Authors Posts by Gwyn McAllister

Gwyn McAllister


People even forget to celebrate National Fruitcake Day on Dec. 27.

Is there a dessert with a worse reputation than fruitcake? –Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

What’s the deal with fruitcake? How can a dessert possibly suffer from bad PR? How can something full of sugar, fat, and fruit, soaked in alcohol, be relegated to the ranks of such universally disdained foods as lima beans, Brussels sprouts, and liver? The two halves independently sound good — fruit and cake. Yet the final product, somehow, becomes far less than the sum of its parts. What has made this basically harmless (harmless, that is, until it’s flung at someone’s head) confection the object of so much scorn?

Well, part of the problem is overexposure. The classic fruitcake is an amalgamation of dried fruits and nuts, sugar, a little flour, and eggs, which is then soaked in rum or other spirits. The dried ingredients and the high sugar and alcohol content combine to produce a natural wonder of preservation. This long shelf life made the fruitcake the perfect mail-order item in the days before chemical preservatives. American companies started distributing fruitcakes by mail in 1913. As with all things, mass production and competition for price point led to inferior quality and the use of cheaper ingredients (including those cheerfully toxic-looking red and green cherries). Fruitcakes also became synonymous with charity drives, and you know how people feel about anything they’re guilted into purchasing.

The indestructibility of the fruitcake also makes it an ideal regifting item. This practice became so notorious that Johnny Carson put the nail in the coffin of the fruitcake’s reputation when on The Tonight Show he famously quipped, “The worst gift is a fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other.”

The joke was so popular that decades later, “Ask the Fruitcake Lady” became a running segment on The Tonight Show, and Jay Leno sampled a 125-year-old “heirloom” fruitcake on air in 2003.

While the fruitcake may be despised by many today, it has a long and illustrious history as a popular dessert throughout the Western world. But there’s also a sordid side to the fruitcake’s past. In the early 18th century the cake was outlawed throughout continental Europe on the charge that it was “sinfully rich.”

Fruitcake is the traditional wedding cake in Great Britain. Beneath the ornate white fondant façade of the centerpiece of the 2011 royal wedding lurked a fruitcake (draped in marzipan!). In this country, the cake is most popular in the South, where many of the original mail-order suppliers are still located. In the early part of the last century, Southerners tended to load their fruitcakes with one of their most abundant resources — nuts, leading to the expression “nutty as a fruitcake.”

This phrase probably hasn’t helped the confection’s image much. The scorn inflicted on the fruitcake has taken a decidedly vicious turn recently, as evidenced by the annual Great Fruitcake Toss in Manitou Springs, Colo., and an initiative called the Great Fruitcake Recycling Project, whose website lists such suggestions for repurposing fruitcakes as using them for doorstops, hammers, speed bumps, car trunk weights, and dartboards. The Recycling Project will also accept, by mail, any unwanted fruitcakes to pass along to more appreciative recipients.

Some people apparently love fruitcake. It was reputedly one of Princess Grace’s favorites. There’s even a National Fruitcake Day — Dec. 27.

And judging by a recent Facebook inquiry, there are many on the Island who not only like the dense dessert, but make their own. Traditionally, fruitcakes are prepared around Thanksgiving to allow time for saturation and flavor infusion. Truman Capote’s mostly autobiographical short story “A Christmas Memory” relates the the adventures of a young boy and his elderly aunt who spend days gathering ingredients and preparing for their annual holiday baking. It all starts on a frosty morn in late November when Aunt Sook proclaims, “It’s fruitcake weather!” (Incidentally, Capote’s real aunt was the Tonight Show’s Fruitcake Lady).

Betty Burton’s fruitcake

Betty Burton in Oak Bluffs has adapted her grandmother’s fruitcake recipe to make it a little more healthy — as healthy as something with sugar and molasses loaded with a rum kick can be. She replaces much of the candied fruit with dried or fresh fruit, but keep in mind that dried fruits have to soak for a few hours before they are used.

1 cup raisins

½ cup dates

½ cup dried cranberries

½ cup dried cherries

½ cup chopped fresh or canned pineapple

zest of one lemon

zest of one orange

¼ cup candied ginger, chopped

½ cup pecans, broken into pieces

½ cup orange juice

1 cup rum

1¼ stick unsalted butter

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup molasses

2 eggs

¼ teaspoon cloves

¼ teaspoon allspice

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1¾ cups all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

Brandy for basting and/or spritzing

Mix the dried fruits in a large bowl with the orange juice and rum. Set aside to marinate for at least three hours.

Heat oven to 325ºF. Cream butter. Add sugar and molasses. Add eggs lightly beaten. Add pineapple and dried fruits with all the liquid.

Combine dry ingredients (including spices). Mix bit by bit into the butter batter. Fold in nuts. Spoon into a 10-inch greased loaf pan and bake for 1 hour, spritzing with brandy several times during baking time. Check for doneness with a toothpick. If no batter sticks to toothpick, cake is done. Cool on a baking rack completely before turning out of pan.

