by Lindsey Drager
June 13 – 27, 2023
Upon my arrival to what would be a short residency at The Volland Foundation, as I was taking the curves of Old K-10 Road from downtown Alma to Volland while still getting used to my rental car and worried about arriving late, I noticed that the road—recently paved in some places—was erupting with pockets of butterflies. At first I thought it must be some other insect—mayflies, maybe, or dragonflies—because the butterflies almost seemed to swarm. Clouds of them lifted from the road as I made the curves through the rolling prairie. My concern about the car and being on time dissipated as I puzzled at the sight. I hadn’t yet arrived and the place already seemed phantasmic and surreal.
I did not know it then but watching those butterflies hover and dance on the road was the initiation ceremony of what would become a truly astonishing two-week experience as an artist-in-residence at Volland. I had come here with the hope of wrapping up my current book project, a novel that uses astronomer Johannes Kepler’s 1609 short fable The Dream to expose the porous borders between technology and artmaking, empirical evidence and “felt” truths, the narratives we author and the belief systems we adopt. By averaging eight hours of writing a day, in between chats with fellow artists, a daily morning run to the end of Volland Road, and taking in the extraordinary wildlife and natural beauty of the Flint Hills, I was able to finish that novel sitting on the front porch of the Little House a mere twelve hours before my residency ended. But I am leaving Volland with much more than just a completed manuscript. I am leaving with a new way of seeing, an altered perspective about everything, really—from sustainable land use practices to the transcendent power of watching the sunset each evening alone. My residency at the Volland Store has been truly transformative, not just in the development of this project but also in cultivating a worldview that is open, accepting, and curious about the present, the future, and the past.
My time has been spent with three other artists: visual artists Alex Robinson and Andy Webster and historian and musician Derrick Doty. We were lucky to have intersected during this summer session because our work seems to speak to each other. We are all, to varying degrees, interested in folktales and word-of-mouth stories, eco-art and environmental activism, as well as the changing night sky. The other artists are here for a full month, but as I had only two weeks, I wanted desperately to make the most of my time.
And with the help and guidance of Patty Reece and Ryan Jones, I did. We were treated to a private tour of the Wabaunsee Country Historical Museum, offered access to the Alma branch of the public library, and showed the best spot to take a dip in the creek when it gets too hot. We were invited to dinner at the home of the Wigglesworths where we learned about the extraordinary practice of sheep grazing, took a tour of the prairie to study the native grasses, and heard Elizabeth’s life story, from working on her first loom as a child to her success making rugs in New York to her experience collaborating with communities to establish weaving programs across the globe. We were then treated to a fantastic meal of locally sourced produce and K State ice cream. (I think I speak for all the artists when I say that ice cream can’t be matched.) We had an opportunity to speak with the poet Mary Pinard who told us about how to be open to the possibilities of Volland and shared with us her artistic process composing a play last year, commissioned by the Volland Foundation and performed in The Ruin by local citizens, some of whom had never acted before. Through all of these experiences, I found myself in awe of this place, not just as I collected a long catalog of local wildlife (collared lizards, small-mouthed salamanders, eastern wild turkeys, and—of course—eight different species of butterfly) but also as I came to a new understanding of the relationship between storytelling, community, and the prairie.
Jerry Wigglesworth summarized this idea most eloquently. He told us that he and Elizabeth are trying to listen to the land, understand what it is communicating to them and then find ways to respond. This might be the most valuable lesson I learned in my short time at Volland—that ecosystems are dialogic and cooperative. They are not places you visit but spacio-temporal engagements in which you participate.
Patty herself seems to have endeavored in a similar project when she came upon the remnants of the Volland and revitalized it, turning it from an interesting local landmark to a thriving art space and cultural center for the community of the Flint Hills. Derrick, Alex, Andy, and I have seen this revitalization firsthand. In just two weeks, as I was sitting on the porch of the Little House reworking the themes and motifs of this novel, reorganizing the structure and plot, rethinking which characters would surface as central and which would stay on the sidelines, the Volland Store hosted a food fest, an author’s reading, a model T show, and a gallery event for the current exhibit on display. Somehow, we discovered, this place is both quiet and private enough to get enormous degrees of quality work done, while also serving as a lively site of public-facing creative conversation.
I could say more: about Derrick’s encyclopedic knowledge of Kansas history; about Alex’s interest in messaging systems and forms of communication that transcend a single language or nationality; about discussions with Andy ranging from the potency of humor in political activism to train travel in the US versus the UK to whether or not your mid-30s is too early for a midlife crisis (we decided it is not). I could say more about Derrick’s fiddle and banjo playing, Alex’s experiments with quilting, and Andy’s dirt-powered batteries. I could say more about how we laughed during shared dinners and watched lightening bugs on the porch of the Grimm-Schultz Farmstead and waved as we passed one another conducting our work—creating our art—all over the Volland grounds.
I could say more but I won’t because while there is plenty to say about my time at Volland, so much of the experience is about what you feel. It is a place to be experienced viscerally, in a fully embodied way, so that you hear mourning doves cooing in the afternoon and crickets chirping at dusk, feel the train shaking the earth as it passes just yards from The Ruins, see the way the light falls on the prairie grass in the morning differently than at night so that it seems to change color. I am leaving with a finished novel, but I am also—perhaps more so—leaving with a renewed appreciation for place and people and art and exchange, for the richness and vastness of human and nonhuman creativity.
And while we tried—while we researched and consulted others—we were never able to fully solve the mystery of the butterflies. We threw around some theories about brood hatchings and migration, even that perhaps it was the tar on the roads attracting them. But in the end it still remains something of an enigma, as some aspects of the natural world are. And maybe—as Johannes Kepler would argue—should remain.
Entangled in enigma is also precisely how I am leaving this residency. I came thinking I knew precisely what I needed to get done here and I came with an agenda to complete it. But I am leaving in a state much less sure of myself and what I think I know. I am leaving having learned some and unlearned some, as I watched a thunderstorm from miles and miles away on the horizon grow closer until it was upon me, as I listened to the shifting tones and registers of the coyotes howling at night, as I read about Kepler struggling to come to terms with the fact that the sun was the center of the universe, not the earth. I am leaving gloriously bewildered and deeply mystified and fully in awe of the raw magic of connection and proximity—to others, to art, and to the world.