motif-number-1This post is part of a continuing series about Cape Ann artists, their studios and work.

When Cape Ann was a budding art colony attracting artists from near and far, the buildings that became art studios were as varied as the artists themselves. Barns, fishing shacks, and storage sheds were pressed into use as studios.

Even the most iconic building in Rockport, Motif #1, was once a studio for a painter. Built as a fish shack in about 1884 (records are a bit fuzzy on the actual date), cod, pollock, hake, mackerel, herring and lobster made their way through its portals on their way to market. For a time, the small gabled second floor was used as an office to pay the fisherman. Unfortunately, large-scale commercial fishing in Rockport began a slow death in the late 1920s. The depression finished it off.

As the fish industry faded and Rockport’s reputation as an art colony grew, Motif #1’s function changed. The fish shack was leased to artist John Buckley in 1931 and then purchased by him in 1933. Buckley had come to Rockport a decade earlier. After being wounded in World War I and being recommended for a Medal of Honor, Buckley attended the Massachusetts Normal School of Art (now known as Massachusetts College of Art and Design) under an early precursor to the GI bill. In his school summer vacation in 1920, he came to Rockport as part of the first classes of summer students to study under Aldro Hibbard. He became a full time resident of Rockport after graduation and marriage. Buckley dove into community affairs in the town, becoming the elected secretary of the Rockport Art Association, performing in fund raisers as an actor for both the March of Dimes and the Rockport Art Association, and opening an artists supply store on Dock Square. Prior to acquiring Motif #1, Buckley did most of his painting and teaching outside. After purchasing the iconic building he made some-oh-so modern improvements like installing a toilet, a kerosene stove, and a window in the dormer to let in the Northern light. From the wharfage fees for the tip of Bradley Wharf (often waived in exchange for fish), Buckley was able to put dinner on his family’s dinner table through the Depression.

Artist John D. Buckley

Artist John D. Buckley

By 1945, Buckley had put Motif #1 up for sale. During the 1930s, he had taken on a position as a middle school art teacher in Natick, Massachusetts and was in Rockport only on weekends. The red fishing shack had become a financial lodestone. In the town meeting of March 6, 1945, the town residents voted to purchase it as a war memorial, the only way the selectman and the town attorney could see their way to purchasing it. A series of convoluted financial snafus involving taxes and the needed state legislature approval for purchasing delayed the purchase for almost a year. The sentiment at town meeting was that the building should be used for fishing purposes. Three lobstermen then leased the shack from the town. The townspeople had their way.

The story of Motif #1 reflects the history of Rockport as both a fishing village and a mecca for artists. For only 14 years during the height of the art colony era, the shack which has been painted in countless styles, was used as an artist’s studio. Since then, it it has been used on and off for activities related to fishing, or as it is currently being used, for the gathering of friends of Captain Billy Lee, the current lessee, to talk about fishing.

Art class, circa 1961, postcard courtesy of the  blog

Art class, circa 1961, postcard courtesy of the blog

For more on the history of Motif #1, check out L.M. Vincent’s In Search of Motif No. 1.  also has a great assortment of photographs and stories about Rockport’s past. 


l620b6f44-m2oThe current TV show Mad Men has sparked a renewed interest in all things mid-century modern. The lead character Don Draper and his advertising partners inhabit a 1960s world fueled by mid-day martinis and cigarettes, filled with hidden identities and changing gender roles. But even amidst the sophisticated drama, the viewer can’t help but be dazzled by the gorgeous sets, which capture the high styles of the time beautifully. As a result, young hipsters today are re-discovering the modern clean lines in both the furniture and household items of the era. The “shelter magazines” have gone mad for the MCM (mid century modern) look; one can see both the original and the knock off pieces for sale everywhere now. The unfussy, easy-on-the-eye furnishings have a fresh upbeat feel.l620b6f44-m3o

