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
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.”
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.
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