|I have a long and diverse list of artists who have inspired me, like Georgia O’Keeffe, Edgar Degas, Wayne Thibaud, Hans Holbein, Hillary Knight, Alexander Calder…and Aunt Connie.
Aunt Connie was an artist whose canvas, her magnum opus, was her house.
Aunt Connie and Uncle Tut once had a summer cottage by the sea in Westhampton Beach, Long Island. The great hurricane of 1938 washed away that house and even the land it stood upon. All that was left was a bucket and an old bookcase.
They believed it was the Lord’s doing that they and their children were safe in New Jersey when the storm came, so when they found a house near us in Sag Harbor they named it “Grateful Haven” and took as their motto the Bible verse Matthew 7:25;
“And the rains descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock.”
Durrell and Constance Tuttle, and their children, Bette and Porter, became our family’s closest neighbors and friends. Aunt Connie was tall, Uncle Tut was short. She said that when she announced her engagement and was asked to describe her fiance she said, “Well, he’s rather like Napoleon.” He was Napoleonic in stature only; a mild mannered, soft spoken man who thought Aunt Connie could do no wrong. She called him Daddsy and he called her Dollin’. She always looked cool and crisp in her summer dresses and spectator pumps.
Grateful Haven stood so close to the water that in some of its rooms you felt like you were in a ship at sea. Nobody knew how it actually came to be–it might have been a warehouse for bootleggers during Prohibition days.
There were French doors across the whole front and two large unmatched windows above so that it looked a little like a smiling face winking at you. It had a jaunty tilt and very few straight lines or right angles.
You entered a great room–so big that a ping pong table sat by the door without feeling obtrusive. Over that was a wagon wheel chandelier.
Who said “Less is more?” Aunt Connie’s credo was “Less is a bore.” No wall or surface was left unadorned. The interior was unfinished and in each niche created by the vertical studs was a still life–a picture she had picked up at a junk shop, a piece of driftwood, a little vase with one flower. She painted roses and ivy all over the old upright piano. On the wall of her dining room she painted the map of Peconic Bay, with a star where Grateful Haven stood.
Painting on the walls?! No one in my family would dream of such a thing.
It was a magical house. In a game of hide and seek several years after they moved in, the children pulled up a rug they’d never noticed to find a trap door.
They pulled that open and found a room below with a tunnel running a hundred feet under the lawn all the way to a room under the gazebo with a still, proof of the house’s bootlegging days. That was quickly removed by the teetotaling Tuttles.
Upstairs was Aunt Connie and Uncle Tut’s bedroom, the same gigantic size as the living room except for a chunk taken out for the bathroom. It was called Texas because Aunt Connie’s sister, having done a little housekeeping, came downstairs and said,
“Well, I’ve just finished sweeping the great state of Texas.”
Not everyone was as enchanted as I was. My grandfather said, “As many chairs as Connie’s got there’s not one you can sit in.” But I didn’t care about comfortable chairs. While the grown ups talked I would look around and try to decide what I would save if I knew the flood was coming. I usually chose a china chicken from her collection.
My teacher, Robert Beverly Hale, said, “One’s work is nothing but the long journey through life to recover, through the detours of art, the two or three great and simple images that first gained access to one’s heart.”
Look who now lives on top of my kitchen cabinets.
When I was grown up I took a friend who wrote about design for New York Magazine to see Aunt Connie’s house and she swooned, “This place is beyond charming!” Thus confirming my childhood conviction.
Why was Aunt Connie my inspiration? She had qualities every artist needs:
She was resiliant, After her first house was washed away she gave thanks that her family was safe and then she started over again at Grateful Haven. If you lose everything you have, start right over and know that whatever you’ve made before, there’s more where that came from. I once left two finished drawings on the subway and I went right back to the studio to do them again while the image was fresh.
She had discernment. William Morris said, “If you want a golden rule, have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” As much stuff as Aunt Connie collected, there was nothing that was not either beautiful or useful, and everything was mostly both, and all arranged with order and a plan. I hate clutter. Was that house cluttered? NO. There’s clutter and then there’s abundance.
She was resourceful. There was nothing that cost a lot of money–she had an eagle eye for wonderful things and if she saw something she liked she could usually figure out how to make one like it or better. She saw some beach chairs on her travels and duplicated them for our beach. They were funny looking but surprisingly comfortable and light enough to carry. Not really lounge chairs but Aunt Connie wan’t a lounging kind of person.
She was industrious; she always had a project. My grandmother would say, “Connie’s always fussing with something.” As much as I loved my serene MomMom, I also admired Aunt Connie’s busy ways. I have learned that when my hand is working my mind is engaged and focused instead of running in all directions as it did in school.
But industry without imagination can fall flat. I think Aunt Connie’s greatest gift to me was insouciance, defined by the dictionary as “casual lack of concern, indifference.”
I would add joy. Her aesthetic was whimsical and offbeat and she stood by it proudly with an attitude of “whatever I like works.” She gave me the freedom in my drawings to say, “A pelican in the window? A rhino in the kitchen? Why not!
My grandparents’ house was beautiful; solid and austere, decorated with family pictures and Bible verses. It’s my sturdy foundation. But Aunt Connie’s house showed me how to let loose and have a little fun. I’m grateful for both.
Who was your Aunt Connie?