Joy. Magic. Heaven on earth.
These words and others like them have been used to describe the experience of learning, staying and celebrating at Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts, Mineral Point’s nationally known school of arts and crafts.
It was 15 years ago this month at the third annual Woodlanders Gathering — a four-day retreat offering dozens of rustic arts and nature crafts workshops — that plans for the school were formally taking shape. The story has a fairytale feeling, and it’s full of serendipity. It’s a story I don’t get tired of telling in my capacity as Shake Rag Alley executive director.
Amid bent willow branches, wood shavings, twigs, leaves and other natural materials being used in the workshops, word started spreading among the Woodlanders participants that the 2.5-acre property — an oasis of 20 individual garden beds, towering trees, a fresh-water spring, and eight historic and reproduction buildings — was for sale. Rumor had it that a couple from Madison was planning to buy it for private development.
“All the Woodlanders, about a 107 people who were there, just groaned and said, ‘Oh no! They can’t. We’ve got to come back here, we want to come back here!’” recalls Sandra Scott, who, with her partner, Judith Sutcliffe, in 2002 founded the Woodlanders Gathering at Shake Rag Alley (so-called because of its location in Mineral Point’s historic mining district, where camp cooks and womenfolk would “shake rags” to indicate to the men mining the nearby hills that chow was ready).
That very day, Sandy and Judy spoke to Glen and Harriet Ridnour, local antique dealers who had owned the property since 2001. The Ridnours agreed to give Judy and Sandy three months to raise the money to buy it. Many of those attending Woodlanders wrote donation checks to help with the down payment. Young 14-year-old Mike Christensen, a farm boy from western Iowa and the first Woodlanders scholarship student, wrote a letter saying he had no money to donate but would do any work necessary for free.
Judy recalls that Roland Sardeson, a potter and stonemason who’d worked and lived at Shake Rag Alley as an artist-in-residence in the 1970s, handed her a check, the first or one of the first donations received toward the purchase of Shake Rag Alley.
“I have a vague recall of Roland being down in a ditch working, maybe somewhere along the spring creek, or maybe he was working on a stone wall,” Judy says. “I just remember walking by and chatting a bit and he took something from his pocket to hand to me. It was his $500 check, which by then I knew Roland well enough to know how way much more that was worth in Roland-dollars.”
“We signed papers and didn’t sleep much that night,” Sandy says. “‘Oh my God, we didn’t just do this.’ But we started calling meetings of people in the community: the artisans, the community leaders. We started talking about it, and started raising money, and people came forward. In six weeks, we had the down payment.”
They didn’t just have the financial support to formalize the offer: They also had tremendous volunteer support from the significant community connections they’d cultivated since being drawn to Mineral Point from Galena and opening Longbranch Gallery. It had been retired Mineral Point businessman Jim Kackley’s idea to found an art school to serve as an economic engine for the area, and he joined Judy and Sandy as the first members of the 501(c)3 nonprofit’s Board of Directors.
It’s awesome — as in the dictionary definition “inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear” — to comprehend how vital volunteers and donors have been and are to Shake Rag Alley’s ability to perform its mission to provide educational experiences in visual, performing, and literary arts for adults and children; cultivate the creativity that thrives in our rural region of southwestern Wisconsin; and rehabilitate and preserve our collection of historic and reproduction buildings and rustic campus.
Additional financing from private and government loans secured the purchase of the Shake Rag Alley campus and buildings in October 2004. A mere two weeks later, 50 children were enrolled in the first workshop, an “After School Enrichment Program in Expressive and Visual Arts.” It was designed and taught by Diane Sterba, an educator whom Judy and Sandy had randomly met on High Street and who became youth program director.
These random, serendipity stories are legion at Shake Rag Alley, as are the stories of transformation. Repeat students become instructors. A newcomer to town shopping for art for her home gets recruited onto the Board and, through her access to new art mediums and Shake Rag Alley’s artistic community, blossoms into an artist herself and one of our biggest ambassadors. A first date in Mineral Point including a walk through the Shake Rag Alley grounds becomes prelude to a future marriage proposal and then wedding at Shake Rag Alley. And that 14-year-old Iowa farm boy who offered to work for free in 2004? He’s been serving as Board president (among other things) since 2015.
