Art springs from the ruins of Vicksburg’s old paper mill

It’s not an uncommon sight in Southwest Michigan — crumbling ruins of factories that once formed the backbone of the area’s manufacturing heyday.

They may not be the pyramids of Egypt or the Parthenon of Greece, but the 420,000-square-foot remains of Vickburg’s Lee Paper Company paper mill and its adjacent 80 acres is inspiring artists to new creation, nevertheless.

The new Prairie Ronde Artist Residency is bringing in artists from around the world to be immersed in the ruins and create works that reflect their experience.

Since early 2018, artists have been selected to come to Vicksburg, stay in a private apartment that includes a studio space, and explore the abandoned mill site, mining it for ideas. There is a second living space also available for artists so that two may work simultaneously.

For four to seven weeks each, an artist works to create as they wish. At least one piece of art they create during that time will become part of a permanent collection before the mill becomes a construction site for redevelopment.

Paper City Development owner and Vicksburg native Chris Moore plans to redevelop the historic site into a mixed-use facility. John Kern is Paper City Development’s community outreach and education coordinator. The residency is the brainchild of Kern and his wife, Jackie Koney.

"The mill has actually played an even larger role than we anticipated in the creative process," Kern says. 

"The paper mill is so inspirational," says Penelope Anstruther, who completed her residency in June. "Everywhere I looked the textures were so beautiful and there is rust galore. All the pieces I made for my site-specific installation were made from found objects from the mill. The setting was the nucleus for everything I made there."

Kern says that has been the case with other artists, too.

"Each of the artists has seemed, so far, to be heavily drawn into the space, so formal studio space has played a smaller role than we planned for," Kern says.

In addition to the artwork they create, artists provide a workshop, public show, open studio days or some other activity that allows the community to engage with the artist during his or her residency.

"So far, it has been a tremendous success," Kern says. "Each of the artists has done a great job of integrating themselves into the community. And Vicksburg has welcomed them all with open arms.  

"It’s been remarkable how quickly members of the community have taken on a sense of ownership in the process," Kern adds, by turning out for artist receptions, gallery’ nights, and live performances.

Anstruther, a British born, multidisciplinary artist who lives in Oakland, Calif., spent the month of June in the mill. 

She says she heard about the program through another artist and was drawn to the idea of solitude and uninterrupted time to focus on her work. "I haven’t had an apartment to myself, or spent that much time alone for over five years," Anstruther says.

"Penelope was prolific," Kern says. She created more than 20 pieces in her time at Prairie Ronde. They included found object sculpture, printmaking using pigments made from scraps found in the building and its surrounding grounds, and lanterns made from more found elements and strips of cotton cloth -- an homage to the Lee Paper Company’s legacy as a rag mill.

To help test the program’s concept before it began in earnest, Brooklyn-based artist Frances Li, a family member, spent a month in the fall of 2017 at the mill, working on a painting inspired by a flower outside of her doorstep. Her painting has been donated to the Prairie Ronde Residency collection.

Jennifer Koney, another family member, also worked in the space to help research and craft the actual parameters of the program, Kern says. Her contributions are ongoing.
The program is not limited to visual artists.

Current artist in residence Jasmine Nyende, an artist and musician from Los Angeles, plans to create a large scale knitted web blended with lines from her new book of poetry Flesh Between Heaven and Earth. 

Sean Harold, another current artist in residence, is a composer and guitarist with degrees in jazz performance and composition. "We’re eagerly awaiting their finished products," Kern says. "To date, Jasmine, has been deeply engaged with local textile artisans who have taken her under their wing to help her learn how to spin her own yarn for project use and Sean has been working on some new compositions while also experimenting with some of his existing works to see how they translate into a space as large as the mill."

Nor is every piece permanent. 

May Hong, the program’s first artist, painted an industrial-themed mural directly on a wall with black house paint, knowing that the images might be destroyed at some point during redevelopment. "I wanted to honor the primitive instinct we humans possess to confirm our existence, to leave evidence our time here," she wrote in her May, 2018 statement about her work. 

The old rag mill was spared from the wrecking ball in 2014 and nominated to the National Registry of Historic Places. The vision for redevelopment is to make it a destination for events that celebrate the area's rich heritage in agriculture and industry with a focus on high-quality craft beer and food production.

Although the team's primary focus is working with local and state officials to move that vision for the mill forward, the artist residency program was borne out of Kern’s desire to let people engage with the property in the meantime.

Three artists are selected each year by a panel of judges and given complete access to the massive mill and its surrounding acreage. 

Artists are provided transportation, housing and studio space, and a stipend for a four- to seven-week residency at the mill. 

Although Prairie Ronde is a new initiative, Kern says that the program is gaining international attention, and the panel has received applications from as far away as Germany and the Republic of Georgia.

The residency is a program of Paper City Development, and it partners with area arts organizations.

"We've held some receptions with the Vicksburg Cultural Arts Center for our artists as a way to help them better understand our rich arts history," Kern says. He hopes to expand those connections in future residency events. "Our goal is to bring artists to Vicksburg," Kern says, "so they can build upon our legacy of being a creative and cultural hub."

Currently Kern, Koney and Prairie Ronde judges are evaluating applications for a fall artist.

"We’re in a unique situation here in that we can support arts and culture by providing people with the time and space to create. The response from our participants has been overwhelmingly positive," Kern says.

"Each one has told us that the experience has allowed them to focus on creative process, exploration of new techniques, and craft. That’s huge and something that we’re really proud of. We’ve also worked hard to celebrate the tradition of creative thought and innovation here in Vicksburg, creating experiences and interactions that are noteworthy and fun. 

"There is a lot of good happening here in southwest Michigan" Kern says, "and we’re thrilled to share some of that goodness with people from other parts of the world.
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Read more articles by Rosemary Parker.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.