I was recently asked by William Rochford, realtor at Sotheby’s, to stage for sale a 1970s ranch style home in Rockport. The house was empty and presented a clean slate. The moment I walked in the front door, it hit me immediately what the house needed. A large picture window opens up to the acre plus property and the commodious combination living/dining room complete with built-in shelving and open bookcases flanking the fireplace screamed out for MCM. Staging the house could show the home to its best advantage and give potential buyers an idea as to what life could be like living there. My basement and attic is a bursting treasure trove of all things MCM. A perfect fit.l620b6f44-m7o

The furniture I chose for the house are mostly warm woods and all original pieces from the 1960s and 1970s. For a bit of gloss, a pair of teak and smoked glass topped Danish modern side tables flank the sleek lined sofa. A wire see-through Bertoia chair with sheepskin added was placed next to the fireplace. Selecting a Paul McCobb dining table with stiletto legs and Franco Legler woven wicker basket chairs completed the furnishings. For accent colors I opted for a burnt orange and lime green. When used sparingly, these colors work amazingly together. The bookcases were filled with books of the era, such as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Art objects, glass ware, and framed art from the period complement the room. No knock offs used here, only the originals please. Rather than look like a frozen in time room, the space oddly enough looks fresh and updated, ready for a modern family to move right in and begin living the MCM way. Makes one mad for a Singapore Sling.

If you have caught the MCM fever, check out all my modern offerings at Cambridge Antique Market, Msgr. O’Brien Highway, Cambridge, MA, space #274/275 on the second floor.l620b6f44-m5o

IMG_7817 final nightYears ago, my interest in homes led to getting a real estate license. I ended up not using it much. But in recent months, to my surprise, I have found myself hip deep in the real estate business as a stager.

Staging houses for sale is a recent phenomenon. In years past, a house was put on the market and it was left to the imagination of the buyer to see its potential. I recall hearing my mother, who was a real estate agent in the 1960s, say to a client, “now . . .  you have to imagine all of your own beautiful pieces in these rooms.” Sellers are no longer simply hoping that potential buyers make that leap of imagination. Staging gives buyers visual references to allow them to see what their lives might be like if they lived in the house. Staged houses sell quicker.Roch7376

William Rochford, a real estate agent at Sotheby’s By The Sea on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, asked me to stage a circa 1866 large proud Victorian complete with swimming pool, tennis court, guest cottage and six car garage. I gulped quickly and said, “Oh, that sounds like fun.” Having staged a few of his listings in the past that sold quickly thereafter, I thought I knew what was in store when I agreed.Roch7392

In the 1980s, I lived around the corner from this same Victorian and had always admired it. The house has a courtly visage from the street. As it sits up on a hill, the view from the street makes the home appear even larger. Once inside, the rooms are tall and elegant. The pool, tennis court and accessory buildings open up to the rear of the property, lending the feeling you are on an estate. All of this is within easy walking distance from town, a beach and commuter rail station. Wandering about the landscaped grounds, it is easy to imagine pool parties and tennis matches straight from the society pages of newspapers.IMG_8513 crop

The current owners have purchased another home in town and had moved most of their furniture out. Large, mostly empty rooms awaited me as I began the assessment of what was needed to stage the house for sale. We drew upon a combination of rental furniture, pieces from my own inventory, items from the owners, and antiques borrowed from a shop in Essex, Massachusetts. Roch7451 fireLuckily, some very handsome oriental carpets were still in the house and I used those as a foundation on which to build the rooms around. As the house is so large, we decided to stage only the main rooms. The family room, formal parlor, dining room, sitting room, office, kitchen, morning room and master bedroom and bath were given the royal treatment.

Years ago, what drew me to real estate was not making the deal, it was the homes themselves. Turns out, what I really wanted to do was make them look better. Fortunately, the staging concept in the real estate industry has caught up to my desire.

All photographs are by Michael Rixon, professional photographer. Click on any photo to enlarge.

