"We signed papers and didn't sleep much that night. ‘Oh my God, we didn't just do this.’"
Photos by Megan Monday
Sandy and Judy | Mineral Point, WI
Sandy: My dad was a very hard-working man in a small town with a family of four kids. He owned a grocery store, but people who couldn't afford groceries still got fed. He’d just put it on the books, and he fed families that way for years.
He’d feed people on credit, and he bartered a lot, too. Trade one small thing for another, and then trade it for a bigger thing, and so on. A lot of times my family wasn’t even aware of the hair-brained things he’d get himself into.
One day he came home, his clothes were all ripped and torn and he was just a mess. My mom said, "My God. What's happened?" And he said, "I crashed our airplane." She said, "What airplane?" "The airplane I traded for the apartment house." "What apartment house?!" He was that sort of person.
He would come home and jingle the change in his pocket and say, "Okay, ready?" and we'd all gather around to play bingo for the change. His birthday was on the Fourth of July, and the whole town would come to our house. He'd give away cap guns. We'd have sparklers. He was in charge of the fireworks. He was just a really neat man.
He died really young, when he was 42. But he had a really full life. His generosity and spunk were so inspiring. And he taught me to embrace spontaneity, and to trust. To trust that if you follow your gut, and if you believe in and trust others, good things will come to you.
Judy: I first met Sandy when she was in charge of a theater in Denison, Iowa. We were both originally from Iowa. In fact, we grew up only a few towns apart, but we didn’t know each other as kids.
Another coincidence is that we also had both moved out to California in our 20s, and had lives there before moving back to the Midwest. But we didn’t meet until one day when I was visiting Denison for a doctor's appointment.
I had tried setting up an appointment with my favorite hometown doctor, but she had recently moved a few towns over so I had to travel there for my appointment. My doctor was a friend, and knew I was into the arts, so after the appointment she wanted to take me to see the only game in town, the Donna Reed Theatre.
Sandy: We got introduced, and at some point Judy asked me if the Theatre had a newsletter. I said, "No, we do not. Would you like to do one?" She said, "Sure!" It was a good enough way to start a conversation.
After collaborating on that we decided to take an art class together. It was a life drawing class. The teacher lived in the country, and the first lesson there was a terrible storm. The roads were just pure ice and we got quite lost. But during that time we sort of got to know each other. It took forever to find the place, but I’ll tell you what—the meandering was worth it.
Judy: Later on, Sandy and I were living in Galena, Illinois. One day our neighbor said, "Oh, you guys should go see the House on the Rock!" I thought, being so terribly knowledgeable about architecture, that it was Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. So off we went. Our neighbor also said, "And make sure you stop in Mineral Point and have breakfast at the Redwood!”
Sandy: So we came down to Mineral Point and stopped at a shop just up the way, with cigars and tea. The owner ended up being the Chamber Director. He gave us this real pitch on the art community of Mineral Point.
Judy: And also on the two best buys, building-wise, downtown.
Sandy: He said, "Do you want to see them?" and of course we did. We love old spaces. He showed us these buildings and, well, we bought them.
We had no plan to buy buildings, and yes, it was crazy spontaneous to take on that much. But we trusted in ourselves that we could make it work somehow.
We really responded to the idea of living in an artistic community, so it came to pass that we started a life in Mineral Point.
Judy: If you want to make a living as an artist, you have to be okay with facing famine, and then you just have to believe that a feast is going to come...by next week, preferably. You also have to embrace spontaneity. Opportunities come up, and go just as fast. There’s a lot of uncertainty and a lot of trust. You have to try new things and hope that they’ll pan out for you.
Sandy: One of the things we tried out was hosting art workshops. I was really into this event called the Woodlanders Gathering. It’s a workshop where you make rustic furniture. Imagine a big old rocking chair made out of twigs; that’s a rustic art. We decided to host a workshop here in the Midwest and we found this great rustic place to do it—a place called Shake Rag Alley.
Shake Rag Alley is the spot where the Cornish Miners homes used to be. There’s a little river there and that’s where they lived back when Mineral Point was first being settled and all these Cornish folks were mining zinc and copper. All the buildings are rustic—log cabins and such. It's a historic site. It's where Wisconsin began. Research shows that the log cabin on site was probably the first schoolhouse in Wisconsin, and possibly even the first church. There’s some lore too; one of the cabins is called Tea Kettle Annie, and it’s a legend that the ‘lady of the night’ lived in that little cabin long ago.
By the time we were here, Shake Rag was an odd mix. One part junk/antique yard, and then some of the buildings were rented out as little artist studios...there was even a florist that sold flowers in Madison but grew them all on the grounds of Shake Rag. It was a very eclectic place.
So we had our Woodlanders Gathering there, and it was perfect for that. People came from all over the country. On our third year of hosting the gathering, Shake Rag Alley went up for sale. Someone announced it at a workshop and all the Woodlanders, about 107 people who were there, just groaned and said, "Oh no! They can't. We've got to come back here, we want to come back here!"
Turns out Shake Rag had been advertised in the Wall Street Journal as one of the most historic sites in the country that was available for sale. They had also, we found out, had a couple from Madison who was very interested in buying it and closing it as a public space and turning it into a private residence.
So there we were, all of a sudden faced with an impending sale of this property, and the fact that it was going to be closed to the public and to us. So we thought, what if we bought it and kept it public?
Judy: Then the challenge was how to do that. We didn’t have the capital to do it. But we did have a lot of people who cared about the space. And so we were like, "What if we created a community arts school? A non-profit?"
Sandy: The interesting part of the story was that this is all happening in a day. The couple from Madison was actually there with a check, apparently ready to buy the property. At the same time, we were talking with the owner and they decided that they really did want the property to stay within the community, so they agreed to give us three months to raise the money to buy it.
We signed papers and didn't sleep much that night. "Oh my God, we didn't just do this." But we started calling meetings of people in the community: the artisans, the community leaders. We started talking about it, and started raising money, and people came forward. In six weeks, we had the down payment.
Sandy: So Shake Rag Arts Center really came together through the support of the community, but also through a lot of serendipity.
Our children’s program actually came into existence just because we ran into this woman from California on High Street. She had just read about our project in the paper and stopped us to talk about it. She told us she’d just done an expressive arts training in California and so we said, "Well, you want to be director of the children's program?" She went back that night and put together the most amazing proposal. Thrilling curriculum for young people. So, instantly we had the director for the children's program. And by the time we were ready to open, we had a waiting list for it.
That's what's exciting about being here. Something like Shake Rag Alley can happen. You can have a vision of it anywhere, but in a town like Mineral Point you can actually make it happen.
It’s through the connections. I don't think people understand small towns. We both lived in big cities. Santa Barbara, Berkeley, San Francisco, Houston. We’ve lived all over and this is the best place ever.
Judy: You can do more, get more done. Have closer, more real relationships than anywhere else I've lived. It's got a history, and the unique Cornish stone buildings have always attracted artists, so that’s got a lot to do with it. It’s just a very special place. We’re pretty thrilled that we landed here.
-Sandy and Judy | Mineral Point, WI