Outsider artist in Chilmark

Margaret Randolph Storrow leads a quiet, simple life.

Margaret Storrow holds up one of her written-backward notebooks. — Valerie Sonnenthal

When Chilmark writer and friend Nancy Aronie calls and invites me to meet someone, my answer is always yes. Though it took getting through the summer, I finally joined Nancy to head a few driveways over to meet her friend, outsider artist Margaret Randolph Storrow. In fact, it was Nancy’s idea that Storrow move to the Island. It was Nancy who went to see houses for her, and when this one came up for sale, she told Margaret, “It’s perfect for you.” The upstairs bedroom has two fan windows that reminded Margaret of her childhood summer home on Nantucket.

We headed down an overgrown driveway, the house fully obscured by the greenery. Margaret is an avid collector; her favorite place to comb is West Basin, up-Island. She has found colored glass, including green, blue, brown, orange, and red. She showed me glass dating back to whaling days. Nancy treasures both the sea glass and the wampum she has received as holiday gifts from Margaret. When I asked if Margaret counted the pieces laid out on tables around her home, she laughed, “Oh, no, no, no.”

The kitchen table is filled with collected sea glass and wampum.

Nancy Aronie met Margaret through her brother, Nancy’s good friend, poet Gerald Blake Storrow. Margaret left Boston and moved to the Vineyard in 2001, and has been beachcombing for the past four years. She arranges her wampum like small altars on every counter and table surface. Her glass shards adorn windowsills. Now and again, Nancy buys yarn for her. Margaret knits pieces that end up on her chairs, but she sees them as, for example, “the sky and the earth and the blood in between.”

In the ’70s, Margaret began writing backward, after being inspired by Leonardo da Vinci.

She too is left-handed, so writing backwards is less stressful for her. She has always held a deep admiration for elegant script. Her immaculate penmanship is even line to line, a clear script that fills many a notebook. It is completely legible when held up to a mirror. Margaret enjoys copying passages from books; the one she opened to was a passage from Balzac. She hardly ever writes normally anymore.

A knit work Margaret describes as “the sky and the earth and the blood in between.”

Like me, Margaret grew up in Manhattan, after moving to the city at age 7 from her Brookline home. Though the park was near, she missed the freedom her former life offered. Margaret worked at the Brookline library when Nancy first met her, but was “very happy to get out of Boston.” She moved to Vineyard Haven and helped care for Nancy’s mother, Henny, before settling in Chilmark.

Years ago, Nancy wrote a play based on Margaret’s life, and they did a reading at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse that included Nancy’s son Dan, Linda Black as the girlfriend, Niki Patton as the mother, and Margaret “was the person who showed up to take care of [Nancy’s] mother.” Nancy recounts, “She gets the standing ovation [gesturing at Margaret] and then disappears on the roof.” Margaret interjects, “Not the roof. It was the backyard.” They were both laughing at this point.

A graph paper notebook filled with colorful geometric designs.

Then Nancy asked Margaret to show me her art books. In fact, they are graph paper journals, in which she fills in the quarter-inch squares with ink pens. The colors are sumptuous. Margaret is inspired by natural forms, sea creatures, and the quiet rhythm of drawing. She has only been doing this work for the past two years. There is a mix of vibrant and metallic colors. She thinks of the drawings as mosaics. She wears “goggles,” really a magnifying head lamp that Nancy’s husband, Joel, bought for her, to see the details. Margaret does not own a computer or cell phone. Her range of images spans from those inspired by the “Towers and 9/11” to the “human form” and “DNA,” besides one from last year’s election. The drawings bring to mind the Quilts of Gee’s Bend. They are subtly evocative, and not as simple as they appear.

Margaret lives a very quiet life, sometimes not seeing anyone else for days. She clearly has found work that keeps her mind active, and focuses her attention on detail, whether it is searching for sea glass and wampum, knitting, writing, or drawing. It is always an honor to be let into someone else’s private world, and Margaret Randolph Storrow’s world revolves around color, reflection, and inner peace.