IMG_7787 cropRoch7425 libraryIMG_7769 ocean view

Being asked to do something that you have never done before, and with which you have no experience, can be an intimidating request. A voice in your head shouts, “you don’t know how to do that, just say no, you’ll make a mess of it.” Ignoring the voice, I plunged ahead and dived into unknown waters. Luckily the waters were not shallow.

Heather Atwood asked me to design a memorial bench for her mother. The bench was to be placed at Howlets, Heather’s home. The first decision to be made was, where on the property the bench should be placed? We agreed that it would sit in a small shade plant garden tucked at the edge of the property. Discovering the bench as one strolls about the property, rather than it standing out in a prominent “main event” kind of way, was the right subtle treatment for the bench. Sitting in this semi-hidden spot would provide a welcome, contemplative retreat.IMG_1416

The best design for the low-key setting was a large single block of granite with the initials of Heather’s mother carved on the face. Large single blocks of granite can look so heavy and cumbersome when placed in a garden. To make it less squatty and lighter looking in appearance, two semi-hidden stone block feet about the size of large shoe boxes underneath the bench elevate it and make it “float.”

For Heather’s mother’s initials, CCL, we wanted a script style that fit the bench design. After a search through several seaside cemeteries we found a font that we both liked. Bold yet light. The letters would be set in a rectangular shaped frame cut into the stone. During our search of cemeteries we happened upon the grave of Gabrielle de Veaux Clements, a painter who shared a home with Ellen Day Hale, the builder of Howlets. It was a totally unexpected and serendipitous discovery.IMG_1419

Dave McGibbon, stonemason, began the task of splitting the large oblong piece of granite from an even larger rough stone. So that it will blend in with the stone wall behind it, we decided that the finish on the bench should not be polished and shiny. The slightly dimpled surface, called bushed, gives the bench a time worn visage. With time, the fresh cut granite will age and darken and become like the lichen covered and weathered stone wall close by.

Working on a history-laden property like Howlets is always daunting. But the addition of this memorial bench on the property somehow felt right, like adding yet a new layer of beautiful patina on the old home. I am glad I took the plunge.

leslie's dinner party guests 6Where better to have a birthday dinner with all women than in a house that was built one hundred and two years ago by a woman? Ellen Day Hale designed Howlets as an artist studio for herself in 1911. Hale was no hack artist. Her paintings are still hung today in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The house was passed onto her niece Nancy Hale, who wrote articles for The New York Times and many novels in the room.

Heather Atwood, food writer and current owner of Howlets, decided to host a milestone birthday dinner for her friend Leslie, having Leslie’s female friends from all over the country to dinner. Many hands went into making the evening a hit. Leslie came up with the guest list of seventeen friends from near and far, Heather and Sofia created the menu and did the lion’s share of the cooking, and I got the large studio’s dining table ready for the celebration.

leslie's party photos good light 7In keeping with the low key color palette of Howlets (better to let the stones speak), the table’s linens and napkins were a linen tea stained color and the flowers were all white. Luckily, no trip to the florist was needed — all of the flowers came from our garden. Phlox, Rose of Sharon, potato vine and three types of hydrangea were marshaled into place.

Heather placed the napkins in an embroidery hoop and traced the initial letter of the guest on the napkin. A needle and thread were left with each napkin. These served as place cards for Leslie’s friends. No idle hands were noted after dinner as all of the women took up the hoop and embroidered their initial on the napkins.

leslie's party photos embroidery copyI suspect that Ellen Day Hale would have enjoyed the collection of women talking, laughing, creating and celebrating. The studio’s history of strong and talented women is still very much alive in its second century.leslie's dinner party photo 5

Dreams can be so perplexing sometimes. You wake up and think where on earth did that come from? The meaning of a recent dream I had was crystal clear and most pleasurable. It all stemmed from an old tree.