Pair a fruitcake with wine

We asked the Times’ new wine columnist, Sam Decker, what would be the ideal pairing for fruitcake. Here’s what he said: “Tawny port all way. Port, it could be said, is the fruitcake of the wine world.”

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The Edgartown fire engine led the Edgartown Christmas parade in 2013.

Holiday gifts, delectable treats, Christmas music, activities for kids, spectacular displays, and, of course, Santa — all the seasonal cheer you could possibly want will be crammed into four days this long weekend during the annual Christmas in Edgartown celebration.

And while you’re enjoying the gala weekend, you will be helping to support some worthy causes. “We’re trying this year to promote how Christmas in Edgartown helps support nonprofits,” says Annie Cooke-Ennis who, along with Janice Wooden, is co-chairing the celebration this year. “In a time where there’s so much commercialism being shoved down your throat, we want this to be a time of not only joy and celebration, but also community giving.”

This year, according to Ms. Cooke-Ennis, over 70 organizations will be benefitted by various events or activities.

All of the favorite festivities will be back this year, including Donaroma’s Evening of Enchantment, the lighting of the Edgartown Lighthouse, the Christmas Parade, the Great Chowder Contest, the Teddy Bear Suite at the Harbor View Hotel, the MV Preservation Trust Cocktail Party at the Daniel Fisher House, and the Minnesingers Holiday Concerts at the Whaling Church

There are also a few new items adding to the growing roster of events and activities. For one thing, this year the festivities will begin on Thursday, instead of Friday. On December 11, Morning Glory will host a Farm Party with a train village, snacks, a bonfire and more from 4 to 6 pm. Holiday parties will follow at Backwater Trading Company and the Edgartown National Bank.

The spirit of charity is very much in evidence. This year, the community can help decorate six Christmas trees which will then be donated to families in need. Six children’s art groups from around the Island will hand-make ornaments and all can help trim the trees on Saturday, from 2 to 4:30 pm.

Lighthouse Properties, which recently relocated to downtown Edgartown, will host a gift wrapping station on Saturday and Sunday from 12 noon to 4 pm. Donations will go to Habitat for Humanity.

Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary will be moving its base of operations downtown this year. On Sunday, kids and adults are welcome to stop by the Anchors to make nature ornaments and crafts with proceeds benefitting Mass Audubon Felix Neck.

Joining the growing list of activities at the Harbor View Hotel will be entertainment provided by the Martha’s Vineyard Film Festival. Brian Ditchfield and Brooke Hardman will present a short dramatic reading of Mr. Ditchfield’s original story A Child’s Christmas in Edgartown which is adapted from the classic Holiday tale by Dylan Thomas. Following the reading, the Film Festival will screen A Christmas Story.

Entertainment Cinemas will also host two movie screenings on Saturday which are free with a donation to the Food Pantry of cash or non-perishable food items.

There will be quite a few opportunities to shop for unique gifts, including at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s Jewelry Jingle, featuring second-hand costume and fine jewelry at great prices; Hospice’s Handmade from the Heart sale with some fantastic items all donated to benefit Hospice of Martha’s Vineyard; the Arts and Crafts Festival at the Edgartown School featuring the work of 40 Island artisans; and the Local Arts and Crafts Fair at the Kelley House. Also, many — if not most — of the downtown area stores will hold special sales or donate part of their proceeds to charitable organizations.

So get into the holiday spirit this coming weekend, knowing that you’ll be helping to spread cheer far and wide. Ms. Cooke-Ennis says that last year the celebration raised $50,000 for charities both on and off Island. The organizers are hoping to meet or exceed that figure with this year’s festival.

For more information, visit

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Nina Violet. —Photo by Brigitte Cornand

Although the Dumptique — the free shop at the West Tisbury dump — has a Frenchified name, most would agree that that’s purely ironic. There would appear to be little connection between the castoff clothing and housewares outlet and the traditional idea of a boutique: a place to shop for up-to-the-moment styles.

Brian Weiland. —Photo by Brigitte Cornand
Liam Weiland. —Photo by Brigitte Cornand

So it might be hard to imagine that the humble Dumptique has a presence in one of the toniest sections of Paris — but such is the case. Right now, hanging in an art gallery located on one of the city’s hippest streets, is a collection of photographs taken at the Dumptique.

The exhibit, called “The Dumptique and the Dumptiquers,” features posed portraits of a variety of people shopping at the well-loved recycling center. The collection is part of a group show at the Galerie du Jour, owned by clothing designer Agnès B.

The photographer is filmmaker Brigitte Cornand of West Tisbury and Paris. She is best known for her documentaries on well-known artists. After studying art at the Louvre School in Paris, Ms. Cornand started making film portraits of artist friends and worked as a producer of art programs for Canal+.

