Six young poets gathered one recent summer week in a soft-lit sitting room at Ragdale, architect Howard Van Doren Shaw’s former Lake Forest estate, and now one of the country’s largest interdisciplinary artists’ communities. The women sit, lounge, stand and pace, eyeing the microphone that shines with silvery challenge at the front of room. Waiting her turn for voice check, Fildaus Umutoniwase leans in to whisper.
“I like your dress,” Fildaus tells me, her head wrapped in a brilliant purple dhuku.“Your shoes too,”she smiles, confiding in even more hushed tones, “I’m nervous, but excited, too!”
For the next two hours, the poets, plus another 33 youth, show and perform works they created during the week-long High School Arts Week (HSAW) intensive they’ve just completed. The celebration packs the grounds with friends and parents, Ragdale supporters, and the teachers who led the students through courses in visual arts, puppetry, prose, poetry and creative writing. After each performance, the crowd erupts with applause, cheers—even tears.
“I’m proud of them,” says Quraysh Ali Lansana, who has taught the prose and poetry module at HSAW for the last eight years. “All of them, despite varying gender identifications, ethnicities, and faiths—deeply bonded over the course of the week. They tackled challenging subjects, both personal and worldly, with courage and compassion.”
Regin Igloria, Ragdale In-Schools manager, agrees. “These students show so much resilience! Some were nervous about presenting or were unsure about their work—but everyone was so impressive. They pulled off a lot despite the awkwardness and pressure of performing and putting oneself out there in front of strangers. Their youthful energy reminds me why art is so important to support.They aren’t afraid of telling the truth. You have to love their ability to just trust their ideas.”
Cultivating confidence and providing an accessible space for youthful artists of all backgrounds to bloom were key reasons Ragdale launched the HSAW program eleven years ago.
Although well-known for the residencies and fellowships it offered to architects, artists, writers, musicians, and composers since its 1976 beginnings, eight years ago, Ragdale had only one such program for youth—A creative writing intensive taught by novelist/journalist and educator Margaret Hawkins.
“It was a great program, but at the beginning we only had 10 students, from one or two local schools,” says executive director Jeff Meeuwsen, who came to Ragdale in 2012 with a background in youth arts programming. “We saw the potential to expand HSAW to include more art forms so that it would more closely reflect the mix of
media represented in our adult residency programs. We also wanted to open this to a more diverse, wide-ranging group of students.”
This year, HSAW included more than 40 students from 32 high schools in Chicago and the suburbs. To participate, high school students fill out an application form and submit samples of their work.
“The program is competitive,” says Meeuwsen, “but we work hard to accept as many promising students as possible, with a classroom limit of 10 to 12, for a total of 40 to 50 overall. Our hope is always to accept all “motivated” students, regardless of previous formal training, knowing that that is not equally available in all schools and neighborhoods.”
For their week at Ragdale, students choose one focus module from options including Visual Arts, Puppetry, Prose/Creative Writing, and Poetry/Creative Writing. The modules are intensive, with classes from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. But to introduce additional disciplines and media to the students during their week, Ragdale invites visiting artists who offer optional presentations and workshops to the kids at lunch time or after classes.
Teachers for each module share enthusiasm for the program—what it does for their students, and what it does for them. “It is always my goal to introduce new writing prompts and to craft challenges every summer,” says Lansana. “This practice excites and challenges me both as a teacher and a writer, and that excitement is infectious among my students. This year, I was humbled to have four students return for the intensive, two of whom are on their way to the University of Iowa’s Undergraduate Creative Writing Program.”
Each teacher builds their module with care—to create a healthy working space that is conducive to creativity and to give students tools and material they can build on as they leave.
Margaret Hawkins, Ragdale’s Prose/Creative Writing HSAW teacher, says her general goal is to guide young writers through a crash course in basic forms: from non-fiction and fiction, to poetry and play writing.
“All while teaching them how to access their imaginations and harness the confidence to keep writing,” says Hawkins. “My workshops are always generative, not critical.”
“Year after year, students tell me their writing improves by leaps and bounds over the single week they are at Ragdale. I think it’s the freedom from judgement and encouragement to delve into their true thought that does the magic,” Hawkins concludes.
Participation in HSAW is free to participating students, through the generosity of donors.
This year’s sponsors included The Butler Foundation, Dermody Properties, The Gorter Family Foundation, The Grainger Foundation, Heizer Foundation, John R. Halligan Charitable Fund, Lake County Community Foundation, Palmer foundation, and Ragdale’s INSIDE1260 giving society.
For more information on Ragdale’s High School Arts Week, and other Ragdale programs, visit ragdale.org.