Just over a century ago, Howard Van Doren Shaw unveiled the first Ragdale Ring, an outdoor garden theater space in the backyard of the Ragdale House. The first ring was a simple raised platform framed by trees and columns, on which they staged plays written by Shaw’s wife, Frances. It was a wonderful opportunity for the public to experience the creativity being produced within the walls of the Ragdale House and the beauty of the property.
When they unveiled the 2014 Ragdale Ring last month, the aim was much the same. The general public could buy tickets to attend a masquerade garden party, see performances in the brand-new ring, and experience the air of creativity that pervades the Ragdale property. It’s an environment that’s inspired a wealth of best-selling novels and works of art from the artists who engage in the residencies offered by the Ragdale Foundation each year.
This year’s finished ring currently rises from the ground as a wave of straw. Made up of tubes of hay called wattles—ordinarily used for erosion control—the straw arch has been seeded to grow grass, wildflowers, and vines over the course of the next few months. By late summer, it should look like an organically occurring anomaly sprouting from the earth, where Ragdale’s artists give voice to their work with the backdrop of a gorgeous expanse of prairie. The design comes from Bittertang, a small design farm out of New York, and was dreamed up by Antonio Torres and Michael Loverich.
“It seemed like they wanted to start something new,” says Michael. “We were more interested in making something that was integrated into the landscape, and we’d worked with hay in a different way in the past. A lot of our projects use materials that you don’t normally use in architecture. One project had all wax walls. Another exhibition was all edible walls out of Vietnamese summer roll wrappers. So, you could actually eat 80 feet of wall if you were really hungry and had a pretty tough stomach.”
“We’re very interested in the exploration of biological matter,” says Antonio. “To get into that conversation without talking about sustainability from a conventional point of view. I guess all of that ties into why we’re a design ‘farm’ versus a design firm. Our interest is in architecture that is more alive.”
An organic spirit of discovery is something the Ragdale Foundation fosters year-round as writers, artists, musicians, and designers come together to inspire each other and dedicate themselves to a project during a two-to-four-week residency. That concept was fully embraced in the construction of the 2014 Ragdale Ring as Michael and Antonio brought in eight volunteers from Pennsylvania, New York, and Guadalajara for a three-week residency to stay on the property and turn their design into a reality.
The concept of the Ragdale Ring was resurrected two years ago, and the Bittertang Ring is only the second to be built so far. It will stand from the gala celebration on June 14 until just after Ragdale’s annual art walk in October. Over the summer, tickets are available for a spotlight series of performances and events staged in the Ragdale Ring curated by fellowship and residency alums.
“We essentially have three aspects to our mission here at Ragdale,” says Ragdale’s Executive Director Jeff Meeuwsen. “One is embracing and preserving the historic property. Another is making the most of the residencies and fellowships. The third piece is public programming. To bring the inspiration of the Ragdale Ring from 1912 into today and do it as a temporary installation, invite architects and designers to come here from anywhere in the world and be inspired, and use the residency experience. We help boost their careers by giving them residencies and giving them this place to experiment. Then we invite the community here all throughout the summer to enjoy it. It brings together all the aspects of our mission.”
Also throughout this summer, the work of sculptor Sylvia Shaw Judson, Van Doren Shaw’s daughter, will come together in an exhibition on the Ragdale property. Most recognizable perhaps is her Bird Girl statue, on display in the Ragdale Courtyard, but for the first time it will be reunited in the Ragdale Garden with many other examples of her work for the enjoyment of those coming to the property for the spotlight series or one of the monthly tours.
For more information on the Ragdale Ring Spotlight Series, visit the Ragdale website
-Jake Jarvi // Photography by Jim Prisching