Eventually, Ms. Cornand relocated to New York City. “In the early ‘90s I met the sculptor Louise Bourgeois in New York City and did a film on her,” wrote Ms. Cornand in an email to The Times. “She loved Chere Louise. We became friends, and she asked me to move to New York.” The documentarian eventually made four films with Bourgeois.

During her time in New York, Ms. Cornand visited the Vineyard often. “When Louise Bourgeois passed away, I decided to move up to West Tisbury, where I used to go frequently for 10 years.”

Evie Krieling. —Photo by Brigitte Cornand
Evie Krieling. —Photo by Brigitte Cornand

In the meantime, she had started experimenting with photography. “More recently I bought a very tiny camera to take a photographic record of my friends in New York. My camera, a small digital Leica, became my best friend. It is like a diary. Now I have it in my bag at all times.”

Like many artists, Ms. Cornand found inspiration in the beauty of the Vineyard: “Martha’s Vineyard is a special and rare Island which breaks your habits. The countryside is gorgeous with its sumptuous greens, trees and woods, fields with ponds protecting the land with their fingers.”

She also found artistic inspiration in the people: “The spirit of the Island is beautiful. Old style, generous and kind.”

Through her volunteer job at the Dumptique Ms. Cornand had the opportunity to meet a wide range of Islanders. “Immediately I understood that the Dumptique of West Tisbury is a kind of treasure room. It’s unique. It’s a meeting place, a rendezvous of all ages and different social standing. I met many of my new friends there.”

“I noticed that all these people coming for the picking, or bringing donations, were very stylish. Little by little I decided to take pictures of them. My friends, the volunteers, helped me a lot.”

The photos were taken over the course of a year from May 2013 to May 2014.

Sabra Saperstein and Olivia Pattison. —Photo by Brigitte Cornand
Sabra Saperstein and Olivia Pattison. —Photo by Brigitte Cornand

Longtime friend Agnès B. got a chance to look at the Dumptique photos last year while Ms. Cornand was in Paris. She liked them well enough to include them in a group show at her Galerie du Jour, which is located one block from the Pompidou Centre in the Beaubourg area of the fourth arrondissement. The show opened on Nov. 8, and will hang at the gallery through Dec. 20.

The Galerie du Jour is a contemporary art gallery specializing in photography but open to a wide range of media. It opened in 1984 with a collection of graffiti art. The gallery exhibits the work of many well-known artists, including filmmakers Kenneth Anger and Harmony Korine and photographer Nan Goldin.

Agnès B. boutiques are located in cities all over the world in some of the most stylish retail locations. Agnès B., who also owns a film production company and another gallery in Japan, is known to be a patron of the arts, as well as a style setter.

So don’t be surprised if the Vineyard look (let’s call it practical/resourceful) eventually ends up on the streets of Paris, or maybe even the runways of Fashion Week.

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The shops and galleries of Main Street make up part of the Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District. —Photo by Michael Cummo

Last Saturday, the Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District Committee launched a weekly series of Saturday Strolls. From 4 to 6 pm, shops and galleries offered refreshments, special sales and, in some cases, small gifts of appreciation. “We want it to be as much about socializing as shopping,” said Peter Simon of the Simon Gallery, whose idea sparked the initiative. Mr. Simon was inspired by a friend’s weekly artists salons and wanted to do something similar in the downtown Vineyard Haven area. Saturday Strolls will combine the ideas of a business initiative and a social gathering. The committee hopes to expand on the initiative next summer.

“We hope to eventually include other businesses like architectural firms,” said M.J. Bruder Munafo, executive and artistic director of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, who is in charge of the strolls. “It’s just the idea to invite people to stop in and say hi and see what they’re all about.” The doors of The Playhouse, located on Church Street, will be open during the Saturday Strolls. They will offer refreshments and give tours of the newly renovated theater and backstage area. The MV Film Center, located in the Tisbury Marketplace will screen 4 pm movies on Saturdays.

The Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District extends from the library to the Tisbury Marketplace. “It’s incredible what we have within that one mile,” said Ms. Munafo. “Not every town has an independent bookstore or a newspaper. The Chamber of Commerce is in our district, and the shipyard. I’ve looked at the inventory of other cultural districts in the state and we’re pretty high up there in density. There are a lot of possibilities. We’re going to be getting more active as we become more organized.”

Photo courtesy of Peter Simon
Guests gather at The Simon Gallery for a “Buisness After Hours” event put on by the Chamber of Commerce in September. —Photo by Peter Simon

Last Saturday Mr. Simon, a celebrated photographer, offered up wine, soda, nuts, crackers, cheese, and brownies and invited guests to stop in and chat with him and his wife, artist Ronni Simon. “At one point our gallery actually became quite crowded,” he said. “We definitely had an increase in sales. This is sort of like a test run for the next four weeks. I think it will really take off next summer.”

Next door to the Simon Gallery, Louisa Gould laid out a festive spread of snacks and wine and invited guests to browse her latest exhibit, the annual Holiday Small Works Show, which features art and gift items from 10-plus artists in a variety of price ranges.

