North Star -Spring 2014
by: Leslie Linsley
photography by: Terry Pommett
Former Nantucket art-gallery owner and “outsider art” expert Lyn Walsh lives in a delightful RESTORED CARRIAGE HOUSE right next to Greater Light on Howard Street.
The little lane off Upper Main that runs alongside The Homestead is a fitting location for this art aficionado. In the 1930s two Quaker sisters, Hanna and Gertrude Mon- aghan from Philadelphia owned an interesting, rather quirky house here that they used as a summer art studio. It was called Greater Light and was recently restored by its cur- rent owner, the Nantucket Historical Association. It is a magnificent building with an in- triguing creative history and after many years is finally restored and open to the public.
Greater Light started out as a livestock barn dating back to the 18th century. The well- known story on Nantucket tells us how the sisters followed a herd of cows up Main Street until the animals disappeared into a massive barn. They fell in love with this unusual struc- ture and were finally able to purchase it from local grocer William Holland. They then took on the project of turning the barn into their summer home and art studio like nothing anyone had ever seen on Nantucket. Had this happened today, they never could have gotten approval from the Historic District Commission, as nothing about it was conforming or relating to the history of the island. In fact, the sisters were quite avant garde as collectors of cast-off architectural elements, including 12-foot wrought-iron gates, Italian gilded columns, decorative church windows and other exotic decorations from around the world. They had both the taste and the means to furnish the inside just as creatively.
Two other buildings were once part of the property. One was called Lesser Light, the other North Star. In 2004 Walsh bought the charming North Star cottage that sits sideways at the end of the lane. She then employed her son Chad to turn it into a showpiece for his ability in restoration. Chad was one of five founders of a nonprofit called Grass Roots United that worked in Haiti after the earthquake there in 2010.
It took two years to restore the cottage into a two-bedroom, two-bath home, complete with a spacious “wart” kitchen that is the hub of the house. Walsh loves to cook and designed the kitchen in keeping with its 200-year-old legacy. It is here that she has casual dinner parties with friends, hosts art salons and has even entertained as many as 21 guests.
“Twenty-two tips the scales,” she says.
During the two-year renovation project, Walsh and her son kept making discoveries that caused the plans to change. They salvaged old wood and old plaster and even the beams. The kitchen is the main hub of the building. A cozy living room where the front door is located is hardly used. Everyone comes through the kitchen. A small bedroom and bathroom finish the first floor. Upstairs there is a small sitting room and a master bedroom and bath. A hallway is delightfully furnished with paintings and sculpture. It’s an enchanting dollhouse.
“The house still sags – on purpose,” Walsh says. The Monaghan sisters would approve.
Walsh came to Nantucket as a child. In the 1980s she founded the Sailor’s Valentine Gallery on Federal Street and after 25 years moved to the Macy Warehouse on Straight Wharf. It was here that she showcased the art of internationally- known artists as well as a wide range of outsider and folk art. She consistently assembled an eclectic group of artwork from modern and abstract to expressionism and everything new from contemporary artists.
Her travels took her to France, England, Switzerland, the Far East and closer to home, where she was known throughout the international art community. Seeking new direction she went to shows in New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Miami and Philadelphia.
“It was like a treasure hunt,” Walsh says. “Twice a year I’d pack up my kids and we’d go south to Virginia, West Virginia, New Orleans and back, always hunting for unknown outsider artists.”
She goes on, pointing out the more interesting art- work she kept for herself.
“My home is now my gallery,” she says.
All the utilitarian items in the kitchen, for example, are housed not in ordinary drawers and cabinets but in artfully-made vessels that sit on counters and shelves around the room. The walls are adorned with a mix of art by artists Walsh has admired and collected over the years. She calls the arrangements of her collections “artful clutter.” A lacquered container from Burma holds dried goods.
“Locals would bring food to the priests in these ves- sels,” she says. “I make decorative objects useful and this also frees up limited cabinet space."
No commercial labels are in sight.
In the living room, an altar table from Japan holds a black Madonna from a Polish artist now in Worcester, Mass.
“Living in a small space makes one selective,” Walsh says as she points out all the clever ways she’s devised for storage and arranging furniture for optimum com- fort and an aesthetic style.
Everywhere one looks there is art and sculpture and interesting objects from around the world.
“I haunted museums and art galleries in different countries for stimulation. Now, with such a small living space I’ve had to be selective, but I have a little bit of all the best artists that I represented and admired. Surrounding myself with art enriches my life,” Walsh says.
She points out objects from Russian, Latino and Ukrainian artists. Matt Lamb, a self-taught artist from Chicago, is the only artist to have had a one-man show at the Picasso Museum at Horta and Walsh is proud to own one of his pieces.
“Finding naïve artists became somewhat of an ob- session,” she says of the work often characterized by a childlike simplicity in its subject matter and tech- nique.
“I went from a large house in Dionis to this small cottage so I had to choose the things that mattered most to me," she says.
Her lifestyle is now much simpler than when she ran a gallery and she enjoys the aesthetic paring down of her life, but admits it’s a daily challenge.
“I miss the hunt,” she says.
And, although she no longer has an art gallery, Walsh continues to be engaged in the art world, in- spiring and being inspired by her community of cre- ative people. ///
Leslie Linsley writes the “Life & Style” column and blog for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.