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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Floating Island by Maggie Tobin

OBJECT: Art in a Bottle

BODY OF WATER: Coney Island Creek

Possible-Smithson-from-Maggie-Tobin-560x409.jpg

I moved to Brooklyn in 1991 from Nebraska. Having spent my entire life landlocked in the Midwest, it was thrilling to spend my early days in New York meandering the coastline. I didn’t have a job or friends to occupy my time so it seemed like an interesting way to pass the days. One day in March of ’91 as I trudged through the melting slush along the edge of Coney Island Creek, I spotted a corked green bottle with something in it. I brushed off the ice and mud and discovered a rolled up piece of aged paper inside. After plucking the cork out, I carefully removed the somewhat fragile piece of paper initially hoping it to be a map of a sunken treasure or the like. Instead, it was a drawing of a boat pulling an island of sorts behind it. Very curious. I had spotted the “barge island” about 30 yards away and figured some kooky person had tried unsuccessfully to float it but had abandoned ship when it didn’t work out. It didn’t seem that strange or significant at the time as I had come across so many interesting things on my coastal walks.

I liked the drawing and put it back in the bottle as a ” keeper” artifact for my little collection of goods. When I got home I decided it was frame-worthy and hung it on my wall.

Years passed and it became part of my home like a cat or an old book. I didn’t much look at it anymore but surely would have noticed had it gone missing.

In 2005 I had the wonderful pleasure of seeing the “Floating Island” dawdling about the tip of Manhattan not far from the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. I was unaware of this work by Robert Smithson as it was not brought to fruition (by others) until 32 years after his death. I came home and googled it and immediately discovered a very similar drawing to the one hanging on my wall. Unlike my drawing, it was signed, dated (1970), and had the NYC skyline as the backdrop. The mark, however, was practically identical. I decided to keep mum as I was afraid that the “estate” of Mr. Smithson might try and claim the drawing as their own.

With all due respect, the drawing is still hanging on my wall with several other little curiosities I have gathered over the years. I love this little drawing regardless of who made it.

Is it an actual Smithson or a well conceived prank? I don’t know. Recently I have had several people ask me “Why not authenticate it? If it is a Smithson, it is probably worth some money.”  I lived with this drawing for almost 15 years before I had any clue that it might be anything more than what it is: a beautiful sketch of an unfulfilled dream. Its as though someone informed me that my child may have been switched at birth and that a DNA test could verify whether this child I have come to love is actually really mine or not. Would I love that child less if it was determined not to be? Or more if it was? I don’t know but I’d rather not find out. I have no intention of selling it so it doesn’t matter. If my children choose to someday (if it does happen to be real), so be it .

Is this a rock turned to gold or gold turned to rock?

For me, the question alone has become the elixir.

 

Maggie Tobin was born in Omaha Nebraska. She is an artist, teacher, and community organizer in Brooklyn, NY where she has lived for the last 20 years. She has exhibited her work throughout the U.S., Mexico, and Italy.