Among the stores that will participate in the strolls with refreshments and special sales are Juliska, the Collection, Rainy Day, Bunch of Grapes, Midnight Farm, and Alley Cat. The Beach House will be kicking off a weekly 25 percent sale each Saturday, featuring one of their signature lines. This week all Italian pottery is on sale. Starting on Saturday, all linens and bedspreads will be 25 percent off.

By all means visit Beadniks on Church Street before they close their doors for good mid-month. The store will be open every day until December 16 with a progressive sale going on. The more you buy, the more you save, up to 75 percent off, and the discounts will increase each week.

The strolls will offer a great chance to shop, nosh, meet the artists and store owners and get into the holiday spirit.

For more information, visit the Facebook page of Vineyard Haven Harbor Cultural District.

More giving every year.

Susie Wallo, far right, is the Red Stocking Fund co-chair. Harley Riders, left to right, David Caseau, Harley Riders treasurer; Mike "Panhead" Fuss; David "Cricket" Willoughby, Riders vice president; Lisa Mathieu; Renei Mathieu, Harley Riders president. —Photo by Michael Dello Russo

There really is a Santa Claus, and a band of his elves is based on Martha’s Vineyard. Every year the Red Stocking Fund provides Christmas gifts for 300 to 400 kids in need. The organization’s roots date to the 1930s and the inspiration of one woman who recruited friends to knit stockings and fill them with toys. Today, although the initiative has grown substantially, it is still a grass-roots effort manned by an all-volunteer army of close to 100 people, and supported by hundreds more.

Along with a crowd of helpers, who shop, collect, wrap, and number the gifts, the donations of money and toys all come from local fundraisers and the Island community. “It’s absolutely amazing,” says co-chair of the Red Stocking Board Susie Wallo; “it never ceases to amaze me how generous this Island is. They hear the word ‘kids’ and it’s done.”

Ms. Wallo and Leslie Frizzell took over as co-chairs just this year. Their predecessors, Kerry Alley and Lorraine Clark, both of whom headed the operation for many years, are still involved. “They’ve been holding our hands through the whole process,” says Ms. Frizzell; “they’ve just been great.”

Three annual off-season events benefit the Red Stocking fund -— the Martha’s Vineyard Big Chili Contest in January, the Chowder Contest held each year during Christmas in Edgartown weekend, and the MV Harley Riders Toys for Tots ride. The Harley Riders handed over a check for more than $10,000 after their ride earlier this month. The rest of the donations come from local businesses and individuals.

“Kids collect change in the schools or host used-book sales,” says Ms. Wallo. “We always get some large checks, but a lot of it is $5, $10. People who come here in the summer or subscribe to the local papers send us checks. Their hearts go out to the cause. It’s just so incredible. People come out of the woodwork.”

The money collected is used to purchase clothing and gifts and to supply Island families with holiday meals. In November, the Red Stocking Fund distributes applications through banks, schools and churches. Families in need are placed on a list to receive grocery gift certificates around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

Parents of children up to the eighth grade can provide a list of their children’s most needed clothing and hoped-for toys. The toy donations all come from individuals and local businesses and organizations. The Red Stocking accepts only new toys, games, or books. All kids get a book and some sort of art supplies.

The volunteers try to honor the gift wishes when they can. “It’s just basic toys,” says Ms. Wallo. “We don’t do electronics. Kids always love Legos. We get a huge list for bikes. One person donated seven brand-new bikes this year during the Harley ride.” Ms. Wallo says that local stores the Toy Box and Brickman’s generally have a good idea of what toys are needed.

Many of the local schools and churches hold toy drives and collect monetary donations. Last year the Oak Bluffs firefighters and EMTs stuffed an ambulance full of donated toys. There are boxes at locations around the Island for those who want to drop off a new, unwrapped item before the distribution date of Dec. 12.

Around this time of year, a group of shoppers sets out to purchase warm clothes for the kids. “Each package includes several major items of clothing,” says Ms. Wallo, “like a jacket or sweater, in addition to pajamas, socks, underwear, hats and mittens. The last two are generally handmade items donated by local knitters. Each kid also gets a book donated by the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore.”

A few days before the distribution date, a crew arrives at St. Augustine’s Church in Vineyard Haven to wrap and sort the gifts. Everything is kept confidential. Volunteers work from numbered lists, with no names. “The most important thing is that it’s anonymous,” says Ms. Wallo.

The whole process takes hours, and dozens of volunteers, and it’s quite the logistical feat to match children’s ages and desires to the available toys, but it always somehow manages to work out.

“We never know once those application go out how many we’re going to get. We just do it on faith that it’s going to happen,” says Ms. Wallo. “You will be there on a Wednesday afternoon and say, ‘Look, we don’t have anything for this little kid.’ Then someone will walk in with a load of donations or one of the volunteers will disappear and come back with two or three toys. It’s all built on the fact that these kids need help, and somehow, some way, the community comes together. It’s all just for the kids, and that’s what’s so wonderful.”

