Looking for a way to spice up your table this summer? These fish pinch pots ($44 for a set of four) from Jobi Pottery are sure to be welcome additions to any home. Hand-made in a variety of colors and glazes reminiscent of vintage Fiestaware dishes, these bowls are adorned with one or two hand-painted, whimsical fish at the bottom. The pinch pots are perfect for sushi condiments, desktop organizers, organizing jewelry, or as a decoration. Each bowl is made by Susan Urtzman in her Truro studio, using original molds from the shop’s beginnings in the 1950s. Jobi Pottery also makes matching mugs, dinner plates, mugs, serving bowls, sushi plates, and more. To see the rest of the collection, visit www.jobipottery.com.
Stephan Connor is a luthier. If your hands know their way around six strings, you already know what that title means—he makes guitars. But more accurately, the Falmouth resident makes classical guitars for world-class musicians like Angel Romero, Eliot Fisk, and many others. And much in the same way that making music requires more than plucking strings, shaping a guitar is more than simple woodworking: Connor’s craft innately blends art, music, physics, and soul to create instruments that bear his label. Connor spoke with Cape Cod Life about his start in this esoteric craft, why the view from his Cape Cod workshop beats that of his former studio, and the excitement of hearing notes soar from a new guitar for the first time. Read more…
Tucked away on a quiet piece of farmland in West Tisbury, Martha’s Vineyard Glassworks buzzes with activity. Glass artists hone their craft in the hot shop, shaping and coloring the glass to their liking, as customers mill about the gallery, browsing the wares and inquiring about the pieces being made before their eyes. According to gallery co-owner and head glassblower Mark Weiner, this unique customer experience helps set Glassworks apart from other studios. Read more…
Susan Black knows all about longing for people and places left behind. Although she lives in Colorado now, part of her heart will always be on Nantucket. “Nantucket is my second home,” says Black, who moved to Boulder year-round several years ago after living there on and off for decades. The 51-year-old explains that a tragedy brought her to Colorado full-time. “I have a niece and nephew there who I love dearly. They are my brother’s children—he passed away nine years ago,” she says.
It seems appropriate, somehow, that Black’s business should be based on a historic longing of travelers for treasured places. She sells Nantucket Sailors’ Valentine kits on-line and in specialty shops. When you type Nantucket Sailors’ Valentines Kits into a Google search, her company, www.nantucketsailorsvalentinekits.com, appears first at the top of the page.
For several years, Black lived on Nantucket, having come to the island for the first time as a twenty-something. Later on in life, she moved to the island year-round and eventually became a substitute teacher at the Cyrus Pierce Middle School.
Black’s first venture in to Nantucket crafts started when she taught herself to make Nantucket baskets. Fascinated by the iconic island craft that is still very much in vogue today, she studied the baskets before diving into the difficult, time-consuming process of creating a basket from scratch. “I taught myself to make the Nantucket baskets and I made a bunch of them for fun,” says Black, who obviously has a talent for focusing in on a project and sticking to it despite setbacks and the occasional failure. “When the baskets were done, I brought them to the island’s Folk Art Fair.”
An impressed relative commissioned Black to create a 30-inch basket for a coffee table. “It was quite a project,” says Black. “I couldn’t find anyone on the island to make me the mold I wanted and surprisingly, I found someone in Colorado to make me the mold. But I made the basket handles and the rims by myself, finding the wood, soaking it, and bending it into shape.”
It is obvious that this is a craftsperson with a logical, business-like head on her shoulders. When she is asked if she considers herself a talented person with artistic ability, she laughs. “I’m kind of middle-of-the-road crafty,” says Black. “But I get into something and just kind of do it all the way.”
In 2005, Black was on Nantucket with a friend visiting her two sisters who still live on the island year-round. While showing the friend some of the island’s attractions, including the Nantucket Historical Association’s (NHA) Whaling Museum, Black became enamored of Sailors’ Valentines.
“We went to the NHA’s whaling museum shop,” says Black. “We saw an octagonal cloth covered object and we thought—gosh, I wonder if this a kit where you can make your own sailors valentines!” The pair quickly realized that they were looking at a book by avid sailors’ valentine collector, John Fondas. Still, the chance encounter sparked an idea for a new business. “I turned to Donna and said with your art background and my business and art background —why don’t we start a sailors’ valentines kit business?”
