Flash back to the early 1990s, when Jay and Donna lived the bohemian lifestyle in Chicago; Jay was making sculpture from urban detritus and Donna was creating avant-garde theatrical props and scenery for special events. “At the time, we lived in a 6,000 square foot old ballroom with 30-foot-high ceilings. We realized our need for space and also realized this was an unusual situation to have access to so much affordable living and studio space in the city,” recounts Jay. When their lease for the ballroom was not renewed, the situation prompted Jay and Donna to think creatively about their next steps, which led them to their rural Wisconsin base in 1993. “We didn’t have any practical agricultural experience between us,” says Donna, “but we were driven by a desire to be more in control of our lives and the things around us. We were ready for something new.”
Donna and Jay’s passion for connecting people to the land through art now drives the Wormfarm Institute, a nonprofit organization the couple launched in 2000. Based on their Reedsburg farm, the Wormfarm Institute helps create opportunities for bridging culture and agriculture. The nonprofit drew inspiration from and helped formalize an “artist in residency” program Donna and Jay informally started in the late 1990s. Artists come to the farm for varying lengths of time, from two weeks to six months. Each contributes 15 to 20 hours a week in the garden in exchange for room and board and access to an expanding studio in the old dairy barn. Facilities include a ceramics studio and kiln, electric welding facility, foundry, a shop full of tools and a range of indoor spaces in the various outbuildings that can be used to accommodate creative work. The Wormfarm Institute can host up to four visiting artists at a time and has hosted more than 30 artists over the years, the majority sculptors and ceramic artists but painters, writers and composers as well.
“Having the artists on the farm enriches the experience for everyone,” explains Jay. A former visiting artist says it best: “While there, I was working in three different ways: creating my own paintings, contributing to local cultural projects, and helping in the garden. It was gratifying to see how the development of each of these activities was enriched by the influence of the other two. Working in the garden was essential for establishing my vital connection with the earth and to remove the feeling of being just a visitor. It was a key activity for joining with the landscape I wanted to reflect in my paintings. Ultimately, it permitted me to feel a part of what I observed and painted.”
The land itself, the rolling green pasture, hills and woods and the vibrant rainbow of colors in the garden, combined with the fact that many of these artists are more urban-based and truly out of their element in such a rural setting, provide a jolt of inspiration and lead them to powerful creative expressions. Sharing their creative work with the local community is a requirement of the residency program. Artists in residence for two months or longer must host an exhibit, performance, lecture or demonstration for the local community. They also are asked to donate a work to the Wormfarm permanent collection, which has grown to over 30 pieces of sculpture, prints and paintings. The Wormfarm space in downtown Reedsburg, The Woolen Mill Gallery, exhibits the visual artists’ work. Writers have done readings at a bookstore in nearby Baraboo. Events at the local library have featured a Cuban permaculturist and a Spanish painter. School presentations have included growing micro greens, composting and sustainable agriculture.
Another program area for Wormfarm includes creating community connections to the arts through public events and murals. One of the most successful events that sprouted through Wormfarm in 2004 and continues annually is the summer Reedikulous Puppet Festival, playing off the “Reedsburg” town name and an annual existing city event called Reedikulous Days. This wondrous event provides free, weeklong, giant puppet-making workshops and culminates in a weekend parade and performance. Such community art efforts can unexpectedly, and fruitfully, cross over with the visiting artist program.
In 2004, when the first puppet festival started, Ramon Lopez, an oil painter from Barcelona, Spain, was a visiting artist at Wormfarm. By coincidence, his hometown region is renowned for creating gegants, giant life-sized puppets that for 800 years have paraded down the streets. “Ramon admits the gegants were a ubiquitous part of his home life and he hadn’t paid much attention to them prior to coming to Wormfarm,” explains Jay. But knowing that this puppet festival was happening in Reedsburg, Ramon prepared himself and brought a photo presentation of the Catalonian festival, which he then shared through public presentations at the library and local service clubs.
With support from individuals and businesses and local, county and state grants, Wormfarm works to revitalize downtown Reedsburg through a series of community murals using the talents of local artists to graphically tell the stories of the town’s past. Each mural provides an opportunity for community and school participation and has included everyone from high school students to septuagenarians. The first mural depicted the woolen mill, which for decades served as the town’s largest industry, one that relied on a flourishing agricultural economy.
Other Wormfarm Institute programs include ways to connect the land with area youth. Artward Bound brings students and teachers from such groups as the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School in Chicago and Growing Power in Milwaukee to the farm for several days to make art, learn about sustainable agriculture and meet with area folk artists. “For some, it was their first night sleeping in a tent,” smiles Jay. Renewal Gardens, a joint project between the Wormfarm Institute and Renewal Unlimited, an area social service agency, helps young adults gain job and life skills through running a market garden. Receiving a stipend for their work and working as a team with adult mentors, these teens not only garner entrepreneurial experience but can see the end results of their efforts as their high quality, unique garden produce is sought out by high-end restaurants in the Wisconsin Dells resort area.
Renewal Gardens brings together a wide range of partners beyond the program participants and Jay and Donna, including Master Gardeners who serve as mentors and private landowners who donate garden land. “While working in the gardens, these teens not only discover better food, but they learn some of life’s larger lessons through agriculture such as patience, delayed gratification and staying focused and on task,” adds Jay.
The Wormfarm Institute evolved after Jay and Donna’s first years on the farm, during which they jumped into organic agriculture full steam but with minimal growing experience. “Our gardening experience prior to moving to the farm was basically one tomato plant in a five-gallon bucket on the fire escape,” admits Jay. Donna and Jay started a small kitchen garden the first year on the farm that quickly sparked their passion for agriculture. “I guess ignorance was our friend those first years on the farm. If we had realized what we were getting ourselves into, we probably wouldn’t have done it,” Donna says with a smile.
The couple thought they would enter semi-retirement with their decreased income needs; their farm mortgage was one third of what they used to pay in Chicago rent. But that first garden transformed their plan. “As soon as the first seeds started to sprout, we were hooked on growing things,” adds Jay. Providing a different backdrop and medium than typical art studios, Donna and Jay found the gardens a fresh creative outlet. “Instead of individual sculptures, I manipulate natural processes providing not only significant aesthetic and conceptual rewards, but good things to eat.”
Donna and Jay were early pioneers in urban-rural connections and community supported agriculture (CSA). Intrigued by the upfront payment from food shareholders, they started a CSA business in 1995 aimed at the Chicago market. Yet from the start, this creative pair put their innovative spin on agriculture. Not wanting to make the four-hour drive to Chicago to drop off weekly CSA deliveries, Neu Erth Wormfarm shareholders each committed to coming out to the farm for a weekend each season to pick up that week’s produce boxes and deliver the harvest to the Chicago
pick-up site. With a big farmhouse and more space than they personally needed, Donna and Jay converted the second floor into guest quarters for two families, including kitchen facilities for making meals. “This simple idea worked very well with us-way beyond just saving us driving time-because it provided opportunities for our shareholders to both connect with the farm and each other. Our 60 shareholders today see the farm stay as the most valuable part of their CSA package, which has resulted in very loyal members, many of whom have been with us since we started over a decade ago,” Donna explains.
With the varied Wormfarm Institute projects and daily responsibilities of the farm, Jay and Donna find their lives creatively full, enriched by the surrounding beautiful landscape and inspiring people. “My definition of success has evolved since coming to the farm,” explains Jay. “I measure success by the quality of people I interact with and the unexpected connections to community. Our projects now are off the pedestal and into the world.”