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On Shake Rag Alley, Wisconsin: Interview with artist Judith Sutcliffe

Entrance to Shake Rag Alley

Judith Sutcliffe is an artist and writer, and a co-founder of the Shake Rag Alley Center for Arts and Crafts in Mineral Point, Wisconsin. I recently had the opportunity to visit Shake Rag Alley, and see how Judith and her partner Sandra  have transformed it into a thriving arts center. The interview is divided into two parts. In part 1, below, we discuss the history of Shake Rag Alley and the artistic community in Mineral Point. In part 2, published tomorrow, we will talk about Judith's own art, past and present.

Philip: Could you tell us a little about the history of Shake Rag Alley?

Judith: It's in Mineral Point, an artists’ community in southwest Wisconsin known for its 1840s limestone buildings made by Cornish lead miners. Early miners clustered their cabins around Federal Spring in a small valley known as Shake Rag Under the Hill or Shake Rag Alley. Some of the cabins are still there, and the spring is still flowing, winter and summer. It's rather picturesque.

Philip: How did you originally get involved with Shake Rag Alley?

Judith: In July of 2004 we discovered during the Woodlanders Gathering that Shake Rag Alley was for sale by then-owners the Ridnours. The folks at the Gathering were pretty upset that Shake Rag would be sold, and Glen Ridnour told us that he had a serious offer from someone from Madison who would turn it into a private estate. Earlier that summer we had talked with Jim Kackley, retired CFO of Arthur Anderson, and a quiet power behind the renovation of several historic properties in Mineral Point. He felt that what was missing in this town with so many artists and art studio galleries was an art school.

Once we decided to make that idea a reality, everything moved very fast. Glen Ridnour called up a realtor and we sat down in his living room and signed papers. We put as contingencies that we had three months to raise $100,000 for the down payment, and that we were to start the process of creating a nonprofit corporation to be the owner of the art school. Glen signed the papers with us. What Glen knew but Sandy and I didn't know was that the other person interested in buying the property was sitting in the little cafe that was part of the property, holding a check. We all took a giant leap of faith right there.

One of the nineteenth century log cabins

Philip: How soon were you able to get the arts program up and running?

Judith: Sandy, Jim Kackley and I signed the final purchase papers as founding board members on October 14, 2004. We opened the art school November 1, 2004, with after school classes for local children, and workshops for adults following in early spring. After our nonprofit corporation status was verified in February, 2005, we’ve just steamed onward. We have a working board of 9 local people now, with a small, skilled, and efficient full-time and part-time staff.  In addition to hundreds of arts workshops, we have developed a range of overnight lodging that we can offer our students, instructors, and the general public, and that helps our bottom line. We also now have Alley Stage, our summer theater that offers premier performance for original plays, with Coleman as artistic director.

Philip: What sort of workshops are offered at Shake Rag Alley, and who are the instructors?

Judith: We offer just about any kind of arts workshops anybody can think of, except pottery. We don't want to compete with the potters in the area or the Bethel Horizon pottery school not far away. Anything else is fair game. So in our catalogs and in our extensive website listings you will find workshops in batik, blacksmithing, creative writing, pewter casting, making trellises, mosaic sculptures, mixed media and digital arts—whatever our curriculum committee and area instructors can come up with.

Our instructors come from the Tri-State area and occasionally far beyond. A couple of years ago, novelist (and Guggenheim fellow!) Dean Bakopoulos taught some well-attended writing classes at Shake Rag. Some of our instructors are academically fortified, some not. Our basic premise is that if you know how to do something and love to teach it, we'll give you a try. We're very open to new ideas and new teachers. Most of our classes are half day, full day, weekends, or occasionally longer.

Drying work in a batik class

Philip: How would you describe the artistic atmosphere of Mineral Point?

Judith: The artist community of Mineral Point is wonderful, and we really feel part of it now. It has a long history, going back to artists Ava and Max Ferneke who were there in the 1930s, and it includes  Bob Neal and Edgar Hellum, who rescued several miners' stone and log cottages from ruin and turned them into Pendarvis, now a state historic site. In the 1960s Ken Colwell owned the big old stone brewery and ran a business teaching spinning and weaving. Several people who took fiber classes there liked the town so much that they stayed. One of them was leather artist Cheryl Smeja, who is one of our board members, an instructor, and the wizard of our website. There are many artists, many artist studios and galleries in Mineral Point today, and they are all fun and friendly and helpful. The artist community includes actors and directors, trades artisans, collectors, historians, writers, well-wishers, musicians, folks who sell at the farmers market, besides the active artists. It's a large community, generally pretty liberal, and there are no status levels. Everybody's in it together and everybody works together. Oh, and we also have a Film Society. It's just starting up again after a year's hiatus waiting for the marvelous renovation of the Mineral Point Opera House to finish.

The main problem Mineral Point now faces is the gray hair on most of its artists' heads. We need new young ones, and we know it's not easy for young artists to find a toe hold, with property not being as inexpensive as it used to be. A pair of dedicated young potters showed up a couple years ago and tried to find a place to do pottery. It was tough. But they are currently potting and teaching at Bethel Horizons, working odd jobs in winter to keep going, with real perseverance. Green Lantern Gallery gave them a show during the initial Clay in May potters' promotion May 1. The Mineral Point Chamber of Commerce each year designs, prints, and distributes by the thousands a full color book about all the artists and shops and everything a tourist and art buyer would want to know about Mineral Point. It's very impressive, and seeing it was one of the reasons we bought our gallery building there.

Tomorrow in part 2: Judith discusses her own work, and the future of Shake Rag Alley.

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