Artist's Idyll in Illinois

Ragdale Raw image June 2009 026

The View from Ragdale: An Ideal Retreat for Artists

At Ragdale I walked the same meadow Audrey Niffenegger wrote about in her bestselling book the “Time Traveler’s Wife” that will be released this summer as a  movie . Pres. Obama’s poet, Elizabeth Alexander, is a Ragdale fellow.  I had conversations each night with accomplished writers whose published books were made available to us: playwrights, poets, novelists, 2 other visual artists and one composer although we were lucky to get a bonus composer who came for an event that occurred after our two weeks were up. Andrea Clearfield added even more to the experience of spending time with great minds and enormous talent in a space where everyone understood being driven and obsessive. No one said “Aren’t you tired of working”, “don’t you want a break”? Everyone loved their process as much as I do.


Have you ever dreamed of getting away from everyone and everything to concentrate on your work?

Thanks to 3Arts I got that chance. I was nominated for and won a fellowship to attend Ragdale for two weeks in the studio you see here, located in Lake Forest, Illinois. I worked all day in the Meadow Studio, feeling I was a world away, but I was a mere 45 minute car ride from Chicago’s north side. My only interruption was for the dinner that the chef serves. YES!!!!! You heard me! There is a chef!

I was assigned the Sewing Room for sleeping. I awakened early, as usual, showered in the down-the-hall bathroom, threw on work clothes, grabbed a banana and a bagel from the well-stocked kitchen, and then strolled the prairie path to my luscious studio that is bigger than most $1500.00 a month New York City apartments.  I  channeled architect Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe upon entering this sunlit, spacious room and I was right. Students attending Illinois Institute of Technology designed and  built the studio in the meadow. Lit with treasured northern light due to the wall of glass doors and skylights, it has a screened-in porch with a rocking chair that I didn’t use, and a lovely sitting area good for a nap after my occasional late night chat-fest with residents the night before. The studio also featured multiple work surfaces and tables, an easel and tons of wall space, my preferred work surface.

The high tech composting toilet called “Iggy”, named after the kind, and attentive director Regin Igloria came with verbal and written instructions!

A small corner of the Meadow Studio is seen in this photo.Ragdale Raw image June 2009 073

All the staff, from interns to administrators are wonderful. The chef, Linda,  providing meals to us each night except Saturday, and enough leftovers that we did not have to cook for the two weeks unless we wanted to, leaving us more time for work! (If you need 4 weeks, apply for the winter.)

For me, a person who has always worked in some capacity while I worked at making art, this hiatus from worldly responsibilities exposed the possibility of where I could take my work if only I had the luxury of time (and money, of course). 

And what about the company I kept, all those other Ragdale fellows? Do you have to spend time with them? No. It’s your choice to go to the meals. My group made 6:30 p.m., when dinner began, an anticipated part of my day. Twelve fellows were in residence during my stay and that is close to maximum, so it’s a fairly small crowd like when I was a student at Yale. We had twelve painters in my class.

I decided to start one new work each day and was able to keep to that promise spending up to 12 hours a day in the studio, without interruptions. I began some larger works, 6 feet by 3 feet, five were 30″ x 40″. Others were smaller…but I achieved my goal and a couple over. Now, of course I have to finish them.

Artists, writers, composers, this is a way to totally focus. Yes, I had to compete with other artists for the spot. Yes, I am behind on everything else, (I frequently can’t keep up with all I try to do) but NO, I wouldn’t trade the experience of Ragdale for anything.

Ragdale Girl on Pillar in progress June 2009Maybe this atmosphere can be achieved without going away, if you put your mind to it! If not, apply to Ragdale or find another program like Oxbow in Michigan!

To learn more click on the  Trib Local feature on Ragdale that includes  photos of the beautiful grounds and information about the history. Click here to read it.

And if you’re not a visual artist, writer or composer, then you might make a donation.You will be invited to Ragdale events, readings, etc. and you will support a great retreat that is a special gift to the artists who attend. 