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Locally crafted gifts, like SoFree Aromatics, pictured here in 2013, can be found at the Vineyard Holiday Gift Show. —Photo by Susan Safford

With lights already strung, Christmas commercials on TV, and holiday songs in the air, it can only mean one thing: time to shop! And while those on the mainland may be lining up for sales at big box stores and fighting the crowds in shopping malls, Vineyarders can enjoy a much more laid-back holiday shopping experience. The kick off to the shopping season on Island includes lots of options for checking out flea markets, pop-up shops, and crafts fairs. While shopping for unique gifts you can also help support local businesses, nonprofits, and  Vineyard artists and artisans.

This weekend

Friday, November 21, marks the opening of the annual Holiday Gift Show at the Featherstone Center for the Arts. The preview party from 6 to 8 pm will feature sweet treats and a chance to meet many of the participants. Over 60 artists and craftspeople — a record number — have contributed items this year, including artwork, cards, calendars, ornaments, jewelry, pottery, scarves, fleece wear, and handmade chocolates. The show continues on a daily basis from 12 noon to 4 pm until December 21. Proceeds from the sale are split between the artists and Featherstone.

Every Christmas season, the United Methodist Church in the Campground hosts a Holiday Fair featuring food and shopping. On Saturday, November 22, the parish house will be transformed with vendors selling flea market finds, hand knits, homemade ornaments and other craft items, baked goods, and lots of second-hand jewelry while the cafe sells hot dogs, clam chowder, meatball subs and more. It’s a festive event that helps set the holiday mood. Vendor space is still available. Call the Church Office at 508-693-4424 for information. Fair open from 9 am to 2 pm.

The American Legion will also host their annual Thanksgiving Christmas Bazaar on Saturday. Along with lots of white elephant finds and baked goods, shoppers can purchase raffle tickets for some great mixed packages of goods, or try their luck with the country store mini-raffle items. Open from 10 am to 1 pm at the American Legion Hall, Vineyard Haven.

On Saturday afternoon, an informal group of moms and kids will be hosting a benefit for Heifer International, which aims to eradicate world hunger and poverty by donating livestock to impoverished families to provide food, income, and sustainable resources for other village families. At down-Island Cronigs, 3–6 pm, the kids will be selling their crafts while the moms will offer baked goods. Of the joint effort, organizer Emily Solarazza of Vineyard Haven says, “It’s a way for the kids to be involved. It really helps make it more understandable.”

The Vineyard Holiday Gift Shop will open its doors on Saturday, November 22, on Spring Street in Vineyard Haven. Among the items made by local artists and artisans, the store will carry ornaments, jewelry, handbags, ceramics, preserves, dog biscuits, candles, skin care products, wreaths, metalwork, and much more. Open every day through Christmas Eve from 10 am to 6 pm.

On Sunday November 23, the M.V. Hebrew Center will host their second annual Artist Holiday Sale. A number of Vineyard artists and artisans will participate, selling jewelry, ceramics, glass, soaps, leatherware, handbags, photography, art, herbal treatments and flavored oils. It’s a great opportunity to get a sneak peek at what various Vineyard artisans are offering for holiday gift giving. Open from 11 am to 3 pm at the Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven.

Thanksgiving weekend

On Friday, November 28, the seasonal Oak Bluffs Open Market will move indoors to the roomy Dreamland space above Martha’s Vineyard Chowder Company. Multiple vendors will offer everything from jewelry, wampum, pottery and other handcrafts to antiques and artwork. The summer market is a combination of flea and farmer’s market and the indoor version will also include vendors selling local honey, baked goods, and homemade chocolates. There will be a raffle, live music, and refreshments for sale. Call 508-939-1076 to find out about vendor space.

If you didn’t get a chance to visit the Vineyard Artisans Festival over the summer, this weekend (Friday and Saturday, Nov. 28 and 29) is your chance. Every year dozens of the Festival’s artists and artisans relocate from the Grange Hall to the spacious Ag Hall to offer their wares. The selection reflects the variety of artistic pursuits engaged in on the Island. Among the unique gift items to be found are jewelry, pottery, clothing, handmade soaps, Island lavender, wooden, metal and glass items, along with paintings and photography. The participants have had the time to create new works since the last summer event and many offer Christmas ornaments or other holiday items. You can easily spend an afternoon browsing and getting to know some of the Island’s talented artists. There’s a playground out back to keep the kids occupied while you shop. $2 parking fee benefits a scholarship fund for MVRHS students. Friday and Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm.

More from Island artists can be found at a pop-up shop featuring the work of painter Colin Ruel and jeweler Nettie Kent. They will be showing Mr. Ruel’s beautiful landscapes and abstract works along with Ms. Kent’s unique pieces made from brass, gold, leather and stones at the Harbor Craft Shop next to the Bite at 31 Basin Road, Menemsha. Open Saturday and Sunday from 12 noon to 5 pm.