From modest beginnings with only a youth after-school program and a handful of weekend workshop events, we’ve expanded our adult workshop offerings to include more nationally and even internationally known instructors teaching scores of multi-day and weeklong in-depth classes and retreats March-November. Today you can come to Shake Rag Alley and study blacksmithing and welding, fiber arts, jewelry-making, mixed media, painting and 2D art, paper and book arts, photography, polymer clay, pottery, rustic arts and nature crafts and creative writing. It’s been said that Shake Rag Alley is “where anyone can become an artist.”
From eight buildings our campus has grown to 12. Founding Board member Cheryl Smeja and her husband, Jim, donate their building on Doty Street for use as our dedicated jewelry studio. Thanks in large part to the volunteer artistic direction by Mineral Point’s Coleman, the award-winning writer, playwright, actor and producer, from 2007 to 2014 we operated the outdoor summer theater, Alley Stage, built into an old limestone quarry on our property. It’s where Mineral Point’s fifth-graders graduate, and is available to rent for performances, weddings and other celebrations. In 2012, significant financial support from John and Carla Lind as well as John and Linda Hurley, Jay and Diane Homan and many others enabled us to acquire and radically renovate the Lind Pavilion, a World War II-era Quonset hut. And in 2016 we inherited Roland Sardeson’s building after his passing.
Roland had already been allowing Shake Rag Alley to share the lodging revenue from stays in his Tuckpoint Garden Suite, and with the renovation of his apartment on the second floor of the building we dedicated Roland’s Loft at The Sardeson, our fifth guest space, last spring. Volunteers, donations, heavily discounted rates from local contractors and grants from the Mineral Point Community Chest, Mineral Point Community Foundation and the Lions Club were critical to the completion of that project, which included converting Bruce Howdle’s mural studio into our pottery workshop studio and Roland’s storefront studio into a rentable studio-gallery.
Have I mentioned how critical volunteers are to the spirit of Shake Rag Alley?
They serve on our board. They design our rich curriculum of arts and crafts workshops, and design and maintain our website. They design our catalog, postcards, posters and ads, and distribute our catalog, postcards and posters. They represent us at expos that they help us set up and tear down. They plan and lead our monthly Women’s Art Parties. They design, stuff, seal and stamp our annual solicitation and fundraising campaigns. They shovel snow, rake and sweep leaves. They weed, and plant, and mulch, and weed some more, week after week under the guidance of Sharon Stauffer, who, from the beginning, has worn about a dozen volunteer hats at Shake Rag Alley. They move furniture and appliances, paint walls and ceilings, wash windows and carry heavy items up and down stairs. They chair our events, and set up for, staff and photograph them. They put up tents and take them back down. They make coffee, serve lunch and clean up after our retreats. They build fairy houses, and decorate our buildings and grounds for Halloween and Santa Day. They hand out candy for Mineral Point Trick’r Treaters. They are Santa and Mrs. Claus and Santa’s elves. They pick up and drop off our instructors at airports and set up for their workshops. They assist our Youth Program director during K-12 workshops that are supported by the Mineral Point Community Chest and United Fund of Iowa County. They answer our phones and greet our visitors. They hand-carve signs for our historic buildings and grounds. They give and do so much. They are Shake Rag Alley.
As we prepare to mark our 15th anniversary, we’re proud of what our small but mighty staff, tremendous volunteers and dedicated Board members have achieved thus far, including adding a robust and growing blacksmithing and welding program, paying off city and county loans early, and establishing partnerships with the Council for Wisconsin Writers, the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine, and the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission to offer week-long winter residencies to award-winning authors. This year we began hosting a free monthly Driftless Poets workshop, and in 2020, we’ll celebrate National Poetry Month with an NEA Big Read grant featuring Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric” (see story here). Our programs are also supported in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.
There’s so much — and so many people — to celebrate, and we’ll start doing just that at this month’s Woodlanders Gathering. Registration will be open throughout the retreat, so take a look at the workshop offerings at www.ShakeRagAlley.com and join us if you can.
There’s also so much planning to be done for our future. There are several mission-critical roles that have been performed from day one by volunteers who won’t always be there for us to rely on. Now that we’re almost 15, it’s time for us to grow up and strengthen the foundations for our future. Toward that end, we’re kicking off a “$15 for Shake Rag Alley’s 15th Anniversary” fundraising campaign to generate much-needed general operations support. Please consider donating $15 — or better yet, setting up a monthly $15 recurring donation — here. Checks can be mailed to 18 Shake Rag St., Mineral Point, WI 53565, and I’d be happy to answer any questions at (608) 987-3292.
The creative spirit of Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts was born of its community of supporters. With your support, we can ensure that the spirit, and the magic, of Shake Rag Alley endure for generations to come.