A Book Party!

Book Project cover

Book cover

Not too long ago (June, to be exact), my friend Mary Faino and I released a book through her small press, Paper Mermaid Press.

It’s called A Day in Rockport, and highlights some of the gems, hidden and otherwise, of this coastal New England village. Mary illustrated the book and I wrote the text. It was a bit of a backwards process — usually the text comes first in children’s books. But in this case, I think it works, as the illustrations are so lush they practically speak for themselves.

Mary and I have been meeting together over the last few years, partly to work on the book and partly to drink tea and talk about Rockport, and even beyond, if we’re feeling cosmopolitan.

We would love to have you join us this weekend at Mary’s shop, The Paper Mermaid, 57 Main Street in Rockport, for a Book Party! Lots of treats, framed prints from the book, a Scavenger Hunt, and a book reading (don’t worry, the book is a short one) will be part of the fun.

Hope to see you there!

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Woman to Woman: a Dinner in Honor of the Sargent House

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Bear with me here, because we’re about to go on a wild ride through the field of Women’s Studies. Not exactly the usual fodder for this blog. Actually, it’s not that the ride is wild so much as it is complicated by a thicket of various historical figures of local importance and beyond, who are related to each other not by blood but by inclination. And houses figure prominently in this narrative, which is the usual fodder for this blog, so in the end I’m not that far afield.

Here on Cape Ann, there is a historic house called the Sargent House Museum, built in 1782 for Judith Sargent Murray, a member of a very prominent family of the era, whose life encompassed not only the American Revolution but an attempt at a domestic revolution of sorts. Mrs. Murray was the first woman writer of status and position (even if she signed her essays under an assumed name for the sake of credibility and anonymity) to call attention to the matter of equality of the sexes in her essay, published in Massachusetts Magazine in 1790 and fittingly titled…The Equality of the Sexes.

The importance of Judith Sargent Murray to academics — and the rest of us — seems to be gaining recognition at a rapid pace, and the Sargent House Museum board and staff are working hard to perpetuate this recognition, honoring her legacy through the ongoing preservation of her beautifully intact house. Which brings us to the present day, in which, not long ago, an auction was held to raise funds for the museum.

Heather Atwood, food writer and grand dame (in waiting, since she’s not old enough to qualify just yet) of her own historic house, Howlets, offered to throw a dinner party as one of the items on auction. So the fundraiser took place, and the winning bidder was Mary Ann McCormick, local entrepreneur, founder of Lark Fine Foods — an award-winning company making baked goods that go beyond anything your grandmother made in deliciousness and beauty. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth.

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Heather, sweeping up in preparation

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David, laying the fire for a chilly evening in November

So here is where we are so far:

Writer Judith Sargent Murray of the Sargent House to writer Heather Atwood of Howlets and businesswoman Mary Ann McCormick, purveyor of Lark Fine Foods.

But wait! There’s more! In between the two hundred years that separate the Mrs. Murray and the Ms. Atwood, two other women figure into the story.

Howlets, the historic home that Heather lives in with her family, was built by in 1911 by Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle de Veaux Clements, two well-regarded artists who created everything from oil paintings to etchings to sculpture. These women defined independent living, from studying with the world’s great artists to selling their work (never an easy task unless you’re dead or Jeff Koons) to building a summer house and studio of massive granite pieces that could withstand an apocalypse. Ellen Day Hale and Gabrielle Clements lived the sort of lives that Judith Sargent Murray imagined might be possible for women, each succeeding generation building on the work of the ones who came before to create opportunities for us today, granite block by granite block.

Judith Sargent Murray, Ellen Day Hale & Gabrielle Clements, Heather Atwood & Mary Ann McCormick…the Sargent House to Howlets…two centuries of strong women and historic houses. See how this works? If not, here’s a chart that might help.

TRHsargenthousetimeline

This might all seem a little overblown, to make a connection between a woman writing an essay over two hundred years ago and a dinner party I went to last weekend. But it doesn’t take much of an imagination to see a (fairly) straight line stretching backwards between now and then.

Speaking of now, and of this dinner party, which is what I’m really writing about…my role in all of this is that Heather asked me to come up with something for the table. A tablescape, in House Beautiful magazine terms — a made-up name I despise but one I am gradually giving into using, as its ubiquity seems inevitable. Like the word awesome. Not a made-up word but used to the point of meaninglessness, as so few things are truly awesome, other than God and certain cheeses. But yet, since the ’90s, I have said and typed awesome around four million times. But about the tablescape.