The Antiques Show and Sale will hold its last event of the year Thanksgiving weekend at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. Find unique gifts among the many vendors including those specializing in vintage jewelry, antique tools, maritime collectibles, linens, old books, cottage and Danish Modern furniture, Vineyard memorabilia, artwork, and much more. Friday and Saturday 9-3.

Tom Mullins, who has become an artist late in life, and his partner Julia Norman at their West Tisbury Home. —Photo by Gwyn McAllister

At 79, Tom Mullins of Cambridge and West Tisbury has embarked on a third career of sorts. He only began experimenting with drawing earlier this year, yet his work has already been featured in two galleries, and he has sold a handful of his small pastel drawings — an auspicious start that many newcomers to the art world might envy. Furthermore, Mr. Mullins has managed these accomplishments despite the fact that he is limited physically by Parkinson’s disease.

“So much has been taken away from him,” says Julia Norman, Mr. Mullins’s life partner. “To be given this [artistic success] at this point is just amazing.” It was not luck, but innate talent, perseverance, and some fortunate timing that accounts for Mr. Mullins success as an artist. At a summer fundraising auction, the couple purchased a package of private lessons from artist Valentine Estabrook. Both Ms. Norman and Mr. Mullins tried their hand at pastel drawing, but it was the latter who immediately showed real talent for the medium.

Mr. Mullins focuses mainly on Vineyard landscapes. His small works are both lovely and professionally rendered. There’s a simplicity of style that’s very appealing, taking full advantage of the medium. The artist has a real sense for line and composition.

A pastel by Tom Mullins.
A pastel by Tom Mullins.

Unlike many other landscape artists, Mr. Mullins’s work impresses one more for the style than the subject. His drawings derive their effectiveness from a few well placed strokes and dabs of color and an expert use of texture and variation of colors to create land and seascapes.

It’s amazing that someone who never studied drawing could be so expert at defining subjects with so little, no easy feat. Many of Mr. Mullins’s small pastels could stand up against professional works hanging in a high-end gallery or museum.

During his working life, Mr. Mullins took a completely different path. A native of Pittsburgh, he accepted a job with the Gulf Oil Company upon graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. He spent the next 20 years working as a Gulf executive. He was based in London, but travelled all over the world for work.

“Gulf was a good place to work,” Mr. Mullins says. “You could keep one foot in the corporate office and the other foot in the rest of the world.” He spent almost three years living in Beirut. Eventually, Mr. Mullins decided to return to the U.S.

“I decided it was time to change,” says Mr. Mullins. “I didn’t want to end up as another American businessman lapping up the substance of some club in the West End of London.” He took a job as associate director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. During this time, Mr. Mullins spent weekends and part of each summer with his three children and his late wife, Coco, at her family’s seasonal home in Lambert’s Cove. Now, he and Ms. Norman enjoy a winterized home that Mr. Mullins built almost 20 years ago.

Mr. Mullins and Ms. Norman were introduced by a mutual friend who was visiting Mr. Mullins from London. As it turns out, Ms. Norman had lived just a few blocks from Mr. Mullins in London, though the two had never met. The couple has been together for seven years now, and their closeness and shared interests are apparent upon meeting the two.

One of their mutual passions is for exploring distant locales. Mr. Mullins and Ms. Norman travel frequently. Their two most recent trips were to Alaska and Greece.

While they were in Greece in September, Ms. Norman got a phone call informing her that Tanya Augostinos of the A Gallery was interested in showing Mr. Mullins’s work. Ms. Augostinos had spotted two of his drawings at Featherstone and was impressed enough to track him down. One of the works was the first thing to sell at Featherstone’s pastel show earlier this year. Ms. Augostinos included Mr. Mullins in her recent Small Works show. A few have been purchased, but two are still on exhibit at the gallery.

Mr. Mullins continues to produce work. He doesn’t have to travel far for inspiration. His Lambert’s Cove home has a spectacular view of James Pond, with the ocean and Naushon Island in the distance. “During the year, as the sun moves, you’re always getting different views” he says. “It’s ever-changing.”

Mr. Mullins’ and Ms. Norman’s apartment in Cambridge has a lovely view of Boston, but Mr. Mullins finds no inspiration in an urban vista. “For some people, the lights of Boston are beautiful,” he says. “But that doesn’t really move me.”

During the warmer months, Mr. Mullins spends a good deal of time drawing on his deck. Now, he has moved indoors, but he can still enjoy the stunning view and spectacular sunsets from an armchair in the living room. “It is interesting to watch Tom work,” Ms. Norman says. “He will go into this meditative state for two hours.”

Creating art is clearly more than a passing fancy for Mr. Mullins. He continues to take lessons with Ms. Estabrook, and he has devoted himself to this latest endeavor. While trying his hand at artwork may have been on his bucket list for decades, Mr. Mullins has certainly put everything into his new passion. Any success he is enjoying is just the icing on the cake.

