To get to the elusive Mildred’s Lane, in Beach Lake, Pennsylvania, one must drive 100 miles northwest of Manhattan, moving from the highway to increasingly poorly-marked roads; then to dirt roads, and finally a hand-drawn sign for a half-mile-long driveway through woods and ferns. On the other side is a sloping clearing dotted with small buildings, finished and unfinished artistic and architectural projects, one newly constructed residence, and a slumping two-story home that dates to the 1830s.
Says J. Morgan Puett, Mildred’s Lane’s proprietor, “Some of my local friends who have worked here tell a story about a portal along the lane, and that once they have passed through it, they have looked at each other with wonder and remarked that they don’t have any idea what time it is, what day it is, what year it is—it may be another country or planet…”
Once you’re there, wrapping one’s head around Mildred’s Lane aim is another challenge. To co-founders and co-directors J. Morgan Puett and Mark Dion, however, Mildred’s Lane is at once an ongoing experiment in pedagogy, a social space, a site for artistic and architectural intervention, a residency program, and home to Puett and her son with Dion, Grey Rabbit. Perhaps Mildred’s Lane’s resistance to definition lies in its founders’ tenacity in reimagining artistic practice, social space, and education, and how these can relate to one another. In a time when Masters of Fine Art programs are simultaneously overflowing with applications and also shifting in scope and relevance in tandem with that of the art market, Mildred’s Lane’s amorphous sensibility seems particularly sensitive its broader art world context.
Retelling the history of Mildred’s Lane and its founders perhaps best translates the project’s ethos. Known for environmentally conscious artwork that employs the aesthetics of scientific presentation, Dion exhibits in international galleries and museums, and teaches at Columbia University’s Visual Arts department. Puett, an artist who works against traditional notions of professionalized artistic practice, notably crosses fashion and installation art, opening retail eponymous retail locations across downtown Manhattan throughout the 1990s. There she sold clothing of her own creation and regularly held exhibitions and events in its basement. “The stores were event spaces as well as installation projects in constant flux where clothing emerged out of projects, and ‘things’ and ‘people’ were omnipresent,” remembers Puett. “There were dinners, presentations, collaborations all with friends/artists.”
Puett and Dion at times migrated upstate to the house of Puett’s brother, Garnett, an artist and beekeeper, in the Delaware River Valley. There they entertained friends, colleagues and students, merging research presentations and performances with dinners and nature walks.
The couple purchased the location at Mildred’s Lane with artists Renee Green and Nils Norman from the longtime owners of the property, in 1997. “The name [Mildred’s Lane] grew out of the earlier events on-site, and importantly, after the remarkable old woman who lived her entire life here, Mildred Steffens,” explains Puett. “Mildred lived here alone for decades after her common law husband, Vincent Miller died. She lived an everyday existence that would usually never become celebrated.” Steffens died in 1987, and the site was preserved “as if she had never left.”
In subsequent years Green and Norman have withdrawn. Puett and Dion continue to re-imagine the possibilities of family life, although they no longer live as a couple. Says Puett, “The more recent evolution of the project grew out of our desire to find new ways to share, our family was changing, Mark and I had [a son] Grey Rabbit, then later the need to have a family space through all its natural shifts and turns.” They began inviting younger artists-in-residence to help develop the site. “At some point,” she says, Mildred’s Lane became a “naturally, co-evolving shift into the home as a shared experience.”
The increasingly frequent student visits to Mildred’s Lane gave rise to the need for financial support. “We had to figure out a way to feed everybody!” says Puett. Thus, the need for the institution of a funded residency program arose. Began in the summer of 2008, the Mildred’s Lane residency program provides a practical vehicle for Dion and Puett to enact their teaching style extending beyond the institution to real life, mentor-based relationships. Both Puett and Dion-who understand their professional and artistic practice as ineluctably bound with other more personal facets of their lives-think of domestic space as a site for major personal transformation, and consequent artistic maturity. Currently, the residency program takes place in topic-driven, 3-week increments taught by one artist or series of visiting scholars. Lecture topics range from forest foraging to the history of the Wunderkammer (one of Dion’s fields of expertise) to student presentations on their artistic practice.
Life at a Mildred’s Lane residency isn’t always pretty. Fellows are expected to take part in a variety of daily chores such as mopping and composting, and fellow are just as likely to wash dishes with a curator as they are to get a studio visit. (Which is to say, fairly likely.) Uniquely, Puett stresses “comportment,” or one’s behavior in relation to meeting fellow students, visiting scholars and well-known artists and art professionals, as well as taking care of oneself and the property itself. She dubs this system “workstyles.” Puett explains, “Workstyles is an experiential making-doing-thinking process with our fellows, friends and visitors. It is rigorous and creative domesticating as a highly intuitive aestheticism of all things at all times, in every aspect of life.” Notably, Puett is known to “hoosh,” or aesthetisize all components of her home, from her library to her refrigerator. “But more, it is about caring for each other and about the topics that drive us, which brings us more closely together in other aspects of our lives.”
Physical labor is part of the program, too. For their most recent residency session titled Town and Country—a program that investigates the inherent contradictions of manifesting rural art colonies, or bohemias springing out of cosmopolitan cities—students from the Museum School in Boston worked to create a true to scale replica of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond which will be installed among a larger exhibition focusing on the program, titled Renovating Walden, at Boston’s Tufts University Art Gallery. Such a session provides the unusual cohesion of physical labor, networking, and inclusion in a university exhibition.
Here professional opportunities for younger artists arise casually and often socially, perhaps more closely replicating true-to-life scenarios. Arguably, these skills aren’t proffered in standard graduate programs, although admittedly, one won’t have to wash dishes there, either. Where and how does learning of most significance take place? How does a mentor most appropriately prepare their students to “leave the nest” of art school?