By Deborah Derrickson Kossmann
On the Autumnal Equinox of 2004, a visual artist, a poet and I (a poet and essayist) lined up raw eggs on their ends without any salt underneath on the front step of the Ragdale House. It was the end of my first visit to The Ragdale Foundation (http://ragdale.org/), and we were testing out whether the eggs would stand upright and unbroken. The experiment was the result of a spirited discussion at dinner the night before about whether this would actually work. It did, to the applause of the residents who came out to watch.
I’ve been to The Ragdale Foundation five times since that first visit (most recently in November, 2015), and I’ve found myself in an artist’s studio chatting and using her colored pencils to make ornaments for the Ragdale holiday tree, playing Bananagrams until 2 a.m. with four other residents and a bottle of wine, participating in a bird banding study on the prairie during two weeks of spring migration, visiting a modern art show in Chicago, and reading a section of a now published and well-known novel for descriptive accuracy about a character’s breakdown (I’m a psychologist in my non-writing life).
My husband jokes that Ragdale sounds more like “writer’s camp.” Maybe that’s a little true. You have time and space to create, a beautiful setting on a five-acre campus which includes the house, studios and gardens. There’s a staff, including a resident assistant on site. On this most recent visit, that position was filled by Eddie Morfin, a visual artist who helps out with problems or resident needs. He works with staff member Amy Sinclair who handles admissions. All of the staff take good care of your day-to-day needs and maintain an environment that rejuvenates your playful spirit. Most of us come to residencies hungry for the time to work intensely and find community. I’ve produced more quality writing during my two or four week residencies here than I have during a year of work at home. In addition, like a good camp experience, I’ve made lasting friendships with talented and wonderful artists from around the country. During my last stay, the residents featured in this video were at Ragdale with me and you can get a taste of the setting and experience from watching: https://player.vimeo.com/video/147951032
Ragdale House (built in 1897 and recently restored to it’s former glory) was noted Arts and Craft architect Howard Van Doren Shaw’s (1869-1926) summer retreat in Lake Forest, IL. Ragdale’s mission is to support writers and artists and to make the arts more accessible to the public. In addition to the residency program, there are community programs and preservation of the historic site (the main house and gardens are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are among the few surviving intact examples of the Arts and Crafts movement in the country).
Chicago is just 30 miles south of Ragdale (and easily accessible by train). Lake Michigan is a brisk 45-minute walk from the property. Behind the house are paths through 50 acres of preserved prairie land (bring footwear that can stand mud and wet, you’ll need waterproof boots to roam pretty much any time of year). Deer, herons and other birds, as well as a wide variety of flora and fauna provide a respite from long hours in front of your computer. The prairie provides a haven in good weather to sit with a notebook and contemplate. There’s something magical about this place that generates and nurtures creative energy. Each time you walk the prairie it reveals something different—a bluebird, a butterfly in the milkweed, the color of a leaf, or flowers in the prairie grass towering higher than your head. It becomes a kind of meditative practice to go outside and observe as you let your mind wander. And it helps to soothe and solve those thorny writing problems that trouble you. I’ve been there in the spring when the prairie begins blooming and the birds come back, in the fall when the leaves turn and the grasses slowly wither into the ground, and in the dark December when snow blankets the paths and the wind howls through the bare branches. No matter what the season, the landscape here is part of what makes this place so special.
Ragdale is my favorite of all the residencies I’ve attended (I’ve been to Vermont Studio Center once and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts three times). There are quirky historic rooms with private bathrooms located in the Ragdale House. There are also rumors of a ghost in Ragdale House, and I’ll confess I was skeptical until I heard it one visit at 3 a.m (and no, it wasn’t the time with the wine and Bananagrams). The Ragdale House has a full kitchen and a living room, sunroom filled with geraniums, and a dining room where you’re welcome to work. The rooms in the Barnhouse (all have shared bathrooms) are also unique. Poets often are given the studio called the “Playroom” with the round window and stairs that go up to a little private sitting area at the top of the building. There are three visual artist studios in a separate building. Two of these include sleeping lofts, and the third, The Meadow studio, is located out on the prairie. The visual artist who works there has a small bedroom in the Barnhouse. There is a wheelchair accessible studio on the first floor of the Barnhouse for either a visual artist or writer.
