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LAUNCH PAD // Mineral School (Mineral, Washington)

 

What is the road between a first idea and the launch of a new residency program? In  LAUNCH PAD we are checking in with Emerging Program Institute alumns to hear about the challenges, triumphs, and many surprises on the road to launching a residency.

This month we spoke with Seattle-based writer Jane Hodges, who is preparing to launch Mineral School, a new residency program set in a once-abandoned 1947 elementary school in rural Washington.

AAC: Congratulations on preparing to launch the first summer of residencies at Mineral School! How did this project come to be?

Mineral School: I went into journalism as a day job to support my creative writing interests, and because I've lived in expensive cities (New York for a decade, then Seattle) have always worked full-time as a business journalist to support myself. Residency and retreats have always been valuable in helping me get creative work done, maintain creative community, and exhale from the multi-taskiness of life. I particularly admire the Vermont Studio Center, which is an amazing place for creative people of all disciplines I've been fortunate to attend and which offers its residents a great mix of structure, privacy, community, and constructive opt-in programming.

In 2012, in my early 40s, I had a terrible year: In the 10 weeks prior to my publication of a nonfiction book (finished at VSC!), I had to become power of attorney for both my father and uncle in the South, both of whom died during that time period. The ensuing year or two "off the grid" of my normal life dealing with their affairs gave me time to reflect on how I could do something different that married my bifurcated "creative vs. practical" life, something that would let me integrate my business knowledge and schmooziness with something creative instead of having these two sides of myself compete. 

I wanted to do something that created community for creative people and also wanted to "invent a place" alongside other people. So I began looking at real estate for an artists' residency. I didn't know much about nonprofit organization formation, but figured if we had a property to start with that would serve as the location for a residency, then we could begin forming an organization whose members would flesh out and inform just how that would unfold. I met a landlord in Seattle, where I live, who has used his role as a landlord to "enable" small business tenants --giving them nominal rents while they build their businesses, and scaling those rents as the businesses take off. I realized there'd be a way to bootstrap the residency organization by giving it what artists want from residency - space and time to grow! 

AAC: We love that you are taking over an entire 1947 elementary school. How did you discover the property and what have been the challenges in adapting the school to a residency?

After the real estate bust in 2008-2010, a lot of really interesting commercial property was sitting on the real estate market in small towns around the Northwest -- beautiful places in waterfront towns, old mill towns, places like Astoria, Oregon, or small cities like Centralia-Chehalis.

During the real estate boom, many school districts and cities and quasi-governmental entities had sold surplussed property to investors, these properties wound up back on the market where big-fish developers wouldn't touch them and small fries like me couldn't easily finance them. You'd also see small apartment buildings and former hotels in small towns on the market, buildings that might not ever be returned to their prior use due to changing demographics of a town, but that had great bones and interesting infrastructure that would be great for a residency.

I began looking at commercial properties at the absolute bottom of the commercial property price range - a midcentury hotel on the Washington coast, a former elementary school in central Washington, a former building that had been gutted but had previously housed efficiency units for people in transition.

The former Mineral Elementary School showed up on a residential property search. I couldn't believe how big it was, that it was in a lake town, on 5 acres, and how much flexible space it offers. Two local men, one of whom is on our board, had bought the property to save it from being wrecking-balled, and they ran it as an event center geared to tourists. But the tourism season near Mt. Rainier is short and competitive, and so the school went back to the district and onto the market.

The first day I was in the building as its owner, former owner Gary walked in with a necklace around his neck bearing a Scorpio symbol and gave me a 3-hour tour of everything he'd done to the place, and then said: "How can I help?" Ever since then, we've been off to the races.

We haven't done that much to adapt the property yet - we'll eventually subdivide the large classrooms so we can have more residents, and we've put appliances back in the kitchen, and dealt with little headaches. It's kind of fine as is!

The big surprise for me with the property is that it has a "public water system" (aka, big well and septic system) which requires a bit of bureaucratic oversight. And there's a ghost who moves keys and closes doors. Otherwise, not too many surprises.

This first year you are inviting artists working in poetry and prose. What are your hopes for the initial group?

This is very much a beta-test year, and residency lengths and formats could change in the future. From a practical standpoint, we're starting with writers because they can live/work in their studio space (a classroom).

Our hope is pretty simple: That the writers who come have a productive visit, that they connect to one another, that they share their work with the community if they're feeling the spirit, and that they enjoy making Mineral their temporary home for a few weeks, enjoying some walks around town, watching the deer, or grabbing a beer at the Headquarters Tavern down the block.

We're very interested in how people respond to the space - our residency is observing residents, seeing how we can be useful to them. We have hosted dancers as a test in summer '14, and know that dance works well in our gym. The gym is also conducive to visual arts, or division into studio space, but as with dance, we want to build more relationships to that community to scan needs and formats. 

You are launching the program with an impressive three meals a day provided to resident writers. How did you find Bastyr U?

We had a lot of debate about how to feed residents this summer, and both Caitlin Strokosch and Brad Kik (Crosshatch) were really helpful in sharing ideas. While with just four people there was a case to let them feed themselves (either from a stocked fridge or let them do their own shopping and cooking), we decided to see if we could find culinary help to feed the residents.

This is for two reasons: 1) This area is very rural, and so shopping trips can be time-consuming especially for anyone with dietary restrictions. 2) While we have four residents now, the vision is to eventually host 12-20 (or even more), and so we need to learn about costing and meal service while we're still small-scale.

A writer friend told us that local holistic university Bastyr requires extensive internship hours for its masters students in culinary and nutritionist/dietetics degrees. So we reached out to see if we could invite masters students to work as "culinary interns" and were lucky to hear from two. We met a young woman who just moved back to the area to help run a nearby organic farm with her family, and who has experience teaching cooking classes and doing meal costing and planning. We consider these our "culinary residents" for whom food work is their art and we will be working with them on our food program.

This area is a classic food desert - many people who live here year-round garden and put up food and hunt, so if you dine in someone's home you eat really well, but if you are here in short-stay or tourist mode it's mostly pubs and burgers and the Sysco truck. So we're hoping that growing a relationship to local food sources and emerging farmers/nutritionists will be something that helps us build a "real job" in the kitchen while also feeding our residents well.

We were lucky to meet you at the Emerging Program Institutes in New York (2013) and Detroit (2014). How did the this influence your programming? What are you looking forward to at this year's Emerging Program Institute at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts?

The EPI has been invaluable. Wanting to launch a residency is a peculiar goal, but it was great to "geek out" with people who are doing this all around the country. I loved the idea that each residency is different, based on its founders' histories, and its mission, but most especially its physical location.

What I learned from EPI was that you have to "Just Do It." We began doing some programming in 2014 that wasn't highly analyzed - it just sort of showed up. A gallerist a town over sent a musician our way who wanted to do a house concert, and a theater in the next town introduced us to a Juillard-trained dancer who wanted to run a performance lab. We've learned a lot from those experiences.

We obviously need to introduce more process and grow our board, but seat-of-the-pants-ing it to get going feels right. At the 2015 Emerging Program Institute, we are hoping to talk more about organizational structure re: our board -- board and committees, working with skilled volunteers, strategic planning.

You can read all about the first session of residencies at Mineral School including information on the applications here