After a month of careful research, including learning about the sizes and sources for shells around the world, the best wood and size for a glass-fronted box, the intricacies of packaging and shipping the kits, and the designs that have endured since homesick sailors first crafted valentines for their loved ones, Nantucket Sailors’ Valentines Kits was born.
Black explains there are a handful of traditional sailors’ valentines themes usually seen at such places as the Sanibel, Florida annual Shell Fair, where elaborate sailors’ valentines are on display. “The designs really haven’t changed all that much,” says Black. “There is usually an all-white valentine as well as ones with a star theme, a heart theme, one with a pink rosette in the center; these are your traditional sailors valentines’ themes. Also, many valentines have a photo at the center, or a piece of scrimshaw.”
Working with her friend who is a graphic artist, Black created the designs, composed an easy-to-follow instruction book, ordered shells from around the world, and at the end of 2005, launched her kits at the Nantucket Christmas Stroll Craft Fair. She quickly realized that although each of her kits contains dozens of carefully separated shells, a beautiful hand-crafted octagonal wooden shadow box with a glass front (8 3/4 inches) and brass hinges, two carefully written instruction books, glue, and more, the price tag was a little high for off-the-street customers.
“It’s true that the kits are a little pricey—$125.00 each,” says Black. “We realized that we probably weren’t going to sell many at craft fairs. So we turned to one or two high-end shops—and the Internet.” It was on the Internet that Nantucket Sailors’ Valentines Kits began to take off in the company’s second year of business—and since then, sales have doubled every single year. “I think that’s pretty encouraging for the kind of business we are in—a really specialized business,” says Black, who notes that since 2006, she has been the sole owner of the business.
Over the years, Black has refined her product carefully, evaluating what works and what doesn’t and encouraging customers to give her honest feedback. On her easy-to-navigate web-site, quotes from happy customers from around the world are testament to the company’s success. The kits are also sold at the Leslie Linsley shops on Nantucket and on Charles Street in Boston. Black is also introducing a line of classy, yet reasonably-priced paperweights ($20) with nautical themes in 2010.
When she is asked what her ultimate wish is for her company, Black laughs. “Well, to be honest, when I started this business my true goal was to build something like this—and then sell it,” says Black. “But you know, I am having such fun with this that I’m just going to keep going. I’m just enjoying running this great home-based business, where I count seashells for a living in the Rocky Mountains.”
For information on Nantucket Sailors’ Valentines, go to www.nantucketsailorsvalentinekits.com or call 508 292-3502.
Cape and Islands’ sources for Nantucket Sailors Valentines
Gayle Condit, www.sailorvalentines.com, 508 896-6194. Gayle Condit is an award-winning Cape artisan whose sailors valentines can be purchased at European Traditions Antiques, Nantucket, Chatham Art Gallery, Chatham, Edgartown Scrimshaw Gallery, Edgartown, and Kindred’s, Osterville.
Kindreds, www.kindredsantiquesandfolkart.com, 845 Main Street, Osterville, 508 420-7390. Kindreds carries sailors valentines by Gayle Condit as well as a wide range of arts and crafts by Cape and Islands’ artisans.
Theresa Labrecque, www.labrecque.com, 774-323-0333. Theresa Labrecque is a talented artist and painter who also designs and sells Nantucket Sailors Valentines. Her work was featured in the 2010 ART of the Cape & Islands, a Cape Cod Life Publication.
Sandy Moran, www.sailorsvalentinestudio.com, 508 362-8410. Sandy Moran, of Yarmouthport, has won numerous awards around the country for her sailors’ valentines, which are sold on Cape Cod and the Islands, including at Osterville’s Oak and Ivory. Moran’s valentines have been featured on PBS and in many national and regional magazines.
Scrimshander Gallery, www.scrimshandergallery.com, 38 Centre Street, Nantucket, 508- 228-1004. The Scrimshander Gallery is owned by professional scrimshander and artist, Michael Vienneau, who sells completed sailors valentines and also handcrafts scrimshaw centerpieces for sailors valentine construction. The shop also carries model ships, ivory displays and basket tops.
