Ragdale: New Book on the Lake Forest Retreat

When Susan Tillett, executive director of Ragdale, the artists’ colony in Lake Forest, was challenged at a leadership institute to consider her legacy, she immediately envisioned a book.

Three years later, on her tenth anniversary at the helm of the fourth largest artists’ colony in the United States, “The Ragdale House Speaks” is a reality.

The beautiful book glows with colorful pictures on glossy stock by Ragdale artist Sarah Hadley, who came from Los Angeles four times during the previous year to capture the house and environment in every season. “She would watch the light and start shooting when she thought it was right,” Tillett observes.

Tillett was sitting in her sun-drenched office in the barn house, adjacent to the Arts and Crafts style residence, built in 1897 by architect Howard Van Doren Shaw as summer home for his family on 55 acres of prairie on Green Bay Road.

Knitting the photos together are Tillett’s words, chronicling the history of the house and punctuated with comments she chose from the house log written by resident artists. They have been arriving by the dozen every two weeks, 12 months of the year, since 1976 when Alice Ryerson Hayes turned her grandfather’s home into a haven for writers, painters, photographers and composers and other creative artists.

Tillett’s radiant smile embodies a spirit of welcome that greets the arriving artists and also expresses her affection for the historic site. “The first time I visited Ragdale, I had the experience of falling head-over-heels in love,” she says. “That was years before I became executive director.”

Tillett says her job description encompasses “doing everything,” including her self-assigned task of reading books by Ragdale authors. Dozens of volumes line special blue shelves in her office and she admits she’ll probably never read them all. “But I’ll never stop trying,” she says, with another of her trademark smiles.

The facility operates on an incredibly modest budget of $750,000 with a staff of eight. Ragdale conducts two annual fund-raisers, which together net about $100,000.

She produced the book while overseeing an ongoing $3 million renovation for the original house, which will reopen in 2012. “I have the most wonderful job,” she says. “Every day is different and every two weeks I meet a whole new group of creative people. What could be better than that?”

To purchase “The Ragdale House Speaks” for $45, plus shipping and handling, call 847-234-1063, ext. 201.