There is a gnarled and wizened apple tree at Howlets, a hundred year old stone house, of which I have the pleasure of acting as project manager. Howlets sits on an exposed-to-the-sea piece of land with rock ledge and a thin layer of soil sitting atop. In the front yard there is a very old and twisted apple tree that has somehow stayed alive in this most inhospitable spot. Buffeted by sea salt-soaked rain and heavy winds, it is a most unlikely place for a fruit tree to thrive. Fruit trees need trimming, thinning and pruning on a constant basis. This apple tree had been clearly cared for over time but in recent years had been let go. Sucker growth spurted directly skyward and limbs crisscrossed each other. Beneath all of this tangle there was a proud survivor.



Having lived in Japan and watched the way in which the Japanese trim their old fruit trees, I had a clear idea as to what the tree should look like. Looking carefully at the old cuts made on this apple tree, someone else, years ago, had the same vision. The form just needed to be brought back. I very much wanted to trim the tree myself. As I began the process, a Zen-like feeling settled in and I just knew instinctively what should go and what should stay, like sculpting. The whorled trunks were cleared of sucker growth, the thick growth at the ends of branches thinned and the shape brought back.

After a debrief of the work with David and Heather, the owners of Howlets, and a glass of their wine, I went home and fell into a dreamful sleep. In the dream my profession was very specific: expert trimmer of only aged and visually interesting cherry and apple trees. Dressed in a rough shapeless linen coat and chewed up straw hat, I happily travelled the world, carefully trimming these ancient specimens for appreciative and fascinating clients. A wide variety of surgical-like snippers and clippers accompanied me, each one designed for a specific pruning task. These tools of the trade were all tucked neatly into a heavy canvas fold over envelope with individual pockets complete with leather closure straps.

Everyone needs a dream of what they want to do when they finally grow up. My sleep-fueled unconscious found the perfect career, taking full advantage of my OCD-ish tendencies. Now I just need those adoring clients ready to fly me in to prune their trees.



What do you do when the attic, basement, and closets are full of “treasures” that you have been collecting over the years? Open a store and begin selling it all! The combination of lots of storage space and a yen to collect things different and unusual is fraught with danger. Spaces quickly fill up and items get forgotten. I live in an 1840 converted barn with a huge hayloft and full basement. When we moved in three years ago, the empty spaces seemed cavernous. Now it is a struggle to pass through the hayloft and basement. The time had come to make some hard decisions about what to keep and what to jettison. The Cambridge Antique Market provided the solution. It is a multi dealer space and had a vacancy. Serendipity!

Mid-Century finds

Mid-Century finds



Susan, a close friend, had recently transitioned out of a position at an antique shop on Beacon Hill and was looking for her next business venture. She had previously managed a gallery in Palm Springs, California which held an amazing variety of vintage and antique objects. While working there she became conversant with collectible mid-century modern pieces and developed an unerring design eye. I grew up with a houseful of 1960s Danish modern furniture and all the attendant household goods that fit that design. A perfect marriage of acquired knowledge and past experience.

The 1950s through 1970s were a hopeful and optimistic time in America. The outlook is reflected in the design of the architecture, furniture and household items of the time. A new generation of twenty and thirty year olds is discovering the period’s upbeat mood and style. The TV show Madmen, which captures the era so deliciously with its mid-century modern set design and clothes, has helped fuel the renewed interest in the time and its design. An idea for a market niche for our space at the Cambridge Antique Market was hatched!

Flower power tray

Flower power tray

Since setting up shop there, our space was shown in several shots of a segment of the Boston area TV lifestyle show, Chronicle. The Boston Globe also recently sent a reporter to write an upcoming piece on the Cambridge Antique Market. When the reporter asked Michelle, a knowledgeable long time staff member, what was currently “hot,” Michelle ushered them to our space. Last week, set designers from a movie being shot in Boston came looking for mid-century modern items and found our treasure trove. Our space is hopefully becoming discovered.



017 I wish I could say my hayloft and basement were bare once again, but in fact my collecting has just gone into hyperdrive. While the space is no less crowded, the items are constantly changing. Susan and I have a full press hunt on for mid-century modern and other unusual treasures. We need warehousing space.  It feels a bit like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Basement to Cambridge

Basement to Cambridge

Attic treasures await new owners

Attic treasures await new owners

Susan and my “finds” can be seen at The Cambridge Antique Market, 201 Msgr. O’Brien Highway, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Space 274/275 is on the second floor.

