Collecting after a flood: Gail Ballou

After losing precious mementos, a Katama woman re-collects.

Gail Ballou stands in front of one of her paintings by Claudio Gasparini. —Stacey Rupolo

Gail Ballou started visiting the Vineyard when she would pilot a small plane from the N.Y.C. area to meet friends from Vermont in Katama in the late 1970s. She explained to me: “We’d taxi the plane out to the beach and have lunch and fly back. And then we started taxiing the plane over to what was the old Dunes (now the Winnetu), which originally was a barracks converted to a motel. They’d give you chocks to tie down for the night, drive you into town for dinner, or borrow bicycles. We were on our bikes one day riding around and this property was for sale — I bought it.” In 1978 Gail designed her original home, one of the first upside-down houses on the Island, and it started a trend in Katama.

I met Gail when I first moved to the Island in 2006, while walking my dogs on South Beach; the next time we met, she had just broken her leg, forcing her to spend the winter on-Island and enabling us to become friends. In 2010, when a caretaker forgot to check her home during the winter, a pipe burst, her home flooded, and she lost everything. She was forced to rebuild. For Gail it was an opportunity to use her vast architectural knowledge to create the home of her dreams, but nothing is ever as easy as it sounds.

Gail grew up in North Carolina, where her father was a builder; he enjoyed sharing his love of architecture and detail with her, as well as instilling in her his business sense. He took her along shopping for building materials. Although he began his career as a commercial builder, he went into building fine homes and small rental homes. Her mother enjoyed antiquing locally, and attended a weekly auction with a group of her friends. Her grandparents’ home had burnt down, leaving virtually nothing to pass on to the family. Her mother collected antiques slowly over the years to fill their home. Gail says she inherited both the love of fine things and her love of Southern cooking from her mother, musing, “She was one of the best … smothered quail, wild rice, dreamy but typical Southern dishes.” I can see from the way she briefly shuts her eyes that she can still visualize the dishes, and even smell them.

Gail is a petite blonde who grew up playing and hanging out with a crowd of boys who treated her as an equal. She hung out with them, loved the outdoors, and was further influenced by her father’s love of sports, whether it was ice skating, golfing, or baseball — name it and he excelled at any sport he tried. Her father always insisted, “You can do anything those boys can do,” and hoped she would grow up to be an architect.

After Gail’s mother passed away, and after the loss of her own home, she went through her mother’s collections to pick out pieces for her Katama home. But not everything comes from her “mother’s things.” Gail has not cluttered her home with either art or furniture, but nearly every piece she has is interesting. There are a couple of water-damaged pieces she salvaged from the flood, including a flower watercolor by her friend, NYC illustrator Lucy Armstrong; a 1940s stylized print of a sailing vessel on the open water purchased on-Island 30 years ago; and a distressed Audubon print of birds once belonging to her mother. Gail’s son lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years, and on a trip to visit him, she bought a small oil on board of goldfish that survived intact, and hangs opposite a contemporary Chinese porcelain bowl she turned into a sink and set on a Chinese cabinet once belonging to her mother.

Her personal collection includes the paintings she has slowly gathered over the years. One such painting was purchased in the late 1990s from “some foreign kids in New York who were raising funds to finish art school.” At the time Gail was running her own software business. I love the bright stylization reminiscent of Gaugin, Matisse, and Van Gogh.

One Vineyard artist from 1988 until 2000, Claudio Gasparini, who sadly passed away in December 2016, is a favorite of Gail’s. I was first introduced to his paintings in 2014 in the home of Dolly Campbell, another collector of his work. My favorite Gasparini is a small, bright painting of a ferry under a twinkling night sky. As I see his other work, I notice all the frames match, and wonder if he made them himself. Gail is unsure except for knowing he always sold his work framed.

There’s a primitive American painting Gail purchased, right out of college, for her parent’s 25th wedding anniversary that sits opposite her childhood Victorian brass piano lamp, converted from oil to electric, although she switched out the glass globe for a small modern lampshade.

While we talk, a seagull drops by Gail’s deck for a meal. Gail has a special relationship with gulls that started with one she named Daffy; this one is Lucy, one of Daffy’s offspring.