When Cynthia McGrath was a little girl growing up in Rochester, N.Y., she liked to entertain herself by finding objects that she could make into something else. If she set books up on end, she found they made great walls for a makeshift dollhouse. Those twist ties on bread bags? They made stylish bracelets for her Barbies once she stripped the paper off.
“I think I’ve always looked at things as parts,” McGrath told me on a Friday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. “My mind takes things apart … I look at broken objects and think, ‘I could do this with them.’”
McGrath landed on the Island in the early 1990s, coming over on the ferry with a bicycle and a backpack. McGrath grabbed a newspaper and sat at a payphone until she found both an apartment and a job.
“I had come here with some friends before, and decided that I was going to come back and live here,” McGrath said. “And when I returned home, I told everyone I was going to come back and find an apartment and a job. I moved here by myself; I was 21. I just felt good when I was here — I felt better.”
She eventually landed a job at Sally Roesler’s Beadniks in Vineyard Haven, a shop filled with glass beads of every color, shape, and size — a paradise for jewelry makers.
“She was a really good mentor, and she taught me a lot about business,” McGrath said of Roesler. “I went to college for business, and then I incorporated my hobby into my business.”
McGrath said once when she went to Roesler to ask for a raise, her boss told her to come up with a list of reasons why she deserved one. McGrath did what she was asked, and after she presented her request a second time, Roesler said, “You’ve got it.” Roesler taught McGrath how to find the best materials at the most reasonable prices, how to order supplies, and how to keep track of everything.
“Then that’s when I started to think if I had the right materials, I could do this. So I started doing it on the side,” McGrath said. She sold her jewelry off a little pushcart at Five Corners, and was one of the original members of the Vineyard Artisans Festivals. She still sells her work at the festivals, colorful sea glass–inspired jewelry, wampum, and one-of-a-kind pieces you can’t find anyplace else.
McGrath’s business, Original Cyn, is a full-time venture for her; she’s also the parent of a teenager, Connor, with her husband, Kevin McGrath, librarian at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. Although conceptualizing a project, keeping the books, updating social media, marketing tasks, and making jewelry can easily fill her days, McGrath said she loves being her own boss.
“I can play my music as loud as I want, and I don’t have to wear shoes,” McGrath said. “I make my own hours within the school day, and that part is great. I’m happy at home, so it’s good. Being my own boss and making my own decisions is ideal — do I want to do more shows or focus on website sales? I can switch it up whenever I need to, and I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission.”
McGrath’s workroom in her Oak Bluffs home is like a curiosity shop filled with old colorful bottles and pieces of crystal chandeliers that will eventually be turned into mobile sun catchers. When she goes out for a walk, McGrath picks things up and brings them home because she sees something more in them. Animal vertebrae, broken bicycle reflectors. She even made a ring holder out of a pair of Barbie doll legs she found at Long Point. McGrath makes shadow boxes out of some of the pieces she finds, with a map that shows the area where they were found as the background.
“Throughout the year I’m always collecting, and the wheels are always turning,” McGrath said. “I do most of my hunting in the off-season, even if it’s freezing. I love walking the beaches when no one else is, and you have all this open space.” I asked her what was the coolest thing she ever found. She had to think long and hard, because there were so many options.
“I found a glass swizzle stick, that was cool,” she said. “The coolest was a poison bottle I found about a year ago. I took it home and was rinsing it off, and I got a closer look. It’s a tiny brown bottle with a skull and crossbones. Oh, and an amethyst I found in OB … It’s always exciting to find the clay pipes from the 1700s.”
McGrath said she loves the thrill of the hunt, and even though she doesn’t need any more “stuff,” she keeps going out and looking for more.
“There’s history under your feet,” she said. “It’s that connection to the past, you know? I think about where I am, especially in Oak Bluffs. You can look at old photos of people on the beach with their long swimsuits down to their ankles and I think to myself, maybe I’m picking up something they discarded.”
Her creative process, she explained, has to fit in with her home life. Sometimes the ideas aren’t there when the sunlight is perfect and she has the right amount of time to start a project. On those days, she may work on accounting or marketing, or getting displays ready for upcoming artisans’ shows.
“I have to be in the right mood when something strikes me,” she said. “I’ll start with one piece and it just goes from there; ideas are born out of other ideas, and it just keeps regenerating.
“A side note,” McGrath leaned in, “when you have a kid, the minute they leave in the morning — you have to be inspired between then and 3 o’clock. For other people, ideas might strike them at 6, but I have to make dinner. But I get really inspired when I see people try things on and see how happy it makes them; there’s nothing brighter than that.”
Look for Original Cyn jewelry and artworks at the Vineyard Artisans Festivals opening Memorial Day weekend, and at originalcynjewelry.com.