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The Federalist period was invoked with lots of gold accents at the table. For place cards I printed an image of a beautiful portrait of Judith Sargent Murray on vellum so the light from the votive candles came through, illuminating Mrs. Murray herself.

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And for the centerpiece: four vintage frames were attached to form a square with the main flower arrangement placed in the center. As part of the arrangement, an image of the Sargent House was printed, again on vellum, and placed inside a few of the frames.

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The flowers were decaying hydrangeas in the most amazing reddish hue and lots of branches, gathered together in an untidy bundle. The colors of the leaves, the ones that are still clinging to the branches, have been so intense this year. I don’t recall a more spectacular fall. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and make these sorts of observations.

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The little handmade book

As a keepsake for Mary Ann, I created a little book that featured portraits of Judith Sargent Murray, Gabrielle Clements and Ellen Day Hale, along with a tiny copy of one of J.S.M’s letters. Just one of her many, many letters. She copied and saved 2,500 of her own letters, putting them into “letter books” with an eye toward posterity.

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The restored window in the studio, set nearly three stories high

At the party, later that evening…

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Judith Sargent Murray, alight for the occasion

MA McCormick

Mary Ann, the generous winning bidder of the dinner party.

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One of the vintage frames

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Heather’s homemade bread, her husband David’s selection of wine

One more note: about the food Heather made for the party… It was unbelievable, from the trays of tiny cold radishes with oyster-something-dip at the beginning of the evening to the quince tart (served as a nod to the old quince tree in yard of the Sargent House) which brought the meal to a close, it was all amazing. Awesome, actually.

If you have the chance to go to a dinner served by a food writer, go to that dinner party. Especially if that food writer happens to be a woman. Because we all know that the ladies can do wonders in a kitchen. And far, far beyond.

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Obsessions: One Rock at a Time

The fact is: most of us will enter and leave this world without making much of a mark beyond the circle of our immediate friends and family. In light of this, it is startling to drive to a nondescript street in Springfield, Ohio — the city where my brother lives with his family — and wander around the backyard of 1905 Russel Avenue, the former home of Ben Hartman, who died in 1944, and see the mark this foundry worker made, which has now outlasted the span of his lifetime by several decades.

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Laid off from his job in 1932, Ben Hartman began fiddling with building things from cement and small stones in his backyard to keep busy. Even after he went back to work in 1937, he kept building and building and building, extending his scope from the original project of a cement fishing pond to creating dozens of structures and little figures with patriotism, religion, historical events and historical places as his themes. After Ben Hartman died his wife Mary tended the rock garden, which also included extensive flower beds, for the next 53 years. Mary encouraged visitors to stroll along Ben’s concrete paths — many of which he embedded with messages spelled out in small stones — just outside her back door. Mary passed away in 1997 and the rock garden began to fall into disrepair until 2008, when the amazing Kohler Foundation stepped in and restored the gardens, transferring ownership to the non-profit Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden, now responsible for maintaining the site.

One of the many great aspects of the Kohler Foundation’s restoration is that they kept the spirit of the garden intact, offering interpretive materials for anyone who wants them, but avoiding the sense that this is some sort of rarified museum experience and clobbering the viewer with the site’s significance. The Hartman Rock Garden is true folk art, which by definition means it exists outside of the Academy, and what a relief that is, at least in this case.

The Garden gives the same feeling to a visitor today that it offered to someone strolling through the site decades ago: the strange, almost eerie sensation of stumbling onto a tiny plot in a random place that somehow manages to contain a world of beauty, sadness and moral certainty — an entire world created by a single man, one rock at a time.

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Sun setting behind the garden

The Cathedral

A depiction of a store in Springfield

Fort Dearborn in tiny stones

Tiny rock garden cemetary

a huge wall built of tiny stones

Door to the Cathedral

classical architecture in the backyard

Sidewalk words, buried by the snow

Noah's Ark

Cupola in the snow

Hart. Man.

the garden at sunset

God. Country. Church.

