Early morning flight. Bleary eyed and dizzy from lack of sleep. We had just landed in Milwaukee to be picked up and taken to Appleton, Wisconsin. I get in the van and instantly recognize Robert Ellis in the passenger seat. The guy riding in one of the middle seats extends a hand and says his name is Daniel. He’s got a strong air of natural cool and mystery. We talk a bit, and when he’s asked what he does, he simply replies “actor, dancer and other stuff.” It’s only later when I see him doing an incredible tap routine that someone points out to me that he’s Broadway star Daniel J. Watts, who is from the original cast of “Hamilton.” “Actor, dancer and other stuff.”
We’ve all been invited to Appleton by one of its native sons, Cory Chisel, to check out a castle that was a former monastery and now an artist sanctuary known as The Refuge. When the monks moved out a few years back, Cory was entrusted with it as a means to develop an idea, a place where artists of all kinds could come, live in one of its 40 rooms for a while, and record. For free. It’s a concept that takes all of the financial burden off of the artists’ shoulders, allowing them to create without worry, and it’s all thanks to generous grants from the surrounding community.
The place is beautiful. Tucked next to the Fox River and hidden just out of sight behind the trees, there are obvious questions of hauntings — yes, this is the place where Father Theophilus Riesinger stayed, who would go on to write “The Exorcist.” Our room, a suite in the most humble of definitions, had a perfect little living area and windows surrounding the bed. On the wall is what I would describe as a Stain of the Cross, one having obviously hung there for years before the new tenants. I called it romantic. My wife called it creepy. But with the slow, rolling thunder and rain overhead, it was hard not to be swept up in the imagery.
Nostalgia was well-balanced with the absurd. Jonny Fritz/Corndawg would be seen marching around with Robert Ellis, in construction hard hats, with proclamations of: “We’re here to inspect! And fix things. All the things.” There were dozens of musicians always roaming the halls, especially since the Mile of Music Festival was happening in town, but the magic really showed itself when you wandered into the chapel. Modeled after St. Francis of Assisi, with not one single nail used, the sound is so clear that amplification is rarely needed. Just voices carrying across the room, accompanied by whatever instrument is near. It’s where the musicians make their records, and where we were treated to tearful performances from Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards, Cory Chisel and his longtime partner/baby mama Adriel Denae (who have a new duet album out), Zach Williams from The Lone Bellow and new names to me that I rushed to my phone to make notes about, like Harpooner, The Dove & The Wolf and Desert Noises. And as a perfect finale, The Blind Boys of Alabama gave us a Sunday service with an all out gospel/soul party.
I was there for only three days, but it was long enough to fall in love. With a building sure, but more so with a community and a dream. That there are people out there, people beyond just the musicians playing and creating, beyond the photographers, dancers and painters, who care so much about art that they make sure it can be made in a pure way, gives me a lot of hope in a time of bewilderment and daily face palms. With only so much time and space, not everyone can go to The Refuge, but if the story can get out, wouldn’t it be amazing if it could inspire more communities to follow suit? How great would it be to counter the world news by having a community that propped up creativity as the starting point? It’s not a pie-in-the-sky idea. It already exists and is working, hidden behind some trees next to a river and in a castle. But it could be anywhere. It would just take the right people to answer the call.