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The middle of October is prime time for finding haunted houses in the Midwest. Drive in any direction for about a half hour and you’ll happen upon a sign telling you where to find one. But this year Lake Forest offers an entirely different take on the haunted house. For the first time ever, the Ragdale House, home base of the exceptional Ragdale Fellowship, is hosting an exhibition of artists’ works instead of playing host to the artists themselves. Until the end of October, the Ragdale House, built as Howard Van Doren Shaw’s arts and crafts summer home, is a completely unique kind of haunted house. A house haunted by memories.
“The house has seen so much; Carl Sandburg and all these poets, artists, and writers over the years. Amazing people have been through here,” says Audrey Niffenegger, curator of House, Dreaming, Ragdale alum, and bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife. “And for once we’re making it manifest. Somebody can walk in and sort of commune with the dreams that such a house might have. Some of the rooms have things in them, some of them don’t. But of course, if you’re not familiar with the house, both of those things are interesting.”
It’s true. The Ragdale House has a presence all on it’s own, even when not filled with self reflexive art. The exhibits of House, Dreamingnot only give you a feel for the labors of Ragdale’s residents, but also enhance the already potent presence of the house.
In the screened porch on the first floor, artist Beth Reitmeyer handmade scores of paper lanterns based on the lighting fixtures that illuminate Ragdale’s grounds at night. Her lanterns also glow from within and are suspended from the ceiling with ribbon to sway in the breeze. On each side of each lantern is a different handwritten sentence, such as: “Ragdale’s a she,” Linda told me. “She’s a matriarch,”Ragdale is where I came to be aware, and Thank you, Ragdale, for the renewed spirit, the hours of creativity, a home, and the solitude.“There are books in all of the rooms the residents stay in where they can write something about their stay,” Beth says. “So they’re all little snippets of what Ragdale means to a wide variety of artists across decades.”
The other exhibit on the ground floor is courtesy of composer Shawn Decker. During his three Ragdale fellowships he recorded the raw sounds of the 50-acre prairie that comprises a majority of the property. Those recordings are playing on a loop through hidden speakers in the dining room/solarium, which looks out onto the prairie. From other hidden speakers in the room come portions of soundscapes that he composed on the property. “A lot of the interest in sound work is in natural rhythms. The prairie rhythms were a big inspiration for me in recordings made here. So these are some of the source recordings that were used in that,” says Shawn. Take the time to sit at the table in the middle of the room and let the variety of sounds surround you while you look out at the prairie. This exhibit is one of the highlights of House, Dreaming.It’s simultaneously lulling and creepy, like the house and the prairie are having a conversation.
The second floor of House, Dreamingis where you’ll find “The Haunted Library.” This room is the most seasonally pointed section of the installation. “When I was invited to curate an exhibit of artist books for the show, I was unavoidably drawn to the season,” says Shawn Sheehy. “I love Halloween and I love spooky books.” The artist books are all hand made, and contain disquieting original stories. One supremely disturbing book by Stephen Desantis foregoes paper entirely, the pages are made from a Girl Scout uniform and get progressively more splattered with red paint as the story evolves at a sentence per page; it’s supremely effective and functions as the perfect metaphor for the whimsical horror of modern Halloween.
If you head up to the attic and hang a left you’ll find another exhibit that makes the most of the season. In front of the attic window sits a single chair. In front of the chair is an elaborately carved black picture frame tied to black fireplace andirons with black ribbon. The setup itself is a creepy enough tableau and unless you’ve come with a group, it’s going to take a second to convince yourself to sit in the chair. But once you do a silent shadow play unfolds before your eyes, projected on a screen inside the black frame. Although elements of the story are scary, it’s the fun kind of scary, more associated with trick or treating than with blood soaked Girl Scout uniforms. It was expertly written and designed by artistic sisters Jill Summers and Susie Kirkwood. The scariest part of the entire shadow play will happen if some other unsuspecting Ragdale visitor comes up the stairs for the show adding an unforeseen audio element to the events on screen.
“During the closed phase of the house we wanted to do something a little bit more unique and something different than what we’ve done in the past,” says curator Regin Igloria, also Ragdale’s Director of Artists in Residence. “We wanted to celebrate the visual artists this time. What better way to do that then by turning the Ragdale House into a gallery?”
House, Dreamingis not to be missed. You’ve never experienced the Ragdale House in this way, and if you’ve never before been to Ragdale, this is the perfect opportunity to visit one of the world’s most inspirational properties. From now until October 29, visit the Ragdale office during normal business hours Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and they’ll open the house so you experience it at your leisure. If you’re planning on bringing a group with you, a call in advance would be appreciated. And if you’re brave enough to experience House, Dreamingat its most potent, in semi-darkness, Ragdale will be hosting a special twilight viewing between 6 and 7 p.m. on Tuesday, October 19.
Ragdale is located at 1230 N. Green Bay Road in Lake Forest. For more information call 847-234-1063 or visit them online at ragdale.org.