Monthly Archives: April 2013

Designing Woman

Eliza with bag and screen printing equipment

Eliza with bag and screen printing equipment

Studio = Art

Walk into Eliza Jane Curtis’s studio on the second floor of her Limington Village farmhouse, and you are immediately struck by two impressions: color and order.

Along one long, blue wall of the studio, shelves of paints, papers, and other artists supplies pop with bright colors neatly arranged and easily accessible. In front of a light-filled window, a silk-screen table is popped open to reveal a orderly floral pattern on a background of turquoise. Near the back wall, a rack of bright tee-shirts and scarves silk-screened with Curtis’s graphic motifs draws the visitor’s eye.

This is the home-base of Curtis’s business, Morris & Essex, which offers handmade stationery, letterpress cards and invitations, canvas bags, wallets, shirts, and scarves. Her products are sold in shops in Buenos Aires, Manhattan, Canada, and Australia as well as right here in her home state of Maine at places like the Portland Museum of Art, the Merchant Co., and Ferdinand in Portland and Archipelago at the Island Institute in Rockland.

The dual qualities of color and order in the studio are reflected in the designer’s art whose motifs lean toward the botanical, the natural, the vintage, and the geometric. “I’m inspired by nature and the floral and botanical,” said Curtis, sipping herbal tea at her farmhouse table. “I like traditional folk art designs.” A fan of early 20th-century packaging and ephemera, Curtis also draws on vintage design elements to inspire new ideas for her art. Her family, she said, tends to collect things of this sort, though, “nobody collected anything on purpose in my family,” she said, smiling. “I’ll see something in an attic or basement and think ‘this would be good’ and they’ll let me take it.”

Lino Block Stationery

Lino Block Stationery

Gorham to Gotham

Curtis grew up in Gorham where her parents renovated an old house and she and her two sisters attended the public schools. Attending Gorham High School, she took art classes and enjoyed them, but she wasn’t certain art was something she would pursue professionally. “I wasn’t totally aware what you could do with art,” she said. She believes that in high school you don’t necessarily need to know what you are going to do for a career. “I had no idea what I wanted to do. I worked that out later.”

Taking a few college classes after high school, Curtis realized that academia was not her cup of tea. “I was supposed to be reading classics, Ovid, that sort of thing. It was harder to focus and kind of boring, but it turned out that art classes were one area I could focus. Reading and writing are great, but not nearly as engaging as art.”

Finding a strong passion for hands-on work and enjoying the satisfaction of having finished an actual, physical product by the end of the day, Curtis eventually enrolled in the Parsons The New School For Design in New York City. Here she studied design and also graduated with a liberal arts degree in 2001. She then took an internship with a web design company that led to full-time work.

She enjoyed working on kids designs so much, she eventually landed a job working for Osh-Kosh B’gosh in New York doing children’s clothes, “That was really fun,” Curtis said, remembering those early days in the city. “There were few places in So-Ho, so we’d rent a whole house in Brooklyn and bike across the bridge to Manhattan to work every day. It was great.”

During her 11 years in New York, Curtis launched her own business creating tee-shirt prints on the side, working on her prints on nights and weekends and eventually opening a “shop” on Etsy.com. That is when she named her fledgling business Morris & Essex.

“People always ask me who Morris & Essex are,” she laughed. “I was driving on the New Jersey Transit and saw the Morris & Essex train line in New Jersey. I was making tags for my pieces and needed a name. I liked the image that popped into my head of two cranky old men.”

Eliza's Studio

Eliza’s Studio


Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina

Curtis then met her husband, Michael Topper, and he was offered a job in Argentina. In 2006, the couple moved to Buenos Aires, studying the language and learning to speak fluent Spanish while they were there. While in Argentina, Curtis continued to do design work for freelance clients in New York, but the experience of living in Buenos Aires was exciting for the artist.

“While New York is very art-centered, it tends to be more institutional,” Curtis explained. “In Buenos Aires there seems to be more empty space for productions, for artists. It is less institutionalized, with more creative freedom in general.” Curtis enjoyed the community of artists, the galleries that popped-up all the time, the spontaneity and the leeway that is given for creative endeavors, starting up things on a small budget and not worrying so much about the financial success of a project.

“People just can’t earn as much money there,” mused Curtis. “So maybe they become more inventive, they make do. It’s more than just making money.”

This quality of making-do is an area she finds similarity between Argentina and Maine, noting that here in Maine people often have more than one job, doing extra on the weekends or a side-business like cutting hair in the back room of their house.

As much as they enjoyed the vibe of Argentina, after four years, Topper and Curtis began missing their families and wanting to put down more permanent roots. They told their families of their intention to move to Maine, thinking maybe they would live in an apartment in Portland for a year while searching for an old farmhouse to fix up. Little did they expect to commit to a place in Limington even before leaving South America.

Clothing Options

Clothing Options


Back Home to Maine

“Mike kept looking at old house listings while we were still in Argentina, asking me ‘where is this place? where is that town?’ and I’d tell him where the were relative to Gorham.” One day the couple saw a listing for a farmhouse in Limington, and the location was perfect, halfway between Gorham and the family cabin in New Hampshire. They kept watching the listing as the price went lower and lower, and eventually they made an offer, moving back to Maine in 2010.

