Creatively Kagan -Winter 2008

The Kagan Family of Nantucket

by: Terry Pommett

photography by: Terry Pommett

Having grown up in the wonderfully wacky world of Vladimir Kagan and Erica Wilson, their children – Jessica, Vanessa and Illya – easily agree on one thing. Their parents’ approach to parenting is a mold that probably has been broken.

Top row, Vanessa Kagan Diserio, Illya Kagan; Second row: Wendy Rouillard Kagan, Jessica Kagan Cushman; Bottom row: Olivia Diserio, Vladimir Kagan, Erica Wilson, Mallory Cushman.

Internationally acclaimed modern-furniture designer “Vladi,” and America’s first lady of stitchery Erica, fostered a lifestyle that embraced art, education and culture as core family values. Neither tradition nor conformity were obligatory conceptions.

Illya remembers that life was often crazy, in a good way. “We traveled a lot. We were frequently being pulled out of school to go along on needlepoint seminars in Europe and China or teaching cruises. Generally, we’d take an exploratory trip the year before to scout locations and then follow up on the seminars the following year.”

Although that might mean missing school in the spring or fall, the education gained from traveling the world more than compensated for the loss of classroom time.

Vanessa also recalls that childhood was very unusual. There was a sense that things were done differently in the Kagan household. “We always had modern furniture, not at all like my friends’ parents who had antique tables and chairs. We never ate at 6 p.m. like the neighbors, but more often at 8 or 9 p.m. The house was hustle-and-bustle with all kinds of people passing through: curators, designers, fashion people, writers and photographers. It was a different kind of education. We didn’t learn just the usual things. For example, on one of our cruises, we were taught how to gamble.”

Erica, a graduate of the Royal School of Needlework in London, is known to millions of needleworkers. She is the author of 17 books and has written and produced television series for WGBH and the BBC as well as four videos on needlepoint, quilting, knitting and cross-stitch. Her kits are found in fine needlepoint shops throughout the country as well as her own shop on the island.It is understandable that the Kagan household would take on the feel of a summer beehive. Vladimir and Erica were both luminaries in their respective fields. Among Vladi’s numerous accolades are the American Society of Furniture Designers’ Pinnacle Award as well as its Lifetime Achievement Award. His showroom is found at Ralph Pucci International in New York.

Still, this fame did not dilute the familial bond. Vladimir points out that they were a family that did everything together. “None of this ‘go play soccer on Sunday’ for the kids. Today’s parents sacrifice their weekends for their children. We would go off and do things together,” he says. From their home in Manhattan, the Kagans often packed up the car and headed upstate for ski weekends. In Nantucket, they all learned how to sail at the Yacht Club and horseback ride at Clara McGrady’s Hilltop Stables.

Lessons learned at home built an indelible foundation for the children’s future. Illya, one of Nantucket’s most well-known en plein air painters, remembers his father sitting him down at age 5 and teaching him perspective. Jessica, a Smith graduate designing jewelry after 15 years of consulting in corporate communications, was taught scrimshaw by Vladi at an early age. “He instilled in us that you could never say ‘I’m bored,’ she recalls. “He’d say, ‘If that’s the case, then go make something, paint something or draw’.”

Vladimir and Erica arrived on the island more than 50 years ago, due to a chance meeting with Mary Ann Beinecke at one of Erica’s classes in Rye, New York. Her husband Walter was preparing to renovate the Jared Coffin House and authentic stitchery techniques had to be taught to the ladies contributing to the restoration. Mary Ann invited Erica to take on the project.In a self-effacing way, Vanessa suggests that the family’s artistic genes passed her over. As a buyer and manager of the Erica Wilson shop for the past 15 years, however, her eye for fashion and style is readily apparent in her women’s and children’s clothing selections. Her creative impulses have recently found an outlet in designing new needlepoint canvases and a line of cobblestone and shingle motifs created for bags and belts. 

“That and a request by a friend, Edith Bouriez, to teach a class in her gift shop, The Noisy Oyster, was what brought us here,” Erica remembers.

Winters in New York and summers on Nantucket, with lecture tours and seminars in between, became an annual routine for the Kagans for many years. The purchase of a home on Liberty Street launched Erica’s own retail and teaching business on the island.

And a homey affair it was. A sign was stuck in the hedges in front of the house identifying the location. The library served as the shop and classes were held in the living room or weather permitting, on the lawn in the back yard.