Each weeknight, a communal and delicious dinner is served by Chef Linda Williams in the Barnhouse dining room. She makes sure there are plenty of leftovers for lunch and also for weekend eating (although I strongly recommend going out on the weekend for deep dish Chicago pizza or ordering it in). Lake Forest is about a fifteen-minute walk from the house. The town has upscale shops, restaurants and several very good thrift stores (it’s quite a well-to-do suburb) and a wonderful independent bookstore which gives Ragdale residents 10% off purchases. You can get a temporary library card for the Lake Forest Library. Lake Forest College is a short drive or bicycle ride (Ragdale has some loaner bikes for your use) where there is a gym free to residents. There is also a massage therapist/acupuncturist who will come visit if there are enough people interested in getting bodywork and her cost is very reasonable.
Unlike some other residencies, your room functions as your studio as well as your bedroom, but you’re free to roam and work in any area of the property or living spaces, and the staff is extremely accommodating. As long as you check that there’s not a meeting going on, you are welcome to use the conference room to spread out your poetry manuscript or lounge around in front of the fireplace in either Ragdale House or the Barnhouse. Daytime hours are quiet and the rule is not to disturb other residents. There is a large lending library of Ragdale writers and you are free to borrow and read books as long as they are returned at the end of your stay. Some residents may gather in the Barnhouse or Ragdale House kitchen and have lunch together or you can work to your own rhythm and just grab food and go back to your studio (this is true for dinner as well. Just let Chef Linda know beforehand that you won’t be coming). Often residents will arrange to go to the gym together (to share rides) or walk together in the afternoons to Lake Michigan and back (in the warmer months there’s a beach for swimming).
Ragdale only hosts 13 artists at a time, so it’s smaller than many residencies. There are pros and cons to that, but personally I’ve found it to be a great size for really getting to know people, to share work informally, or just hang out. Often residents gather for readings (staff often likes to come to these as well). The visual artists have open studios toward the end of a residency period. Ragdale also skews female and more middle aged than other places I’ve attended (and I say this as a middle-aged female), and it can’t be beat for the comfort of the rooms and the quality of the food. Unlike many residencies, you have a well-stocked kitchen for the rest of your meals as well as the dinner leftovers. Chef Linda takes pride in nurturing your health through her creative cookery and tries to accommodate your dietary needs so that you can have a healthy, well-nourished stay. There’s coffee and tea always available (and equipment to make your own if you want to bring your favorite brand). My only complaint from my recent stay was that the office chair in my room was old and uncomfortable. I had back and seat cushions that I’d brought with me, but even with those modifications, it wasn’t particularly workable. This was my first visit where that was a real problem, and hopefully the issue will be addressed for the writers who attend in the future.
Ragdale accepts 150 artists per year and applications are accepted through Submittable (http://www.submittable.com) once a year for the following year. Depending on the schedule offered by Ragdale, your residency may be 18 or 25 days in length. For 2017, the application is due by midnight May 15, 2016. There is a $40 application fee and you will need a work sample, artist statement, work plan, and references. Notification is late July/August. There is some financial aid based on need and there is a daily $35 fee for your stay (you’ll need to send a deposit to hold the space once you are accepted). Ragdale does offer Creative Sabbaticals for $1,500 a week and those applications are reviewed by a separate process. My first stay at Ragdale was on a Creative Sabbatical because I had been awarded a state grant after the application process had ended. If you are there on a Creative Sabbatical you are part of the resident community, but you may have a different length of time that you stay.
During my stay in November, I finished a nonfiction book proposal including initial chapters that a literary agent had requested. We’ll see if the Ragdale magic works. What I do know is that “writer’s camp” this time around was productive and enjoyable. And I’ll be applying again. I have a lot more to write. And I miss the prairie and the great food already.
Deborah Derrickson Kossmann’s recent essay “Tale of Two Primates” appeared as a Menagerie column in the New York Times Opinionator section in October, 2014. She won the Short Memoir Competition at the 2007 First Person Arts Festival in Philadelphia and her essay, “Why We Needed a Prenup With Our Contractor” was published as a “Modern Love” column in The New York Times. “Taking a Step Forward” was also published as a “Modern Love” column in December, 2011. Her other essays have appeared in journals and magazines including Tiferet, A Journal of Spiritual Literature, Psychotherapy Networker, and Families, Systems, & Health. In 2004, Deb received a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Poetry Fellowship and her poetry has appeared various literary journals. Along with her memoir WHAT WE HOLD ON TO, Deb is currently working on a book of poetry. When she’s not writing, Deb is a clinical psychologist in private practice with offices in Langhorne and Havertown, Pennsylvania. She is married and a devoted servant to two geriatric cats.