The house is in the historic Limington Village, and it is a work in progress for the couple. “We are gutting every room down to the studs.” Despite the heavy, time-consuming labor involved in renovating an old home, Topper and Curtis are enjoying putting down those roots they longed for. They have joined a local group committed encouraging to local, sustainable living practices, and have found the people in the area to be very welcoming.

“Another thing about moving back to Maine is that living in other places I always felt like a newcomer, or worse, a gentrifier. After being a foreigner for 18 years, there is an appeal to coming home and belonging,” Curtis explained. “I feel more free to get involved and to try and make changes and stay in one place.”

The relatively short distance to Portland and the art scene there is also a plus. Curtis has been able to connect with other artists at craft fairs and at the Merchant Co. in Portland, a retail emporium with over 100 vendors on block from the Portland Museum of Art. She has collaborated with fabric bag and accessory designer, Lillianka, and has created wholesale products for the Close Buy Catalog, a fundraising program for schools that sell Maine products rather than stuff made outside the country. Vendors must apply and be chosen to be in the Close Buy Catalog, and Curtis’s silk-screened canvas bags were featured in last year’s catalog.

Whether creating custom linocut (similar to woodcuts) wedding invitations or putting together a new collection of printed tees, Curtis strives to be as organic, ethical, and local-minded as possible. “I use organic cotton canvas for my tote bags, organic cotton for tee-shirts, non-toxic water-based printing inks, and in my general studio operations I try to reuse and recycle and minimize my environmental impact as much as possible, as well as using locally-available resources whenever I can,” she says.

Curtis’s designs and products can be found on the Morris & Essex website at http://www.morrisessex.com and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/Morris.Essex. You can also read Eliza’s blog at http://blog.elizajanecurtis.com

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Goodwill Tunic Out of the Closet

Goodwill Tunic Out of the Closet

This cute, printed cotton tunic was purchased at the Gorham, Maine Goodwill last year (or was it the year before?) Wearing it today with slim jeans, also from Goodwill and a red cami bought at Marden’s, a local chain.

What local clothes are coming out of your closet this week?

Spring!

spring!

spring! by localista featuring a straw hat

Dear Reader:

The snow is gently retreating from my northern lawn. The first brave shoots of daffodils have pushed up beside the front steps. And I am planning and plotting my garden–when I’m not interviewing subjects for my newspaper articles or working on my novella or making homemade granola, that is.

Granola is easy: just throw 3 cups of whole oats, some flax seeds, some chopped walnuts, some cocoa powder, some cinnamon, a dash of salt in a bowl. Mix in two tablespoons of olive oil and 1/2 cup of local maple syrup (I love the darker syrup, a little smokey-flavored from the old-fashioned wood-fired pan-reducing process. The syrup I use is made out in an open-sided shed on a wooded property overlooking the White Mountains off in the distance.Thank you Dana Masse of Shady Mountain Syrup Company in Parsonsfield, Maine!)

I put the mixture on a greased pan and bake for about 25 to 30 minutes on 350 degrees, stirring every ten minutes or so. Once cool, add seeds and dried fruits of your choice. This week’s addition of dried cherries from Cornerstone Country Market was SO good with the light cocoa flavor of the oats.I highly recommend both the cherries and Cornerstone.

Garden plans: I’ve convinced Hubby to move his horseshoe pits to a different location which will make room for up to SEVEN more boxes in a mostly-sunny spot just shy of the septic field. That would bring my count up to sixteen 4ft. square boxes. If I can ever figure out the perfect soil to put in them, I should be able to grow lots of greens, peppers, cucumbers, and herbs. Maybe even some cherry tomatoes. But I’m giving up on regular slicing or sauce tomatoes. These I will simply purchase at the farmer’s market or my CSA (reminder to self: fill out CSA form!).

We’ll see how the apple tree guild area fared over the winter. I looked at it a little bit yesterday, and the hay and compost and leaves didn’t break down as much as I’d hoped. The remedy will be to top it off with some composted manure and maybe plant some legumes this spring to turn in. I will plant the apple tree this spring, regardless. It is time for that guild. A guild is a grouping of plants that complement each other. This is a permaculture principle. In this case, an apple tree ringed with daffodils and/or garlic, some legumes, maybe some dandelions to bring up nutrients from the deeper soil, some comfrey to work as a natural mulch, etc. I found this idea in a book called Gaia’s Garden. Click HERE to see the apple guild page. I’ll be researching crab apples as I’d like to make more crab apple jelly.

Last project: hugelkultur. I pronounce this hoogle-cool-tour but I don’t know if that is correct. You could say hoogle-culture. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that you can take old logs and branches and blowdowns, pile them up, cover them with soil, and plant on it. Click the link to read more. The idea is that as the wood breaks down, it retains moisture, reducing the need to water, and contains plenty of nutrients to support plant growth. I’d like to do this behind the raised beds, where the south-facing slope of the hugulkulture bed would catch the sun nicely. I’m thinking blueberries and potatoes, but I don’t know if those two plants make good companions. Will do more research.

What are your garden plans for this growing season? Are you itching to get out there with your shovel or trowel? Remember, food doesn’t get more local than your own back yard. Even if you set up a few containers and plant lettuce and some herbs, you are giving yourself a wonderful gift of homegrown food, a fun hobby, time outside in the fresh air and sunshine, and a science experiment all rolled into one. Enjoy your week, Dear Readers.