Raising the Bar

Poet. Screenwriter. Journalist. Blogger. Author. Ultimately, they are all writers. And whatever the niche, the Conference of the Cape Cod Writers Center likely has a class to make their words read better.

For nearly five decades, the oldest writers group on Cape Cod has quietly held its flagship conference every August at the Craigville Conference Center in Centerville, drawing an array of distinguished instructors and speakers—Kurt Vonnegut, Isaac Asimov, and a host of others have lent their talents to the proceedings—and thousands of scribes eager to polish their craft. This August, the 48th annual conference carries the theme “Books, Bytes, and Beach,” an allusion to the intersection of print and digital publishing. Technology has made it easier than ever for writers to get their words to an audience via blogging and self-publishing, for example. “But on the road to traditional publishing,” says Nancy Rubin Stuart, director of the conference, “the bar is probably higher today than it ever was.”

Getting a story into print is very different than it was in the summer of 1963, when a group of wordsmiths called the Twelve O’Clock Scholars organized a writers workshop. Under the direction of Marion Vuilleumier, a long-time Cape wordsmith, the workshop turned into an annual conference that grew alongside its year-round counterpart, the Cape Cod Writers Center. Today, the center hosts a variety of writers groups and events for its more than 300 members, like Breakfast with the Authors, an ongoing series of talks and book signings from a range of writers. President Kevin Symmons says the constituency ranges from novices who have finished a draft of their first chapter to veterans who have published their seventh book, many of whom need support and guidance after realizing the revelation he made early in his own literary efforts. “Writing is probably the most frustrating and at the same time the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done,” Symmons says.

The crux of the conference remains nuts-and-bolts instruction in the evolving craft of arranging words. Rubin Stuart, who among other achievements has authored six nonfiction books like the award-winning The Muse of the Revolution and served as a contributor to The New York Times, taught two classes at the 2009 conference before signing on as director. The Sandwich resident describes a friendly classroom full of published and aspiring writers alike, an atmosphere brimming with enthusiasm and empty of competition. “The goal is to prepare [the writers] for publication,” she says.

The range of classes is as varied as the goals of the body of registrants. Multi-day classes in nonfiction, humor, commercial fiction, and graphic novels exist alongside one-off courses in travel writing, blogging, digital publishing, and instruction in marketing and business matters. The Young Writers Workshop for burgeoning high-school writers, keynote speeches from the likes of WBZ radio personality Jordan Rich and historical fiction novelist William Martin, and manuscript evaluation sessions fill out a slate of happenings that, quite frankly, is too large to fit on this page. There is no guarantee of success in the fine print on the registration form, but there are success stories. Shutter Island and Mystic River author Dennis Lahane and distinguished Cape Cod writer Anne LeClaire—who teaches this year’s “From Memories to Memoirs” course—both attended the conference earlier in their careers. It’s also where Sally Gunning, author of The Widow’s War, found her agent.

What constitutes “publishing” might be markedly different. E-books, self-publishing, on-demand publishing, and countless other methods are all viable in the 21st century. “It’s our mission to apprise and keep our members’ skills up to date with the changing environment,” Rubin Stuart says.

One thing that has not changed is the appeal of the Cape’s sea-sprayed environment to budding authors. In some ways, this backdrop to the conference is just as crucial as the expert instruction. “It becomes a marvelous source of inspiration for people . . .” Rubin Stuart says. “Art and literature and writing and oceans have always gone together. It’s a natural fit.”

48th Annual Conference of the Cape Cod Writers Center

August 15-20, 2010
Craigville Conference Center, Centerville
For more information and to register,
visit or call (508) 420-0200.

Blown Beauty

Don Sylor 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…

What I Got for Father’s Day

When asked what I wanted for Father’s Day, I said, “Thank you, but I really don’t need anything.” I don’t have room in my closet for another shirt. Of course, my wife Judy loves to suggest we make room in the closet by throwing away my favorite old clothes. Our sons, Josh and Max, agree with Judy on the subject.
So I said, “I know what I want. Let’s all spend one afternoon together hanging the lobster trap buoys back up on the boathouse where they belong.” Judy liked the idea, but the boys looked at me as if I were about as much fun as a barrel of monkeys.

Our collection of lobster trap buoys had been sitting in a heap since they were removed in order to paint the outside of the boathouse. We call it the boathouse because that is where we store our life jackets, anchor lines, boat soap, flairs, whistles, horns, you name it. The “Lady Carline” life saving ring, from our former motor-sailer, hangs prominently on the back wall.

