May is the perfect month to throw a garden party. And if you have a sweeping front meadow like Morven Museum & Gardens, framed by a hundred-year-old wisteria and lined with historic trees, consider moving that party from the backyard to the front lawn.
Ever since Morven opened as a museum in 2005, Morven in May has been a beloved annual event, beginning with a garden party and culminating in an heirloom plant sale — all in the magnificent gardens behind the 18th-century building. “It was both a friend and a fundraiser,” says Executive Director Clare Smith. About 175 people typically attended the party, and hundreds more attended the one-day plant sale.
Development director Barbara Webb “saw the potential to expand this even before we hired her last June,” says Smith. Prior to joining Morven, Webb served as development director at the Historical Society of Princeton, where she helped grow the annual Antiques Show fundraiser. And with her husband, Jim Webb, a Hopewell-based ceramic artist who runs Studio 233, specializing in Arts and Crafts-style lamps, she has worked many craft shows.
This year, the garden party begins with a preview evening Friday, May 4, billed as “A Celebration of Art, Craft and Garden.” Dressed in “garden party attire and garden friendly shoes,” guests will enjoy cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and a preview of the art, fine craft and heirloom plants that will go on sale the following two days.
Morven has had success in attracting more than 1,000 visitors to its Fourth of July events on the front lawn, and its winter fundraiser, Festival of Trees, is a popular perennial.
“Since Morven in May is our signature event, we wanted to involve the public in a bigger way,” says Webb. “Moving it from the back to the front lawn in a big tent makes it more inviting to the public.”
Webb’s goal is to make more people aware of Morven and its activities. The Vineland native — her father was a management consultant and her mother a nurse — studied psychology at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts, leaving in 1979 to start a family. (Her children are now 31, 29, and 21.) From helping her husband with Studio 233, she learned the importance of publicity –– no matter how good an event, without publicity no one will come, she says.
“Morven in May helps us expand our reach and fulfill our mission of showcasing the cultural heritage of New Jersey,” says Smith. “And we’re pricing it to make it affordable for a greater number of people.”
“We also want to attract younger people in their 30s and 40s,” says Webb. “Our strategic plan is to make Morven more public and accessible to a wider public.”
Since January, Webb has had her work cut out, recruiting artists whose schedules were already full, convincing them of the wonderful opportunity a museum show promised, and offering a reasonably priced booth fee for a Princeton audience.
“We wanted to have a diverse group, from furniture makers to ceramic and fibers artists, as well as jewelers,” says Webb. “We found a weaver from Newark, Delaware, Maureen Kamerick, and a wonderful basket maker in Stockton, Martha Dreswick. Karen Caldwell, a stained glass artist in Sergeantsville, was helpful in finding others.”
Webb found quilt artist Erin Wilson at a craft show in Baltimore. “When she said yes, I was thrilled and knew we could do this,” says Webb.
Wilson trained as a dancer at Juilliard but now creates one-of-a-kind art quilts out of a studio in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, not far from the Navy Yard. She and her partner Owen built the house, a four-year project from conception to completion, and finally moved in last summer. Her studio is on the top floor, where maple shelves are filled with stacks of fabrics. In fact there’s fabric everywhere –– from piles on the cutting table to scraps of fabric on the floor.
“It’s kind of messy,” she says. There’s a desk with a computer, a bulletin board with fabric samples and everything Wilson needs to remember, a red cabinet with sewing notions, an industrial Juki straight stitch sewing machine, an ironing board and her cats.
On a felt design board Wilson lays out new quilts. She begins with rolls of white cotton canvas she dyes in buckets in the basement –– more shelves with dye powders –– before bringing the dried fabric upstairs for ironing.
She stitches by machine, except for finishing touches. These are quilts for hanging on walls, though she has made bed quilts in the past on commission. She also makes the quilts she sleeps under.
“I think bed quilts should be used and loved,” she says when asked about washing instructions (throw them in the machine). “Bed quilts don’t last forever.”
The Indianapolis native learned to sew when she was three years old. Her mother was a soft sculpture artist who traveled the craft show circuit, and Wilson grew up as a “craft show kid,” she says.
When her mother started making dance wear for Erin, it mushroomed into a business, Motionwear. Erin’s father, an accountant, quit his job selling copiers to help grow the attic-based business to 150 employees.
“They have always been strong role models for a creative, self-employed existence,” says Wilson, who graduated from Juilliard in 1998. “Nowadays, Mom is my trusted second opinion and occasional assistant, and I rely on her for feedback on works in progress. She is also a talented colorist and sometimes dyes fabrics for me. Both of my parents are wonderful in their support and enthusiasm for my work and often travel to my shows.”
Dancing and making things were always a part of her life, though dance dominated her schoolwork, with quilting on the side. “I finally came to the moment where the work of making quilts was more interesting to me than dancing,” she says. “I felt I was finding a clear, unique voice in my quilts, something I always struggled with being a dancer in other people’s dances. I have a comfort and confidence working with fabric that was hard to come by as a dancer. Each small block is a new idea.”
Whereas dance was social, working on quilts is more solitary. “Being an introverted loner is my natural state,” she says, “but I really do miss the physical contact and collaboration of dance. I love the work of physical problem solving, rhythm and music, and being active.” Outside of the dance world, “it seems like people are afraid to touch one another.”
Being at craft shows offers Wilson an opportunity for community. When asked how she keeps up with demand for her labor-intensive process, she says “I work a lot and do the best I can. It’s not an easy life, but it’s what I’m meant to do.”
Montgomery-based artist Ellie Wyeth will have her signature floor cloths, placemats, note cards and original artwork for sale. Wyeth, who had a solo exhibit at the Present Day Club last year and has been exhibited in regional shows since the 1980s, creates everything from still lifes with fruits and vegetables, intimate family portraits and interiors with dogs to Italian landscapes.
Other artists are Tristyn Albright (beaded vessels, weaving and batik), Danielle Despin (mixed media on paper), Sheila Fernekes (sculptural beaded jewelry), Katherine Hackl (pottery and tiles), Beth Judge (jewelry), Ray Kelso (furniture), Meg Brinster Michael (painting), Sue Sachs (sterling jewelry), Brad Smith (furniture), and Jim Webb.
To view the Morven in May Art and Craft Show, there is an admission charge of $10, but visitors to the plant sale can still attend for free. In addition to container plants, annuals, and perennials, “We’ll be offering more vegetable plants than in the past,” says Morven horticulturalist Pam Ruch. “We’ll have heirloom tomatoes as in the past and also heirloom peppers, lettuce and broccoli plants.”
A brochure refers to these plants as “Morven Classics.” “They’re not what you’ll find at your neighborhood garden center,” says Webb. “People return year after year for this sale. These are plants that thrive.”
“The Morven kitchen garden will be partially planted, and we hope visitors will take the time to walk around the property,” says Ruch. “Morven is always a visual treat in May.”
Morven in May Art, Craft and Garden Party, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Preview Garden Party May 4, 6-8:30 p.m. Reservations required. $90 to $750.
Art and Craft Show admission — $10, $8 Friends of Morven. Plant Sale only — free. Hours: Saturday, May 5, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday, May 6, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Guest speaker Ray Rogers, author of “The Encyclopedia of Container Plants,” Saturday, May 5, 2 p.m., free with show admission. www.morven.org or 609-924-8144.