Click on any photo to enlarge

IMG_1164This backyard practically begged for an overhaul. Back “yard” is being kind. In truth, it was simply a sea of blacktop, able to accommodate enough cars for a small shopping center. While the blacktop previously served as the driveway for the house, it has been replaced by a new gravel driveway at the other end of the property. The blacktop now mainly served as an eyesore and a conduit in heavy rains. Indeed, water ran down the blacktop, pooled at the back door and then made a beeline toward the basement of the house.

Blacktop sea

Blacktop sea

The blacktop had to go. Thus began a plan to replace it with a much softer garden retreat, with rooms for a potager, a sitting area, and a privet screened single car parking spot.

The blacktop stretched up an incline to the property line. A rotted post and rail fence that divided the property from the uphill neighbor had disappeared under a jumble of overgrown mint, wild roses and morning glories that no longer bloomed. The roots of this tangled mess of vegetation were rapidly spreading and coming up into the gravel driveway and kitchen garden of the neighbor. A take-no-prisoners approach to all of this unchecked growth was the first order of the project. A backhoe clawed away the blacktop, the tangle of roots, the fence, and a low crumbling stone wall hidden underneath. A tabula rosa was now in place.

Backhoe magic

Backhoe magic

Defining a garden space and giving it visual boundaries with stone or earth is known in garden parlance as “hardscaping.” A five-foot high and fifty-foot long wall constructed of stone does not get any more “hard.” The wall replaces the tangled miasma and runs the length of the planned garden space. The stone wall, which is more sculpture than wall, will give the new garden a visual reference, define the space, and impart an enveloping feel of privacy. The current plan (garden plans are always subject to change) is to have vegetables in beds below the wall and climbing hydrangea vines planted every ten feet running up and along the wall. The foliage will merge at the top of the wall in a seemingly connected cap running the fifty foot length. Separated from the vegetables by a short hedge will be a space for chairs and a table, for reading, light dining or just vacantly staring out at the ocean. A lot of patience and time are required for this plan, something in short supply from this writer.

A wall rises

A wall rises

Dave McGibbon, stonemason, created the wall. He has the patience of Job as he eyes the stones for the wall and then places them by hand, some weighing several hundred pounds. When the wall is viewed from a distance the stones undulate and dip in sinuous lines creating a movement which carries the eye along its long length. The outward appearance of this beautiful stone wall belies its inner structure. It has the outward appearance of a dry stone wall. The totally hidden cement block, rebar, and mortar within give it the strength it needs to support the neighbors higher level driveway on the uphill side.

The garden spaces will expand the “walk around” space in the yard and allow the owners to stay busy in the summer. (As if more busy-ness is needed.) The stone wall frames the space and provides a destination for the eye from the lower yard. Rest assured, the loss of the strip mall sized parking lot will not be lamented.IMG_1104

During a recent kitchen renovation of a 172 year-old structure that was a barn in its former life, an odiferous discovery was made. As the carpenters sawed through the joists and beams, a strong cow urine smell wafted up. The powerful aroma had been trapped inside the wood fibers all these years, just waiting to be released and remind us that cows once lived here.

In 1840, Ezra Eames built this barn to house the cows at the farm that marched up Pigeon Hill in Rockport, Massachusetts. An enormous hayloft on the top floor stored the hay for the bovines in the winter. The farm existed for a bit less than a century. At some point, the farm house, field worker house, apple pressing house and barn were all sold off separately.

