The Clearing Folk School in Ellison Bay hides away in a forest – in 128 acres of forest. Students and instructors from across the county and country, even world, come to the rustic campus to study and learn a variety of facets of the arts, the fine crafts, the humanities, and the natural sciences – from rug-hooking to photography, watercolor to gardening, bird watching to wood carving.
With all that the school offers, one may picture a busy landscape, but as I walk through the wooded trails of the campus in search of the subject of this article, I feel a little frightened that I might be the only one around for miles. As I continue walking amongst the trees and filtered sunshine, I begin to feel peaceful and relaxed. I begin to feel like signing up for a class right then and there.
Finally, I find others in the Schoolhouse building. Quilting instructor Carola McMullen teaches in the open space, bright fabrics are strewn about tables and sewing machines buzz. At the far end of the Schoolhouse is a tall peaked window overlooking the waters of Green Bay. Artist Ram Rojas stands beside scaffolding atop the railed balcony at the other end of the building, gazing over the almost completed mural with a paintbrush in hand. The mural depicts a shepherd playing a flute near a forest stream.
I climb the wooden ladder and join Rojas on the balcony. He continues to dip his brush in a wax paper cup with burgundy-colored paint, adding color to tree branches, sometimes turning his attention to a blurry colored photo stuck to the wall with Scotch tape.
“This is the only colored photo we could find of the painting,” he says, gesturing to the paper. “Mike Schneider [Executive Director of The Clearing] found it. It is a mystery as to why the original mural was destroyed.”
Rojas continues to paint as he adds, “The original painter was influenced by the Flemish, which would have appealed to the founder of The Clearing, Jens Jensen. Though we don’t know what prompted this theme, Jensen probably wanted something that reminded him of Denmark.”
The original mural was created by Vladimir Rousseff sometime during the late ‘30s and mid ‘40s. Rousseff, a Bulgarian-born artist who was growing popular in the Chicago arts scene, was a friend of Jensen.
Danish-born Jensen is a well-known American landscape architect who established the folk school after closing his Chicago-based business. The school continues his tradition of reconnecting students with nature and learning in a noncompetitive atmosphere.
Since May, Rojas has come to paint the mural approximately once a week, usually while classes are in session below him. Rojas plans to complete the painting by September 5, as it is scheduled to be unveiled on Friday, September 10.
“I am very proud to be a part of it. I think it represents a tradition they try to keep,” Rojas says of the mural. “It is very inspiring to work in this atmosphere where people are doing their creative work. There is a direct creative experience – it’s amazing what happens when a group of artists work with no grades, no competing.”
Throughout his experience recreating the mural, Rojas has been writing a blog and posting pictures of the process. (Visit http://ramrojas.com/news/.) The blog describes several elements of the process, from lighting to scale to his personal reflections. On June 23, Rojas wrote:
“The longer I paint, the more aware I become of the influence the moment itself has in painting with experience, technique and style – especially in the case of a public execution like with this mural. I am finding such a charge of positive ideas and enthusiasm by working while the watercolor class is taking place or taking a moment to listen to what the poets have written in their retreats or discussing composition and nature observation with the photography class or with the bird-watching group. I feel like I am at home here.”
Rojas was introduced to The Clearing by friend and Clearing instructor, poet Ellen Kort. Tammy Musiel, Program Director of The Clearing, remembers leading Rojas through the campus a few years ago while he was visiting with Kort: “I remembering walking them through the trails and he just got the place – you could just see, he stopped and he just absorbed it.”
This year, The Clearing celebrates 75 years, as well as Jensen’s 150th birthday. To celebrate, the school will host an open house from 1 – 4 pm on September 11, followed by a members’ banquet at 4 pm. The public is also welcome to the mural’s unveiling, taking place September 10 at 3:30 pm.
The visitor’s center is always open to the public and features a gift shop, gallery, and resources to learn more about the classes and the school. Currently the gallery features 46 pieces of artwork by various artists to be raffled off December 17.
The Clearing is located at 12171 Garrett Bay Road in Ellison Bay. The visitor’s center is open 8 am – 4 pm, Monday through Friday, with campus visiting hours from 10 am – 4 pm, Saturday and Sunday. For more information call 920.854.4088 or visit http://www.theclearing.org.
Also, check out The Clearing’s Facebook page which includes links to photos.
Ram Rojas’s studio is located at 20 Texas Street in Sturgeon Bay. For more information or to schedule an appointment to visit his studio, call 920.495.1452.