Scenery on New Island. Photo courtesy of Lee Mothes.

Some of the paintings connected to New Island are accompanied by short stories, and others are featured in the official New Island Guidebook, a 200-page book that Mothes wrote and illustrated. All are situated on a map of the island.

Though New Island is an art project, it’s not just free handed – instead, he tries to lay everything out logically, as though it were a real place.

“If there was a volcano on the island, I would look up other real-life volcanoes to see how big it would be,” he said. “It’s kind of fun to figure it out and make it all believable and workable.”

So working on New Island requires research as much as it requires creativity. Through his years of working on the project, Mothes has had to learn about geology, architecture, world history and forms of government.

In some cases, he draws from his own experience. For example, his background in carpentry gave him much of the experience he needed to draw up floor plans for buildings on the island; a map-making class he took in college guides how he formulates his maps; and living for several years in what he described as “not quite a hippie commune” familiarized him with alternative systems of government such as the one on New Island.

The 12,000-square-mile landmass sits in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Australia. Photo courtesy of Lee Mothes.

An Ocean Away

Before moving to Wisconsin, Mothes had never lived so far away from the seaside.

“When we moved, there was no ocean, and I was kind of out of it for a while,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘What can I do to save my soul?’ Wisconsin is nice. I’ve got no problem with it, but I’ve been attached to the ocean since I was a kid. So New Island came up as this place I can go to – here in my studio in Kaukauna, Wisconsin – anytime I want. My other ocean paintings are kind of the same thing.” 

Mothes isn’t the only person who uses New Island as a getaway. Interested buyers can purchase plots of land and tell him how they’d like to develop it, and he will create artistic renderings of their new property. A payment of $600 can buy residency, a deed and a plat map for a building site up to 20 acres. When it comes to the design work, floor plans and one or more paintings of the owner’s building on the island can cost anywhere from $2,000 to more than $6,000. 

A less expensive alternative to buying land is purchasing a $65 citizen’s package, which contains train and boat tickets, maps, currency and a green card.

Sheffield Corner – a combination cafe, bar, restaurant and store – is one of the newest buildings on New Island. Photo courtesy of Lee Mothes.

So far, about 15 people have invested in New Island land, and they’ve all used their plots for something slightly different. A friend of Mothes, a sculptor, made his dream house in the mountains; an Appleton engineer made his own Frank Lloyd Wright house; and most recently, a real-life bank developed a branch on the island.

When asked what draws people to spend hundreds of real dollars on a fictional place, Mothes said that it’s easy for people to get invested in New Island.

“They get into the idea that there’s this place that you can explore, and there’s all this information about it,” he said. “You can’t go there, but in your head, you can take what you’ve seen in all these pictures and maps, and you can make a place of your own there.”

That’s real enough for the New Island landowners – and for Mothes.

“They’re there,” he said. “They’re there as much as anybody can be.”

Scenery on New Island. Photo courtesy of Lee Mothes.

Ready to explore New Island?

The exhibit is open at M3, 142 S. 3rd Ave. in Sturgeon Bay, on March 10, 4:30-6 pm; March 17, 18, 20 and 24, 10 am – 3 pm; and March 30, 10 am – 12 pm.

Other related programming includes:

The Studio Door

March 13, 4-5 pm

Miller Art Museum, 107 S. 4th Ave. in Sturgeon Bay

Museum curator Helen del Guidice talks with Lee Mothes about his career and his current Oceans and Beaches exhibit at the museum. An audience Q&A will follow.

Toddler Storytime 

March 30, 10-11 am

M3, 142 S. 3rd Ave. in Sturgeon BayMs. Beth from the Door County Library reads a story about islands; then toddlers and their adult companions can view New Island and add to the 3-D island model.

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