At the sound of the bell jangling against the door, Betsy Powel emerges from the work room of a renovated 1913 schoolhouse in South Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Sporting a well-worn apron, her cheek is streaked with paint, and a few strands of hair escape from her long braid. She plants her hands on her hips, no time for preamble. “Well, what do you want to know?”
What most visitors to Salt Marsh Pottery want to know is how 65-year-old Betsy makes beautiful pottery. Her bowls and plates are imprinted with delicate flowers and adorned with wisps of baby’s breath and wild grasses; some of the flowers are even plucked right from the workshop’s front porch. The pottery draws inspiration from whimsical forms of sea life, and Betsy’s talents have drawn a devoted following from far and wide. For that, she has her father to thank.
Betsy’s father, Bill Vinton, was raised in a Baptist missionary family and lived in Burma until the age of six. He worked various odd jobs: touring the world as a piano player fundraising for the mission, running a summer camp, and other offbeat tasks. While visiting Fryeburg, Maine, despite his confession that he knew nothing about using clay, he was swayed into teaching a pottery course. He quickly developed a signature technique: by draping clay over well-worn river stones, and then pressing strawberry leaves and wildflowers that he found by the side of the river into it, he made something new. The imprints were then painted, sometimes to match the original stamps and sometimes with free-flowing creativity.
Betsy credits her father wholeheartedly with teaching her the craft; she even pays homage by keeping a piece of his work on display in the showroom next to a photo of him. Betsy remembers coming home from school and working in the pottery workshop he owned back in Maine. For every 30 pieces that she finished with sandpaper, her father would reward her with a record soundtrack to a different musical, all of the classics: The Music Man, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma! Her eyes sparkle as she begins humming “Till There Was You,” cutting off just as soon as she gets started.
Ever a family person, Betsy proudly introduces her husband, John, a painter and illustrator whom she met while both were in the Peace Corps in Ecuador. As a young couple, they moved to Massachusetts, starting a new life together and a new business: Salt Marsh Pottery. A quintessential cottage industry, Salt Marsh Pottery started in 1969 with Betsy working solitarily in the corner of their house. From there, the business grew—it grew so large, in fact, that they needed an old firehouse to meet their needs before moving into their current space in 1986.
The intricate detailing of Betsy’s pieces is what makes them unique: their textures are created by hand-pressing flowers into clay. All of them are hand-painted by a team of artists who work in a small but airy space set off from the work room. “They’re the true artists,” Betsy says. “I just make things nowadays.” Inspired by life on Massachusetts’ South Coast, Betsy incorporates different stamps in her work: crabs, fish, even a tiny lobster. She creates molds from her collected treasures, so that they can be used over and over again, and Betsy doesn’t have to worry about hunting down out-of-season flowers for custom commissions.
Although all of the gallery work is beautiful, it’s not these items that draw most of her customers: it’s the imprints of baby hands and feet immortalized in clay, a unique and permanent reminder of “just how tiny they used to be”. “It’s our most popular seller,” Betsy says. “I’ve had babies as young as nine days in to do their footprints. Surprisingly, I have yet to find one that we can’t keep still long enough to print.” She seems to have a penchant for preserving the past: brides come in to have their bouquets imprinted on plates, plaques are painted in commemoration of anniversaries, children’s hands—one for each year—are pressed into tiles. Each Christmas, Betsy holds an event for families to come in to her shop and paint tiles in exchange for a $25 donation to the Neediest Family Fund.
Since its humble beginnings, Salt Marsh Pottery has grown increasingly popular, drawing customers from far-flung locales and even winding up on the pages of Better Homes & Gardens magazine. But Betsy seems bewildered by success. “We had no idea what we were doing! We never expected to still be here after 25 years … but here we are.”Visit the Salt Marsh Pottery showroom at 1167 Russells Mills Road in Dartmouth, call 508-636-4813, or log on to their website at www.saltmarsh.com. Appointments are also available with Betsy outside of showroom hours; call for more details.