We have called the lobster trap markers, “beach treasures,” ever since Josh and Max have been old enough to walk the beach and help find them. For years family vacations regularly included beach walks on Cuttyhunk and shoreline searches of nearby islands in a small motor skiff. Right after a storm was always the best time for collecting. How fondly I recall the peopleless, rock-strewn shorelines with the constant rushing and crushing sounds of the surf. We would respond with delight to come across a lobster trap buoy, not tied to a trap, and yet in good enough shape to be worth bringing home. We were heedless, heartfelt, and headstrong.
Technically speaking, existing regulations indicated that any wash-a-shore or otherwise found fishing gear should be left alone, in hopes the original owner might find it. I say, “What are the chances of that happening?” Well, in fact, one lobsterman I met a few years back told me he had seen our boathouse collection from his boat and that I had one of his buoys hanging up there. Knowing the regulations, I immediately offered to return it to him if he would tell me which one it was. He said, “Oh, no thanks, I like seeing my buoy hanging in your collection.”

To me the lobster trap buoys represent more than fond memories of family times at the shore. They are symbols of Cape Cod’s proud sea-faring heritage. They remind me of the hard working men and women who have fished and shell-fished New England waters for centuries, that we might enjoy the bounty of the sea. I have done just enough lobstering to appreciate the work involved. I feel that if I am lucky enough to live by the water, it is appropriate to pay this symbolic respect to the Cape’s seafaring way of life.

So, we did spend the afternoon on Father’s Day, just the four of us, hanging our beach treasures all around the boathouse. It was a fun-loving project, after which Joshua photographed the boathouse for me. As the boys get older, now 13 and 16, family time becomes ever more precious.

Also, I did receive a few small gifts for Father’s Day. I am hard to shop for, but they know I enjoy books of quips and quotes. So they found one for me entitled Are You A Miserable Old Bastard? Thus far, I am enjoying reading it. Tells me something.

My Best,

P.S. “The memories we collect and give
brighten our lives as long as we live.” -Unknown

Splendor Under Glass

Life August 2010 Finely wrought, glass “sea bubbles” capture the alluring movement of the swirling blue and green waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and hold a bit of the Cape and the Islands wherever they are displayed. Each four 1/2 inch ball is filled with sand and seashells, resembling a sea bubble caught in the ocean waves. The ocean balls are crafted by local glassblower Michael Magyar, at his studio in East Sandwich. No two are alike; each one has a different design, color, and size. The ocean balls are part of the Cape Cod Sea Bubble Collection and can be custom-made in a variety of sizes, colors, styles and even can be engraved at no additional cost. Ocean balls are $58; for more information visit the Glass Studio on Cape Cod, 470 Route 6A, East Sandwich, 508 888-6681,

A Self-determined Story

Life August 2010 Settle down with The Captain’s Widow of Sandwich: Self-Invention and the Life of Hannah Rebecca Burgess, 1834-1917 ($45) and acquaint yourself with some captivating local history. Author Megan Taylor Shockley delves into the true story of the spouse of a Sandwich sea captain. Digging into primary sources, Shockley masterfully crafts a portrait of the widow, unearthing her resourceful character’s fascinating story. As a woman who commandeered her dying husband’s ship single-handedly and refused several second marriage proposals after his death, Burgess defied the traditional gender roles of her day. Despite this, she seemingly lived quite comfortably within the social constructs of the Victorian era. The biography opens a window into the complexity of the Victorian Age and the drama of Cape Cod’s famous seafaring past. For more details, visit

Sea Sweet Details

Complementing a home with seaside accents is an exercise in subtlety. Rich Details, a new line of home accessories from the East Sandwich-based company, Embroidery by the Sea, features delightful cotton napkins, tea towels, and fine stone coasters—each created with a delicate maritime charm by founder Pamela Rich Mulhearn. The designs give any home a splash of seaside charm and can enliven any kitchen or dining room. Rich Details also customizes products with burgees, logos, or monograms. Items from the Rich Details line are available at Tale of the Cod in Chatham and Oyster Island Emporium in Osterville. Prices range from $12 to $30. Call (508) 833-6574 or visit for more information.

She Sells Seashells

Michael McLaughlin 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,, 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.”

Life August 2010 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.”

Michael McLaughlin 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 or call 508 292-3502.

Cape and Islands’ sources for Nantucket Sailors Valentines

Gayle Condit,, 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.

,, 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,, 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,, 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
,, 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.

Clay Into Gold

Dan Cutrona 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.

Dan Cutrona 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.

Dan Cutrona 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 Appointments are also available with Betsy outside of showroom hours; call for more details.