Sometime in the late 1930s, Justine D. Ferris, a retired business woman and artist from Boston, came upon the barn and had the extraordinary vision to realize the barn could become her home and studio. She drew up the plans for the transformation herself. Justine had previously worked at both Harvard University and the Office of Public Welfare in Boston, but now was looking to immerse herself in art. In 1957, The Boston Globe featured an article about Justine and her remodel of the barn into artist studio and living spaces. From the dusty cow barn, she created a duplex, splitting the building in half, one side for her studio and living space and the other for rental.

The space Justine created for her studio is two stories with exposed beams throughout. She bumped out the existing space seven feet complete with gambrel roof lines. She also put in a huge northern facing skylight. Northern light for studio space is thought to be best as it casts no direct sun shadows. Unfortunately, old studio skylights are notoriously leaky and lose heat in the winter. The skylight was removed during a later owner’s renovation, leaving behind visible ghost marks on the wall where the skylight used to be. But despite the subsequent alterations, the studio’s character remains intact. The room is still flooded with light from both North, West and East.

Exposed beams from the 1840 post and beam construction were painted olive green at some point by a later owner. The paint has been recently stripped and the warm wood beams now catch your eye as they run through the white rough plaster walls. The dowels used to pin the barn together during its 1840 construction are still visible. The soaring two story interior remains dramatic, unlike many of the old cavernous studios in Rockport that have had second floors inserted after the buildings ceased to be used as studio spaces. The exterior stone curving staircase entrance that Justine had built for her clients’ visits still graces the northern side of the building. While Justine’s paintings are difficult to find, a good friend did recently find a portrait of an unknown woman signed by Justine D. Ferris.

Two fellow artists penned a two-part poem about Justine’s life entitled “A Medley of Melody to Justine Ferris,” dated September 16,1947. In the ode to Justine by fellow artist Ruth Berry, she references the studio and barn, “. . . The studio still a magnet is / That draws us all together / From days of yore to Rockport shore / In rainy and fair weather.” The other author of the poem Mariam Tibbetts speaks about Justine’s renovation of the barn: “Soon out of beam and loft and rubbish pile / The barn uprise into stately hall / With Lady Elm sweetly straight beckoning at the garden gate / And the star-set skylight welcoming all.” The elm is now long gone, probably a victim of Dutch Elm disease, but the beams and loft remain. Although the two-storied studio ceiling and living room do indeed rise upwards to eighteen feet, some poetic license was taken with the “stately hall” line.

This old barn near the bay has transitioned from bovine shelter to artist studio and now re-purposed home. This old artist-colony studio may yet have another budding artist in its future. Cows, probably not so.

Click on any photo to enlarge.


Growing up we always had dogs. When they would dig holes in the garden or yard, my father would egg them on by saying, “dig for the Chinaman!” The first time he said it, I raced inside to check his geography on our globe. He was off by quite a bit, but it made for entertaining — if not a bit xenophobic — play for the dogs.

This remembrance kept cropping up as we hauled buckets of mud up and out of a quarry behind Howlets. This small quarry, actually called a “motion” (the term for a one- or two-man quarrying site), had begun to fill up with muck and debris over the years. It felt like we were digging for China.

Shovel in hand

This summer’s drought-like conditions dried up the motion to the point that the bottom was visible. How clean and tidy it would look from the kitchen windows if only we could remove the gook! The entire Rabin/Atwood family was pressed into service over the course of a week’s time. Buckets and wheelbarrows were filled and hauled up and out again and again. Picture the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence from Fantasia, except rather than carrying buckets of water we had buckets of muck. In an attempt to be encouraging, Heather offered that the gardens would love this rich compost being removed from the seemingly bottomless pit. It was a bit of a cold comfort for our aching backs. As the wide granite steps left by the quarrymen began to reappear from under the detritus, the original shape of the motion came into view. The stone removed from this motion was used to build Howlets in 1911. As we contemplated the men carrying the stone from the earth instead of mud, we stopped whining about our labors.

Mucking about

When the snow melts and then the Spring rains come, this small quarry will fill up again and provide tidy eye candy from the kitchen’s french doors. After the back breaking labor, it had better. . . . The price we pay for beauty.

From quarry to home