National Artists Contribute to the Stature of the Mill

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Penelope Anstruther, one of the early Prairie Ronde artists in residence had a showing in the Mill of her creations.

By Jef Rietsma

The Mill’s unique Prairie Ronde Artist Residency program has brought artists from around the world to Vicksburg in order to grow their practice.

Now in its second year, the program will see as many as 10 artists at the Mill in Vicksburg this year while its redevelopment continues.

John Kern, who played a key role in creating the program and establishing its guidelines, said he is pleased to see the Mill provide inspiration that has resulted in a vast array of artwork.

“We anticipated that people would fall in love with the building and the land … we didn’t anticipate how much art would be made that was site-specific to the building,” Kern said. “It’s been great.”

This year’s artist lineup has featured Joe Freeman Jr., a professional photographer from Tacoma, Wash.; Travis Miller, an electronic music composer from Los Angeles; Peg Butler, a poet from Portland, Or.; and Katina Bitsicas, filmmaker from Columbia, Mo.

Upcoming participants will be visual artist Anna Roeder from Kalamazoo and Marie Bergstedt, a San Francisco resident who is a textile artist. Kern said Bergstedt has an interesting history.

“Marie grew up in the Vicksburg area and she actually worked at the Vicksburg Commercial-Express (newspaper),” Kern said. “So, she got wind of us and she is coming here July 15 for about a month.”

The final artist this year will be Sam Margevicius, a photographer from New York.

Kern explained that the process of bringing artists to Vicksburg starts with an application review. Interviews are held with prospective participants, who give an idea of what their plan involves and what materials they will work with.

“Some artists have come in with a really clear plan. Others have changed course once they arrived,” he said. “A great example (of the latter) is last year’s final resident of the season, Rachel Toups. She had the plan to come here and record an album. But she’s also a visual artist, and after touring the property, she had an idea for a couple of visual pieces. We agreed to that change and she wound up making two large-scale pieces that incorporated, by her estimate, 18 miles of red yarn … she bought out all the red yarn in Kalamazoo and Battle Creek.”

Those selected for the program choose the length of their stay – a window of four to seven weeks – and their stay is set up one right after the other.

Part of the agreement is that a guest artist will leave at least one piece of artwork for the Mill. Kern said the work collected so far is being stored off site, at least until construction-related work has been completed.

Ultimately, he said he would like the public to see some of the artwork before select items are brought back to the mill for permanent display.

Kern said the website was developed to help promote the program. In addition, he said, a social-media coordinator has also played a critical role in helping to keep the program visible. By far, however, the biggest move was to join a professional network, the Alliance of Artists Communities.

Kern said the program is in the process of securing its artists for the third and final session of the 2019 season. From start to end, this year’s season will run from March through mid-December.

Applications have also opened for the 2020 season.

The incentive for anyone to join the local artist residency program begins with what Kern described as a generous stipend. Many artists, he said, are making the lion’s share of their earnings by going from residency to residency.

“We’re thrilled to be a part of that … it’s exciting,” Kern said. “It’s challenging, though, because a few of the things we ask are that they think about a way that they can incorporate themselves into the local community and we also ask them to focus whatever work they do here on the Mill campus and/or Vicksburg.”

He said without exception, the artists are internally disciplined and motivated, Kern said. They come to Vicksburg to grow their practice and experiment with their craft It’s a unique and exciting opportunity for an artist to have the level of freedom they are given as part of the Prairie Ronde Artist Residency program.

“When artists come here, this is their time, this is their opportunity to challenge themselves and to grow,” Kern said. “The excitement that this place breeds and the excitement of the opportunity really sweeps people off their feet.”

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