At an eastern spoke of the Methodist Campground, a maze of over 300 tiny Victorian cottages all clustered together as if the occupants fear the big bad wolf might blow them down, a cottage on Fisk Lane stands out in an arena of supreme adorableness for still extra touches of adorable: A porch of red and white polka-dot-cushioned wicker chairs, and, on the upper balcony, a human-size copper figure of a jolly-looking dad with a boy on his shoulders.
This is the Kirkpatricks’ house, and here’s how they came to live there. First, Stephanie’s story: She grew up in Tennessee, was widowed in the early ’90s, and with her young son tried on a new life by moving to Mystic, Conn. Stephanie opened an antiques and collectibles shop on what she herself calls “the wrong side of the tracks,” although any of us who know that charming seaside village can only imagine that the wrong side would still be the Beverly Hills of, say, Detroit.
Now it’s time to switch to Brian, who not only grew up in Mystic, but is descended from ancestors who put up the Seaport. He too owned an antiques store, but his was located in the dishiest part of town, on Church Street. Stephanie found him cozying up to her and buying lots of stuff from her own store, which delighted her until she happened to spot some of those same items offered at twice their original price in Brian’s windows. No biggie: Brian was paying her for her sticker price, and carting them to a location where said price could be leveraged higher. And, besides, “she was cute!” he says today, which was what really drew him to her store, a place he was willing to frequent even though Van Morrison played all the livelong day.
They even worked out the difference when the tab spiked too high: Stephanie sold Brian an Annabella plant stand from Tennessee for $1,200; he in turn had some deep-pocketed clients with the last name of DuPont who were willing to shell out $3,800 for the piece. He invited Stephanie to split the difference if she’d sail with him to the Fisher Island Yacht Club to deliver the objet d’art.
Now back to Stephanie’s household, in a seaside cottage she’d purchased in Noank, Conn., a rundown but charming two-bedroom cottage with a brick fireplace and a 35-foot dock. When Brian tied up one too many times at the end of said dock, they reached that inevitable point where he neglected to sail away. When Brian’s father saw Stephanie’s cottage packed with both their art and furniture, he said in surprise, “You have the same stuff!”
Stephanie’s son liked the goofy, fun-loving Brian, but he made a modest demand: If Mom and Brian were going to marry, he asked them to wait the five months until he graduated from high school. So what did this impulsive couple do? Like Romeo and Juliet, they eloped.
But let us once again spool back a few years, to Stephanie’s pre-Brian story: In Tennessee in 1988, Stephanie was working as a sixth grade teacher and took a trip with two girlfriends to Martha’s Vineyard. Finding themselves, as all tourists do, in the Victorian wonder world of the Campground, they chanced to see a cottage with a for-sale sign. The place was shabby, every bit of it painted red, and they discerned nothing of the interior through dusty windows. And yet, why not buy it? Sight (of the inside) unseen, Stephanie plunked down $1,000 with the real estate agent. Back home, her girlfriends chickened out of their summer cottage ownership. It was all hers.
Stephanie roughed it for years, always mindful of spending the required two weeks minimum in her cottage, as per the Association’s rules. She brought in darling old pieces she’d fixed up, and her first mother-in-law, Grandma Ellen, an artist, painted doors, furniture, and the eaves around Gothic windows, beautiful work that still graces the house.
But, all the same, the place was falling to rack and ruin. “It was crummy!” declares Brian today about his first impressions of it. And now one more scroll-back to Brian: He had never as a boy considered himself an artist. He was a jock, a footballer and a baseballer. In his grownup years he took over his grandfather’s building business in Mystic and, of course, he had his upscale store on Church Street.
And then one summer in 2003, he and Stephanie visited Italy for the first time. He found himself starry-eyed in Venice, but it was in Florence that a crazy idea took hold. He stared at the beyond-famous statue of David by Michelangelo in the Piazza della SIgnoria. He gasped to Stephanie, “I’ve got to find an art store!” “Why?” she asked. “I must paint!” he said.
With brushes and a box of watercolors, he stood in the piazza and rendered a number of iterations of the David. Some of the people passing by asked, “Is that for sale?” “No, it’s my first work,” he replied. He was as driven as Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man” counting cards at the blackjack tables. He painted on the plane going home, and hasn’t stopped since, gravitating from watercolors to oils to acrylics.
You know a Kirkpatrick painting when you see it: Lots of Picasso bold black strokes and Matisse colors. His most popular works are fish-oriented, sometimes masses of fish seeming to devour one another, or disporting in a football pileup. He does reams of fishermen proffering their catch, and Stephanie, who has a latent and fabulous talent of her own, for her part made her first splash on the painting scene with what she calls her “Bikini Girls”: “I knew women fished too, so I had no idea why only guys were depicted in the sport. I came up with my own line of cute girly-girls holding up their catch.”
Meanwhile, the cottage on Fisk has become HQ for Brian and Stephanie. In the summer their two grown sons — one apiece: Stephanie’s is an attorney in South Easton with a wife and two boys; Brian’s is a Realtor in Mystic (where else? and both Brian’s parents are still very much alive and kicking there) with a wife and one boy — visit often, packing the upstairs rafters with two railroad bedrooms in the rear, one for parents, the second for kiddies.
The Kirkpatricks’ taste in bright, quirky, kooky paintings and vintage items such as wooden weather vanes, ship’s signs, and antique angel carvings make of the cottage a country collector’s delight. The “crummy” aspects of the little house have been withdrawn: beadboard in place of decayed slats, new (albeit period-appropriate) windows, and Stephanie’s interior decor work with faux-carpeted stair treads, a kitchen floor of fish and starfish against a sponged-on sea-foam green, polyurethaned to keep it fresh. Stephanie is also a master rug hooker, and this reporter was reduced to begging her to hang her rugs on the walls, rather than leaving them underfoot for folks to tread upon.
The key to the Kirkpatricks’ wondrous cottage, and 17 years of felicitous marriage, is their beyond-compatible taste. Stephanie says, “There’s nothing either of us can bring home from a separate shopping trip that the other won’t love.” On the other hand, they can’t stop shopping, piling stuff under beds and in a central upstairs “junk room.” When it’s suggested they cease collecting, and save their money for another trip to Italy, Brian looks thoughtful.
Maybe it’s time for him to repaint the David? Possibly holding out a striped bass?