I visited the Hartman Rock Garden after a snowfall, which gave everything a monochromatic quality, heightening the almost universal grayness of the world in winter. In another season the garden, like the world itself, is a much more colorful place, and I plan to view it again in a different light altogether.  For more extensive information on the Hartman Rock Garden, photos of Ben Hartman and more, check out the garden’s website, hartmanrockgarden.org

Favorite Finds: Handmade Stamp Collage

Look at what I found at a yard sale a few weeks ago: someone took the time to carefully cut up postage stamps, most of them cancelled 20 and 22-cent stamps, and arrange them by color to create a collage of a visit to a park, ca. 1910. I made up the circa, but if you look at the clothing of the characters in the picture, the outfits convey an early 20th century feel with inflections of Mary Poppins. While the stamps are United States issue, the composition is certainly filled with British-isms, complete with the figure of a bobby gravely overseeing a little girl free of a parental gaze. The details get better and better the more you look at the picture, from the Chinese lanterns to the ticket seller to the nanny with a pram and a dog. The best part is, the entire collage is composed within the framework of a stamp itself, serrated edges and all — creating a composition worthy of the US Postal System.

This, frankly, is why pawing through other people’s cast off junk is worth it. Because every once in a while you encounter something that links you to the past — even if, as it is in this case, the past is just the mid-1980s when these stamps were issued —  in a way that restores your spirit in the ability of human beings to create the good life, piece by tiny piece.

The Pop-up Shop is Open!

We’re up and running through May 13th at the Tusinski Gallery, 2 Main Street in Rockport. Karen Tusinski, the artist-owner at the gallery, hosts a show every April in conjunction with Earth Day, and this year she opened her space up to The Roving Home.

Our pieces are a great fit with the idea behind Earth Day, one of appreciating our planet’s resources, and by extension, conserving these resources. We take the old and, in a sense, make it new again by presenting it in a fresh light. Of course this has always been done — antiques shops are not a new concept — but the difference now is that old stuff doesn’t have to be valuable to be valued, if you know what I mean. People are catching on to the fact that vintage pieces add depth and patina to a home, and vintage doesn’t mean fine antiques. It can mean a collection of humble milk glass, or a cast iron gooseneck lamp — the type of lamp that was at every work desk in every factory in America for decades. These seemingly insignificant items provide a real connection to the past. And even better, they’re still functional. (Yet another reason to keep them around.)

Some of the pieces in the show are old items, pulled apart and re-worked into genuine originals, like our handpainted taxidermy boxes. And other pieces in the show are re-worked ideas from our collective domestic and decorative past. Such as the chinoiserie panel that is hand painted over a base coat of chalkboard paint so that the colors of the design could be changed according to whim, the owner able to interact with the piece in a way that traditional hand painted chinoiserie wall coverings do not encourage.

We had a little party to kick off the shop; a few friends contributed their talents by making deviled eggs and red velvet-esque cupcakes — both old fashioned culinary delights that are back in vogue. My husband made a brutal batch of Haymaker’s Switzel, a drink designed to put some pep in your step back in the 19th century. Here in the 21st I don’t think we have the stomach for it. (Some things are better left un-recycled.)

Here are a few shots from the shop’s opening, thanks to friend-of-The-Roving-Home Carolyn Mohr!

One of the gallery windows. The light is built from a reclaimed beam and massive cable.

Handpainted taxidermy in vintage box. The photography light is part of a set of three from the 1940s.

Like all good hipsters, we listened to records while looking over the recycled glass bottle lanterns.

Checking out the Dollhouse Project in front of a wall of snapshots in vintage frames detailing our obsession with our possessions.

The living room in the dollhouse, with its Dorothy Draper inspired interior.

The sign for the pop up shop.

Haymaker’s Switzel, a hair-raising ginger infused drink, with vintage glassware on a vintage tray.

A large vintage photo print of elephants, taken on safari, and other manly-themed elements on the gallery wall.

Resources: Glorious Destruction

image: Valerie Hegarty

Having experienced the strange annihilation of a house fire, the work of artist Valerie Hegarty in this show at Guild & Greyshkul really resonates. The weird negative space left after a fire — suddenly there is no there there — is only compounded by encountering the bits that are left, many of them altered into versions of themselves that still manage to be recognizable. The same, yet absolutely different.

The pieces in this show function as a sort of symbol of what happens to us after we undergo a transformative experience. As a culture, we may try to psychologize our way into understanding life-altering moments by giving our post-whatever selves a diagnosis and a whole lot of pills, but ultimately, we just choose between moving forward or not. You may not be able to fix any of the pieces in this exhibit of Valerie Hegarty’s work , but you can’t stop marveling at them, because they are so beautiful.

image: Valerie Hegarty

image: Valerie Hegarty