BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
When Jacquelyn Mitchard, author of The Deep End of the Ocean, arrived at Ragdale – the Lake Forest artist residency program housed on the grounds of architect Howard Van Doren Shaw’s arts and crafts summer residence built at the end of the nineteenth century – she was at the end of her rope:
“When I first drove through those white posts with lanterns on top I was in despair, searching for a single candle. It was 1995, and I was a widow in my late thirties with three despairing children at home. Their dad had died young and horribly. As I unloaded cardboard boxes out of my car I let my eyes drift up to the window boxes in front of the Ragdale House. Although I don’t believe in such things, I said to that sweet façade, please help me, take me in. I only knew that art in all its forms is among the greatest forces for good in the universe.”
It seemed like someone was listening: in her first two weeks of residency at 1230 North Green Bay Road, Jacquelyn had written 100 pages about another mother experiencing grief. Mere weeks later, she had locked down a major publisher. The book sold three million copies, is printed in 30 languages. Since her experience at Ragdale, she found love and married again and has written a dozen more books.
Though Ragdale serves as only a temporary home to artists, musicians, dancers, and other talented creators, one visit is rarely enough. Ragdale alums, including Alex Kotlowitz, Jane Smiley, and Mitchard, too, return for the serenity of the space and the conversation, both of which often inspire their best work. Pulitzer Prize-winner John T. McCutcheon, known as the “Dean of American Cartoonists” did many of his Chicago Tribune illustrations in his studio there. (He also ended up marrying Eleanor Shaw, daughter of his old friend Howard, despite a 24-year age difference.)
Fear not: those of us without publishers and Pulitzers may still take in Ragdale’s beauty. The public is welcome not only to the fall anniversary gala taking place on September 17, but to Ragdale events this week and throughout the year, including an open air tea and talk with writer Margaret Hawkins and producer Will Rogers on campus on July 13 and a public tour on July 16. An exhibit of works by Ragdale alumni will be available for viewing throughout the month at the Art Center in Highland Park, with a reception on July 17.
When you pass through the Ragdale gates, be prepared: magic happens and tranquility transforms. Sculptures by Shaw’s daughter, Sylvia Shaw Judson, catch your eye. You will recognize quite quickly one of the statues standing close to the barn: “Bird Girl,” made iconic by becoming the cover girl, so to speak, of John Berendt’s 1994 bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Four statues were made out of Judson’s original cast in 1936, and reside across the country, most famously in Savannah, Georgia’s Bonaventure Cemetary. The iteration that stands on Ragdale’s grounds is a recast Judson’s daughter had commissioned in the 1990s.
Other sculptures by Sylvia Shaw, a fountain bearing the words of a poem by Frances Shaw, and works brought back from Europe are placed throughout the property.
Known for developing the arts and crafts style throughout the area culminating in his magnificent re-building of the Second Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Howard Shaw and his family made Ragdale a hands-on home from the beginning. Ragdale executive Laura Kramer explained:
“Howard built all the fences, shutters, and much of the furniture himself. He wanted to live close to the land. He and his wife Frances, who was a poet and playwright, would make their own apple cider in a giant press. They chose the name Ragdale so that people would think that there was absolutely nothing hoity-toity about the place. He brought back from France an ancient statue he found before World War I. It expresses the story of St. Martin’s charity to a beggar in rags, another illusion to name.
“Friends such as Upton Sinclair and Carl Sandburg, whose letter of appreciation hangs in the main house, helped shape the artistic community. His mother, Sarah Van Doren Shaw, spent every other summer painting here, alternating with European trips where she did magnificent watercolors, some of which we have in Ragdale House. She was a student at the Art Institute and began exhibiting her work at the Bohemian Art Club and the Palette and Chisel Club around 1883.”
Howard’s granddaughter, Alice Judson Ryerson Hayes, created the Ragdale Foundation 40 years ago, formalizing the artist-in-residency program. This seems fitting, as Alice herself was a writer and poet of renown until her death nearly a decade ago.
In 1986, she gave the Ragdale property to the City of Lake Forest and formed several productive partnerships that transformed Ragdale into the largest artist’s colony in the Midwest. Her 2006 obituary noted that the 84-year-old “saved Ragdale by giving it away.”
The pace of the two-week residency has remained the same over the past 40 years: dinner together at 6:30, Monday through Friday, is the only formalized activity. During the day, artists may work at their leisure in their own studios. Laura Kramer related:
“There are informal meetings during the day at places we call pulse centers, but everything is very relaxed. Generally, we encourage writers to have a reading while they are here, and artists host an open studio to gain input from fellow artists. A certain kind of cross-pollination occurs over dinner. Often deep friendships occur that lead to lifelong connections among our alumni.”
The 40th Anniversary celebration will showcase Ragdale alumni and current participants in an open-air gala in the Ragdale Ring, a recent re-take on the Ring Shaw designed in 1912. The original Ring was inspired by a visit with his family to the Villa Gori in Siena in 1907. He fell in love with a circular open-air theater reached through a dense allée of oak trees. Laura explained:
“Elaborate productions were staged in the Ring between 1912 until his death in 1926. It unified his family’s talents in architecture, playwriting, set design, and performance. The stage was lit with floodlights made of metal troughs containing twelve 60-watt bulbs of various colors. Electric lighting had just arrived at Ragdale five years earlier, so it must have had a mesmerizing effect. Frances joked of her husband’s prowess with the lights: ‘Howard, master of the sun, moon and stars, by a turn of his wrist.’”
The new Ring, and its undulating bands of green, was created by SPORTS, a design collaboration of Greg Corso and Molly Hunker. It received a $15,000 production grant, underwritten by the Adrian Smith Prize, to fund the project and a three-week design-build residence at Ragdale for their 12-person team. The rather whimsical sculpture is not just there to behold, however, it does double-duty as playful seating for the performances.
The 3000 artists, arts educators, and schools that have participated in the Ragdale programs through the last 40 years underscore Ragdale’s purpose. Recent Ragdale participants from around the world include a practicing physician writing her first novel, a filmmaker invited to participate in the Cannes Film Festival, a museum curator, an artist who learned to paint with her mouth and foot due to a spinal injury, and an autism expert and fiction writer.
Ragdale’s Executive Director, Jeffrey Meeuwsen sums up their mission beautifully, “We nurture artists because they are connectors, translating the human condition and bridging the gap between what is and what can be.”
For more information about Ragdale and program offerings, visit ragdale.org or call 847-234-1063.
Reception and Exhibit of works by Ragdale alumni on July 17: The Art Center in Highland Park, 1957 North Sheridan Road, 3-5 pm, free and open to the public. The exhibit runs until August 1.