This untitled, unfinished piece by Joyce Owens was begun at Ragdale…


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  • Great article. I've always wanted to apply for a residency at Ragdale. I think now is the time!

  • Thanks, I wrote the piece to let artists, writers and composers know, firsthand, what a gift this time can be.

    There are many opportunities for artists that stay hidden. I think they should be shared.

    The people who run Ragdale are dedicated to providing the best and most productive experience, I certainly, have ever had!

  • Thinking about your stay at Ragdale makes me think about the spaces we live, work and move through and how they can be so loaded with the gesture of meaning. Sometimes we need to get "away" to see through our daily patterns. It also reminds me a bit of my stay at the Vermont Studio Center - the promise of being "away."

  • I've been putting together an application for winter 2010. This was very encouraging. Hopefully I will be there next year.

  • Thanks for the comments. You know the lotto slogan "You've got to play to win".

    Thomas, the space, no matter which definition we use, was amazing. It crept into my work in ways i did not expect, visually and emotionally.

  • Nice article Joyce. I'm looking forward to my stay in September.

  • Congrats, Norbert. Hoping you'll write about your stay on your blog.

  • Wonderful to see all these comments! When Joyce said she wanted to write a piece about Ragdale, I was skeptical, but she's right, there is a lot of interest, and she did it so well!

    Thanks, Joyce!

    Wait until her next post. I won't spoil it, but it's a good one. Befriend me on Facebook or Twitter and you'll know when it goes up.

  • Thanks for the comments, Kathryn.
    There are lots of things I wish someone had told me, as a student, and as an artist!

    I hope people will mention additional opportunities to push our work and careers forward.

  • Chicago Artist Resource has numerous listings for artists residencies around the country. You can look them up at:

    And here is actually a good book (several actually) that list various residencies for artists in all disciplines. "Artists Communities: A Directory of Residencies in the United States That Offer Time and Space for Creativity" is one and you can order it from at:

    Thanks for posting this Joyce. Glad you had a productive and rejuvenating time at Ragdale.

  • Just the detailed additional information I hoped for. Thanks, Dawoud!

    A listing of international residencies will be helpful. And folks should know you don't have to live in Chicago to go to Ragdale. They accept national and international fellows.

  • A quick internet search brings up these two organizations. I cannot vouch for them as I know nothing about them. Most regional arts councils also provide a directory of residencies, international and otherwise. All of this information is right at your fingertips (computer keyboard) folks.

    I would recommend Jackie Battenfield's book "The Artist's Guide: How To Make A Living Doing What You Love. There is a section on residencies in this book.

  • Ragdale is my own "home away from home." It is surely idyllic, as you get more work done in this supportive atmosphere than most of the time in your own studio. The ability to have uninterrupted time in this glorious environment is unsurpassed. There is an atmosphere of sharing, if you want it, and no pressure, if you don't. For me, it has encouraged collaborative work, and I found my wonderful collaborator there. I love Ragdale!!!!!

  • Again, thanks so much, Dawoud. I will use the links you provide, too. Once artists find out all or some of what's out there you realize that if you put in the work, you can really make a living doing what you love as the Battenfield book suggests.

    Beth Shadur is an artist and Ragdale fellow who has collaborated with other artists and poets from Ragdale to create a wonderful traveling art exhibition that I first saw at the Chicago Cultural Center and later made a return trip to show it to my students! Read about it here:
    and add your own voice to these discussions. I'm going to peruse the links Dawoud found for us!

  • Thanks for spreading the word Joyce! Every artist deserves to experience this gift of space and time. The community I discovered at Ragdale has deeply impacted my life. I look forward to going back in the future, and meeting other artists who are as passionate and committed as the ones I met this year. Much love to you all!

  • Kelley! You said it! One of our fellows had returned to Ragdale 12 times! he said he got in so he came!

    And we squeezed in some bigtime fun, too, didn't we?

    I echo your love to all!

