Artist sister’s bungalow
By Becca Tucker
Somewhere in the black dirt, a family compound is taking shape. I can’t say where, because town code might have a problem with the part that I’m writing about. But code be damned, this living arrangement makes perfect sense.
Three years ago, a family of four bought a four-acre piece of an old farm. They settled in the house that was most habitable while the dad, a carpenter, got started fixing up what would become the main house – but which was completely without insulation, among other things.
Last fall, the dad’s sister, a ceramic artist and bartender, found herself looking for a place to live. There was no shortage of fixer-upper spaces on their property, which once housed farmworkers. Why didn’t she come live with them?
So in September, she moved down from New Paltz, camping with two dogs and a cat in the future-main-house while she started ripping out the innards of her future home: a 300-ish square-foot bungalow. “It’s not a tiny, tiny house, but it’s little,” she said. It had been inhabited, but that was years ago. Now the shanty was covered in mouse droppings, with a hole in the floor and ceiling.
It was getting colder by the day in the big uninsulated house where she was camped, so she had to hustle. By December, with the benefit of pointers from her brother, she had stripped the place down to the studs and built it up again: installing new plumbing and sinks, constructing a cement basin around the shower drain and erecting a glass-tiled shower wall, installing kitchen cabinets, laying flooring, putting up and insulating walls, removing the drop ceiling and replacing it with a storage loft, and putting in a wood burning stove.
The entire project cost about $10,000, with materials and the cost of bringing in a couple guys to help with a few things. The family covered the cost, and she provided the labor.
She and her pets could finally move into their cozy new digs. She thought about sleeping in the loft, but having done that once before, “I didn’t want to climb up a ladder anymore.” The ability to walk to the bathroom, for anyone who has slept in a loft or a top bunk, is a luxury not to be underrated.
Did she feel victorious, having built her own home with no prior experience? “It was just so exhausting,” she said, standing in her kitchen cradling a mug in her hands – a mug she threw herself. (She was also bartending til 1 a.m. the night before.) She is not one to toot her own horn, but she does point out one detail: most of the pieces on her kitchen shelves and counter, the bowls and mugs and saucers, are her own work.
This is an invaluable upside to living with family: time to focus on her art. She lives here rent-free, in exchange for doing a hefty share of the work around the place, including being a third pair of hands for the kids. That means that other than a couple nights a week of bartending, she is freer than she’s ever been to throw pottery. Her brother framed off a studio in a corner of the barn, and she hung tarps for walls and got a dehumidifier and box fan going to try to get the moisture level down to a point where her stuff won’t take forever to dry. She has set up her electric kiln in another unused spot in an outbuilding. At her old place, she only had access to a studio for a few hours at a time. Now she can make art whenever.
She does miss the social scene she left behind, but she’s been walking a ton. She and her dogs just walk out the front door and bang out four-to-six mile hikes. She’s been trying to get her nephews to join, ribbing the older one about his endurance — easy prey for zombies.
She just got rid of her Netflix account and deleted the games from her phone, and has started working in the evenings, when she finds she’s more productive. She put in a window in her studio hoping to improve ventilation. The downside is now the kids can see the light and know when she’s in there.
It’s only sort of a downside. When they’re in her studio she does frequently have to ask for room to work, and request that small hands not touch sharp objects, but there is an easy rapport between the kids and their aunt that can only come from spending a lot of time together.
She’s gearing up for her first street show the day of my visit. I follow her into her studio, which like her home is a mini-scale, super functional, casually hip use of an otherwise forgotten space. She’s turning a bowl on her pottery wheel. She puts her ear down to the spinning clay, knocking on it to listen for something while her nephew monologues about zombie movies and the big family dog pants in the corner, sprawled on the cool cement floor.
During the bomb cyclone this winter there were days it was too cold to be down here. To pass the time, she made these tiny fingertip-sized pigs she calls “pinch pigs,” which she waxed, glazed, fired, and posted on Instagram. In the morning, she woke to find her phone blowing up with requests: “I want one!”
So she’s made a few hundred pinch pigs, each one a little different, to sell at the fair for $5, in case people aren’t in the mood for a $30 mug. Pinch pigs, which take about three minutes to form with her hands, aren’t as satisfying to make as a nice mug. She calls the process of throwing pottery “definitely an act of meditation.” About 60 bespoke coffee cups, bowls and vases are lined up in a corner of her house, glazed in charming color combinations and ready for the fair. But the pigs have their own something, too; they sell well at the bar where she works.
Her low overhead takes some pressure off. “My goal,” she said in her understated way, “is to make back the entrance fee.”