As the children grew up, they joined in the business, teaching and assisting as needed. Vanessa remembers the great fun it was having built-in “play dates” in the yard, taking classes with Erica’s assistant, serving ice tea with cookies and eventually teaching children’s and adult classes herself. Illya painted canvases for Erica’s kits right up until he graduated from Skidmore College as an art major.

“The similarity is in the simplifying of the scene,” he says. His new “attic” art studio is above the Erica Wilson shop at 25 Main Street, where his work can be seen by appointment.Illya, who had his first solo show in 1991 at the James Hunt Barker Gallery, recognizes a connection between the needlepoint canvases he painted for his mother in the attic on Liberty Street and the sumptuous impressionist landscapes he now produces in the field.

Vladimir, who studied architecture at Columbia University, did much of his designing at home in the summer to get ready for the fall market in October.

“I built a number of prototype models with local cabinetmaker John Arakawa. I’m one of the few designers who knows how to make furniture. My father taught me how to make cabinets and wanted me to follow in the profession. He would say, ‘Measure three times and cut once.’ I ended up cutting three times and never measured. So I became a designer. But he made me understand the practicality of building furniture. You may have a nifty idea, but is it cost-effective to build?”

It’s not always true that opposites attract. Illya and his wife, illustrator and author Wendy Rouillard, seem to be cut from the same cloth and bounce all their artistic ideas off each other. With their different mediums, they’re a perfect Kaganesque offshoot, albeit more structurally organized.

Wendy has published 10 children’s books featuring her creation, Barnaby Bear. Her first book, “Barnaby Far Away,” set on Nantucket, establishes the tone for the lovable creature. He is a child’s best friend who can be taken anywhere. The picture books appeal to children ages 3 to 6, while a new board-book series delights infants to 3-year-olds.

Illya often dresses as Barnaby at Wendy’s book-signings, a secret still undiscovered by their daughter Annecy. “My whole family is in education,” says Wendy. “My dad is an English teacher, my mom a librarian, my brother a teacher. Barnaby resulted from an idea I came up with while working with one of my professors, a stuffed-animal designer, at Parsons School of Design. He’s based on my grandmother’s bear which I grew up with.”

The next generation of Kagans is getting its introduction to the art world at an early age. Vanessa’s three daughters, GiGi, Olivia and Sophia, are right at home taking painting and pottery classes at the Artists Association, while Illya and Wendy’s Annecy loves to paint. Five-month-old Ondine hasn’t picked up a brush just yet, but can sometimes be seen glancing over Illya’s shoulder from a snuggle pack while dad is painting on location. Jessica’s daughter Mallory is studying art history at Boston University.

Jessica’s jewelry-making endeavors owe much to her son Sandy, whose untimely death four years ago provided her the impetus to shed her corporate self and embark on a new career. “It gave me a creative outlet that saved me from the abyss,” she says. “Sandy loved film and helped me make my first bracelet. We’d spend hours watching movies together and writing down our favorite one-liners,” she says.

“I think of these as part bumper-sticker and part tattoo, but without the commitment,” she says. Her jewelry is available at Neiman Marcus and the Erica Wilson shop on Nantucket. Her fine-jewelry line is sold exclusively at Bergdorf Goodman in New York. Together with quotes from literature and even New York graffiti, those phrases are scrimshawed onto bangle-type bracelets. She employs both high-priced fossilized woolly-mammoth ivory and more affordable hand-finished resin copies for her materials.

Meanwhile, there is no moss gathering on the rest of the family. Illya is planning his first-ever New York exhibit together with his father at Vladimir’s new Manhattan showroom, Vladimir Kagan Couture. Wendy is working on a pilot Barnaby TV show, a puppet animation focusing on “content knowledge,” produced by Little Airplane Productions in New York City. Vanessa has just designed a Nantucket necklace based on the traditional Saint Christopher’s medal, a safe-travel piece for those traveling to and from the island.

Vladimir is embarking on a project with the Connaught Hotel in London, while Erica has been asked to refurbish the kneelers at Manhattan’s Saint Thomas Church, as she has done so beautifully at St. Paul’s and the Sconset Chapel on Nantucket. The Kagans keep rolling along.

Terry Pommett is a freelance photojournalist and a frequent contributor to Nantucket Today.

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