  • Joyce's raves in person and in her writing have inspired me to apply for a Ragdale. Should I be lucky enough to get one, hopefully I will have already cut down down my 500-page finished novel, Sweetspeare's Sirens, A Tell-All Memoir. If I haven't, I'll edit it down there. If the job has been done, I'll work on my second novel, Pearl Pistols Pete.

  • Monroe: ...your novel is WONDERFUL! And too long, which I learned at Ragdale from one of the authors. So Ragdale is the place to cut it back! As the world heads towards new models of disseminating information the knowledge you possess about the beginnings of an African American presence in mainstream journalism is very important, especially as you can tell it from the point-of-view of a journalist who successfully migrated to new media platforms: writing you own political blog, on Facebook, Twitter, for Huffington Post, and some mainstream press, etc.

    At Ragdale the fellows exchange knowledge. My friend Juarez Hawkins happened to have the same weeks I had. She told me about making her clay vessels and gave me a wad of clay to work with. I gave her a linen canvas to try.

    It's a time to work, and can also be a time to learn.

  • That's the painting that haunted my dreams in the most delicious of ways!

    I think the most nourishing gift to an artist is respect -- respect of time and title, an understanding that an artist does, indeed, "work" and that she is, first and foremost, an artist. This is what you get at Ragdale. This and excellent friends (because most do become your friends, in my experience, even for the shyest of souls) and swoon-worthy food.

    I stood in the prairie on my third day. Alone. Working on my play. I stopped for a moment. Peered out at the expanse before me. This grand house. People. Place. This place, someone "gave me." This place someone believed in me and "gave me." Before I spill into the sentimental, I'll just say, that was enough inspiration for me.

    Please do apply, artists. Truly, the only thing you'll regret is leaving.

  • Over 30 residencies in National Parks, including Indiana Dunes and 3 in Michigan: Sleeping Bear Dunes Nat'l Lakeshore, Pictured Rocks & Isle Royale. I have done about 10 of these and they are rustic, remote and beautiful.

    The primary source for all residency programs in the us

    Glen Arbor Artists Association Residency offers Apartment + studio:

  • Playwright Martyna illustrates the difference between a writer who is an artist and an artist who attempts to be a writer!!

    I heard from another Ragdale fellow that he was still adjusting to life away from Ragdale. You describe the psychology of the experience beautifully, Martyna!

    Melanie, thanks for offering us more possibilities. Many of us just don't know about all these opportunities.

  • What's been interesting is returning to my home studio after my two weeks at Ragdale. At home, I work in the basement, no skylights, no prairie, and no chef. I felt the walls were closing in on me, like my place was too small.

    In an effort to stave off Ragdale withdrawal, I asked myself what aspects of the experience could I bring back to my home studio environment. The first, I decided, was dedicated time to work. School and work and household commitments won't allow the unbridled expanse of hours I'd grown accustomed to, but I have committed to dedicated time every day. Even if it's just a few hours, I can maintain a sense of continuity with my work that's so critical, especially when working with clay.

    Second was minimizing distractions. When I'm in the studio, the phone is off, and there's no TV. In fact, I decided to stop watching TV altogether after the transition. Hard to justify passive hours in front of a box when there is a backlog of things I really want to do.

    Third was the quality of space. Though I share space with a washer, dryer and sump pump, I have committed to making my work space as artistically amenable as I can get it. I'm gradually reorganizing my shelves, clearing out clutter, and re-thinking the space to accommodate my flow. So far, so good.

    So for a few hours a day, I can go down to my "happy place" and at least get to touch my work. It's a delightful daily treat. As for prairie, I have a patch of flowering cilantro and dill in the backyard. If you squint, it's almost a meadow.

    Now if only I could afford a chef...

  • Good for you Joyce,
    Sometimes it's good to be able to leave yourself to be yourself.

  • Thanks Floyd and Juarez..and all the contributors who shed light! Others please add your comments and ideas.

    I am always moved by the compassion and generosity of my artist friends...

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