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Justin Rivers, left, and photographer Norman McGrath during a reading at Fordham University this past June. —Photo by Dawn McDonald

A new play dealing with a slice of New York City history is set to be produced at an off-Broadway theater in New York. The playwright Justin Rivers has a longtime connection with the Vineyard. He has spent summers at his family home in Edgartown ever since he was a sophomore in high school. Though he works in New York as a teacher, Mr. Rivers does much of his writing on the Vineyard.

“It’s the only place in the world where I can be unadulteratedly creative,” Mr. Rivers said in a recent phone interview with The Times. “You can just be quiet and settled and get to work.”

The Eternal Space, Mr. Rivers’s soon-to-be-produced play, is set during the demolition of the original Penn Station in 1963. It focuses on two characters who are affected in different ways by the loss of one the city’s landmarks.

The description of the play from the show’s Kickstarter page outlines the questions raised by the razing of the building. “A construction worker turned photographer is running away from his past while an aging English teacher can’t let his go,” the description reads. “Their coincidental meeting begins a three-year debate over progress, preservation, and posterity, as one man fights to keep the station standing while the other is instrumental in taking it down.” (Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform that enables people to donate online towards a creative project.)

The character of the photographer is a composite, loosely based on a handful of people who documented the demolition of Penn Station. The show will feature thousands of images from the time as a continuously changing backdrop.

Mr. Rivers says the photos are the third character in the play. As a matter of fact, it was a volume of photography that inspired the script. Shortly after 9/11, the Brooklyn-based playwright picked up a book called The Destruction of Penn Station. It resonated with him at a time when New Yorkers were living through loss on many levels, including the loss of a landmark.

“Everything shifted after 9/11,” Mr. Rivers said. “I started to think about the emotional residue of an event of this magnitude and how the city relates to its architecture and buildings.”

Mr. Rivers, who has had 15 plays produced in venues around New York City, wrote The Eternal Space ten years ago and, though there was some interest in producing it at that time, the play went into an extended hibernation. “I had put this show to bed for a while,” said the playwright. “I co-wrote a graphic novel. I worked on that for a good five years.”

Mr. Rivers had all but forgotten about the play when he was contacted by one of the theater directors to whom he had originally submitted the script seven years earlier. Since then, The Eternal Space has been produced in one form or another a few times, most recently by the New York City chapter of the Architectural Institute of America. That show was a sellout and a huge success, and it led to further interest in the script.

Mr. Rivers’s graphic novel, The Wonder City, is also historically based. “History tends to creep into a lot of my projects,” he said. “History is really my passion. I love doing research. I really enjoyed writing this show because digging into these pictures was fascinating to me. I had no idea  there was an old Penn Station. I couldn’t believe it was gone. What was the idea behind taking down one of the world’s most beautiful indoor spaces? I found out that there were architects screaming about it. It kicked off the preservation movement in the city.”

Although he’s not a photographer himself, Mr. Rivers learned a lot through researching the work of the half-dozen photographers whose pictures are included in the show. He was able to interview three of them. “It was a real honor for me to meet the photographers who did the work of documenting the building and the demolition. The only people who could save Penn Station for future generations were photographers.”

With a cast and team in place, Mr. Rivers is now running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to produce The Eternal Space in an off-Broadway venue. The deadline for the campaign is Thursday, November 6, at 7 pm. The target goal of $20,000 must be met in order to collect any of the donations. Visit make a contribution.

Chelsea McCarthy, right, and Becky Williams during a dress rehearsal of Laundry & Bourbon. —Photo by Michael Cummo

A home-grown cast brings to life some colorful characters from another world in Taffy McCarthy’s latest theater production. Two one-act plays, Lone Star and Laundry and Bourbon by James McClure, present a slice of life in a small town in Texas in the 1970s. The two short pieces, full of both humor and pathos, are great character studies, and Ms. McCarthy excels as a director in presenting characters who are both human and, like their home state, a bit larger than life.

The one act Laundry & Bourbon follows three female characters while Lone Star features their male counterparts. —Photo by Michael Cummo
The one act Laundry & Bourbon follows three female characters while Lone Star features their male counterparts. —Photo by Michael Cummo

In Laundry and Bourbon, we get acquainted with three housewives who have known each other since high school. Elizabeth is a quiet dreamer, living in the past while making her peace with the not-so-perfect reality of her marriage. Hattie is a sassy and outspoken firecracker — mother to a gang of little terrors — whose energy and humor helps her balance marriage, motherhood, and a little social climbing. Amy Lee is a self-righteous do-gooder whose jealousy and contempt of Hattie makes for some vicious backbiting between the two.

Through the women, we get to know their respective mates and learn a little about the dynamics that brought each couple together. Their individual stories have some very poignant moments amidst the laughs.

In the second one-act, Lone Star, we meet the women’s counterparts: restless Vietnam vet Roy, his worshipful younger brother Ray, and nerdy Cletis, who is oddly out of place in this world of rough and tumble, hard-drinking Texans. After hearing the women talk about their mates, it’s eye opening to be introduced to the men themselves. The introduction of the individual characters through two separate pieces works makes for an interesting and effective device. In Lone Star, more is revealed about the men and the women, as well as life in the small town.

