It’s a perfect October day as I pull up to The Refuge. The early signs of fall tip the green leaves in hues of gold and orange, the sky a clear blue backdrop to the former Monte Alverno Monastery. Sitting atop eleven acres of land, it’s hard to believe this is hidden within the Appleton city limits. The sound of a guitar and a lone soulful voice lead me to the chapel where I find Cory Chisel and Jon Wheelock working on a new song for Wheelock’s latest solo project, ‘Council.’
The Refuge is owned and operated by FREEA (the Fox River Environmental Education Alliance). Chisel, Vice President of FREEA, uses this space for creative endeavors for himself as well as other artists. One such endeavor includes the Artist in Residence Program, which allows artists to utilize the property for a month long stay through donations from sponsors in the community.
“The impetus for this kind of stuff,” Chisel said “has been living an artist’s life. We get to travel and have extraordinary experiences, but it’s also an exhausting life that will spread your soul very thin in a hurry. What I’ve been looking to create in Appleton is a drop-out/time-out space.”
The concept here is when you are a resident, everything you make here, you keep.
“There’s no cost whatsoever to the artist,” Chisel said. “Your room, board and whatever you need to make the thing you’d like to make…those costs are covered for you. Some people just need a place to make art, that cuts them off from the normal everyday world. There are also people that need to come to ‘refill the tank’ and be re-inspired and not have art be a demand on their time.”
The Refuge has 57 bedrooms plus a chapel, so there’s more than enough room for artists to explore their pursuits.
Wheelock, who has played bass alongside Chisel, as well as with Kyle Megna and the Monsoons and Blues Talk, is the current Artist in Residence. Of his experience at the Refuge, he notes the biggest benefit is time.
“The studio clock isn’t ticking,” Wheelock said “so there’s no sense of rushing something that isn’t there yet. That’s huge. A lot of the time when you’re in a studio, you’re being charged an hourly rate. You’re forced to get everything done right away, and that can take away from a lot of creativity.”
Chisel agrees with how difficult it can be to be, “forcefully creative,” as well produce content that’s meaningful to the artist without the marketing aspect tied in.
“There aren’t enough places where that’s the sole mission,” Chisel said “to explore your soul, and not what about you is sellable. We don’t want to have that conversation here.”
So how does someone become a resident?“Right now we have an intentionally mysterious approach to it,” Chisel said. “Along with an unnamed group spread nationwide, I work as a curator when it comes to seeking out new residents and connecting them with sponsors. The reason I keep it sort of ‘invisible’ is because everybody’s going to want this time (to be an Artist in Residence). There are certain qualities we are looking for. We are definitely looking for people who have their nose to the grind stone, and are working hard every day, and not dabbling. Those who have really taken the plunge into their life. I think that’s really what’s required to get the most out of the experience as the artist. Once you’ve been part of the artist in residency program, it’s a club you’ll belong to always. You always can come here.”
Chisel’s unorthodox approach does not go without reason.
“Some of us are in a phase where we’re just being destructive and lazy,” Chisel said “I have to be really careful that those kinds of things aren’t going on in here, so that I can be faithful to the sponsors…that these guys really are just in need of this time, space and energy and are really ready to yield and produce. I’ve been taking that into account and I collect the names of these people we think this place could be beneficial to them, and to the donors I say, ‘Which one of these people would you be most excited to call and say ‘We see you working hard, struggling and we want to help you.’?”
Mile of Music helped open the door for Chisel to find sponsors for this project.
“To start, I personally talked to people I knew in the community,” he said “who have said, ‘We love what you’re doing with Mile of Music, we’d like to participate with more things as they come in the future. Let me know what you’re thinking or dreaming.’”
In addition to sponsorship, events at the Refuge contribute to this program.
“We’re trying to have an event a month,” Chisel said “and all of that essentially goes to the bottom line of operating the place so it can stay free and open for our artists to use it. If you’re coming to any of our events, none of that money goes to me or the individual artist. It goes to the collective whole.”
Indeed, Wheelock, the current Artist in Residence hopes to put on an event at the end of his residency in the form of a show or a listening party.
“I’m a little wary of it,” Wheelock said “but I’m excited. I want to lay down good music. I’ve never had a chance to work on anything of my own, I’ve always been the hired bass player. This is my first chance where this is my thing. Right now it’s all in pre-production.”