All in a Day’s Work

Life August 2010 Julie Olsen’s hair flutters in the wind as she drives a huge John Deere 5520 tractor. As farm manager at The FARM Institute on Martha’s Vineyard, Olsen is still pursuing a passion for agriculture that she has nurtured since growing up on the Cape in Dennis. After graduating from Sterling College in 2007 with a degree in sustainable agriculture and then traveling around the world to find her dream farm, she found herself working as a farm hand at The FARM Institute in 2008. “The executive director would ask me to do these super-human things,” she recalls joyfully. Apparently, her boss thought her strength was on par with that of the much-larger lead farm hand, and once asked her to “reorganize” a collection of cut telephone poles. She stuck it out and moved up to farm manager last fall. “When I first came here, it just didn’t feel like work,” Olsen says. “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”

Down a winding dirt road in the island community of Katama, past tourists sporting brand new Martha’s Vineyard sweatshirts and gripping melting ice cream cones, The FARM Institute sits on 162 acres of emerald pastures speckled with Belted Galloways, the FARM’s signature cattle. Surrounded by the lively animals as well as bountiful vegetable and herb gardens, and farm workers tending to daily tasks, students of all ages pull carrots out of the ground for the first time, watch cows give birth, and learn about preserving the Vineyard’s natural resources. It’s a working and teaching farm that provides an atmosphere of total immersion, instilling a new generation with a love of the land like the one that took hold of Olsen in her childhood. The hope is that in the coming years, the FARM Institute could be a prototype for agricultural education throughout the country.

The FARM Institute’s origins can be traced to a 1999 chance encounter at the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market. Vineyard resident Sam Feldman struck up a conversation with agriculturist and teacher Glenn Hearn about his dream of starting an educational island farm. Hearn shared similar conversations with islanders Mike Kidder and John Curelli, and brought all the parties together. Though they were “just four guys without any expertise,” Feldman says, “we just hit it off. We all had a common dream about establishing a farm school.”

Life August 2010 A year later, the seeds of the FARM—which stands for Food, Agriculture and Resource Management—were sown with the intention of extending the island’s agricultural legacy. “Through this working farm and through teaching children in the community about sustainable agriculture, we are trying to educate and empower the future leaders of our community,” says former executive director Matthew Goldfarb. Every educational program offered at the FARM teaches the elements of sustainable farming, creating emotional and lifetime connections between children, the land, and its resources.

A key element of the institute’s sustainable agriculture program is its method of grass-based farming. From April to December, the FARM’s cows, sheep, pigs, goats, and chickens eat around 75 percent of the grass in a pasture before being rotated to a fresh one, ensuring the grass is evenly used and will come back bountifully the following year. The FARM also cultivates hay every June or July to sustain the animals during winter months. The same principle is applied to crops, and the corn, eggplant, kale, squashes, and other vegetables are rotated every season to maintain the soil’s exceptional health. The FARM grows this wide variety of produce thanks to the abundance of “Katama loam”—soil that is extremely fertile as a result of glacial silt deposits from the island’s formation thousands of years ago. All of the crops are organically grown, without pesticides or chemicals.

On most summer days, the FARM sees around 100 students learning the secrets of sustainable farming. While children as young as two participate in the Wee Farmers program, older children can sign up for all-day programs that revolve around Concepts of the Week, a set of changing, farm-wide educational themes that range from land preservation to the culture and history of Vineyard farming. The institute also offers several classes for more seasoned agriculturists, with topics like composting, alternative energy, and even beer brewing.

FARM students are involved with the island’s community supported agriculture (CSA) program, which directly links farmers with consumers and reduces goods brought in from off-island sources. “For the FARM Institute, the purchase of our food helps to brand us as both an educational facility and a working farm that grows food for our community,” says Development Assistant Cathy Verost. In addition to selling shares of the FARM’s produce, the Institute recently established a meat CSA program, which provides cuts of FARM-raised beef, chicken, turkey, pork, and lamb.

Julie Olsen, a self-described “conscious omnivore,” who prefers to eat meat raised by herself or a friend, proposed and established the new CSA after learning about a similar venture in Hardwick, Mass., at an organic farming conference in 2009. The community’s positive response has been staggering, even off the island: The FARM had to double the number of CSA shares offered to Falmouth residents, and 27 people are still on the waiting list.
In the future, Olsen would like the FARM to be completely self-sustaining. Education, however, remains the FARM’s highest priority: When students learn about the benefits of practicing local and sustainable agriculture, they take those lessons to heart. Awareness—just like kale or squash—is the product of a hard day’s work.

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