The cast of Lone Star: Phil Kane, Chris Lyons and Alex Roan. —Photo courtesy of Taffy McCarthy
The cast of Lone Star: Phil Kane, Chris Lyons and Alex Roan. —Photo courtesy of Taffy McCarthy

Written in the 1970s, the two plays rely on strong characterizations and, luckily, Ms. McCarthy has gathered together a wonderful cast for her latest project. Though many Vineyarders will be familiar with Chelsea McCarthy, who plays Hattie, from her numerous appearances on Vineyard stages, the other five actors have less experience. Yet, they all deliver dynamic performances.

Ms. McCarthy previously directed Becky Williams (Elizabeth) and Phil Kane (Roy) in other shows. However, the rest of the cast, she discovered in other ways. Sara Ahren (Amy Lee) is making her acting debut, but Ms. McCarthy was familiar with her work as a dancer and recognized her theatricality. Alex Roan (Cletis), one of the younger members of the cast, is making his first appearance in community theater. He does a wonderful job with his alienated character. Chris Lyons has not acted in 20 years. It’s a pleasure to witness this talented actor’s return to the stage.

“I love finding people who don’t normally do theater,” says Ms. McCarthy. “Discovering this dormant talent. They work themselves to death and then create this wonderful thing.” Of her current cast, she says, “they’re really the stars in the crown of the whole thing.”

Ms. McCarthy should have a good nose for talent. She has years of theater experience under her belt, both here, in her hometown of Pittsburgh, and elsewhere. Ms. McCarthy has worked as an actor and director in numerous productions with Island Theater Workshop and the The Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse. She has also written, directed, and starred in a number of one-woman shows which have been produced in venues throughout the country, including Boston and New York. Ms. McCarthy is also a talented singer who performs at venues around the Vineyard.

In the last few years, Ms. McCarthy has taken the initiative to produce some of her favorite material on her own. Her most recent undertaking was a silent film-style one-act by A.A. Milne. Hopefully, this energetic, talented director/performer will bring more interesting, fun, and thought-provoking theater to local audiences, and continue to take advantage of the impressive pool of talent to be found on the Vineyard.

Five Moon Theatre Inc. Presents two one acts, Laundry and Bourbon and Lone Star by James McLure. Directed by Taffy McCarthy. Nov. 6, 7, 8, 13, 14, 15. All shows at 7:30 pm at the Katharine Cornell Theatre. Tickets $15 at the door.

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The second annual Artist's Ball at Dreamland featured music by The Natural Wonders of Cambridge. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers


Michael Hunter as "Clockwork Geisha," an homage to Anthony Burgess'/Stanley Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange." — Photo by Lynn Christoffers


Artists Danielle Mulcahy, winner of best mask, and Walker Roman. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers


Greeters: Jenifer Parkinson, Jesse Alaimo, and Holly Alaimo, organizer of the ball. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers


Michael Hunter as "Clockwork Geisha" with Gwyn McAllister as "Casper's Friend." — Photo by Lynn Christoffers


Laurie Riley took best costume for her guise as a Fortune Teller. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers


Julie Norman and Susan Pratt in colorful costume. — Photo by Lynn Christoffers

Halloween got a jumpstart on Sunday as Islanders gathered in costume at Dreamland for the second annual Artist’s Ball. The emphasis was not so much on witches, ghosts, and vampires as on creative get-ups, as evidenced by the prize winners. Artist Danielle Mulcahy’s fantastical feathered costume earned her the prize for best mask. Keren Tonnesen, who made up her face to match her intricately patterned vintage dress took home the best makeup prize, while Laurie Riley, decked out as a gypsy fortune-telling machine — complete with booth — won the grand prize for best costume.

The main event of the evening was an audience participation art installation from the group Whatever the Outcome. Guests took turns placing pieces onto a huge magnetized board to slowly reveal a wonderful painting by Ms. Mulcahy of Vineyard legend Nancy Luce, the “Chicken Lady.” For the past three years, Whatever the Outcome has hosted similar events at venues around the Island.

For the second year in a row, Artist’s Ball organizer Holly Alaimo imported the band The Natural Wonders from Cambridge. Fronted by couple Gail Nickse and Fred Griffeth, the five member band kept the crowd dancing all night with a mix of classic rock and R&B hits. The Natural Wonders are a staple of the Boston club scene.

Ms. Alaimo said that this year’s party served partly as a farewell for choreographer Marla Blakey, a well-known Islander who is moving to Santa Fe.

The Artist’s Ball is one of the main events of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce’s Fall for the Arts initiative — a month-long celebration aimed at promoting tourism and art on the Island. “It could not have been done without the Martha’s Vineyard Center for the Visual Arts,” said Ms. Alaimo, referring to the organization that helps fund many local arts-based projects.