Ever since Morven Museum & Garden opened 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. Several years ago, a fine crafts component was added and has expanded the celebration.
This year 25 fine craft artists from around the country, in media including glass, ceramics, decorative and wearable fiber, mixed media, jewelry, furniture, and basketry, will be displayed in gallery-style booths in the grand tent on the museum’s great lawn. The signature event helps fund the museum’s exhibitions, historic gardens, and educational programs.
“We used an online jury service to choose this year’s artists,” says Barbara Webb, director of development and the force behind the craft show. “Juried Art Services is the same service used by the Smithsonian Craft Show and the American Craft Council shows. This year 115 artists applied, and the 25 were chosen by (Princeton University Art Museum executive director) James Steward, David Rago (Rago Arts and Auction Center), and Veronica Roberts, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton Museum of Art (at the University of Texas). Until this year the show was by invitation only.”
Among the artists are John Landis, a fine furniture maker from Yardley, Pennsylvania — this will be his second year exhibiting at Morven in May; Kari Lonning, a basket maker from Ridgefield Connecticutt; Lisa and Scott Cylinder, husband and wife jewelry makers from Oley, Pennsylvania; and Deborah Falls, a decorative fiber artist from Hartland, Vermont. “Sheila Fernekes of Flemington does amazing beaded jewelry,” says Webb.
“We’re also planning five booth talks, three on Saturday and two on Sunday.”
Also participating is Ellie Wyeth, a fine artist based in Skillman. She is a regular at Morven in May, as well as other fine craft shows, and has exhibited in the region since the 1980s. The world she evokes in paintings, notecards, floor cloths, and placemats is a storybook world, with such images as a black lab in a wolf costume dancing with a sheep under a full moon. Chickens and foxes, owls and raccoons, come indoors in her paintings — into beautifully appointed rooms. Dogs dance with cats, chickens dance with foxes.
This “world” is from her imagination, but based on the environment in which she lives. Surrounded by Rosie, a dachshund, and Zoe, a Jack Russell Terrier (beloved Jack Russells Emma and Otto — subjects of a book she wrote and featured in paintings — are no longer with us), she watches the birds from her window, thinking up absurdities such as a guinea hen lying on her couch. A woodpecker, cardinal, jay, titmouse, and squirrel all find their way indoors.
Even life off the canvases is a storybook. Once married to Logan Fox, owner of Micawber Books, Princeton’s independent bookstore that closed in 2007, Wyeth is the mother of three sons: Sam, 33, an outdoor outfitter in Portland, Oregon; Luke, 31, an art handler at the Guggenheim Museum, as well as a songwriter, based in Brooklyn; and Avery, 27, a film editor, also based in Brooklyn. All three handsome faces have appeared in her paintings. Having two sons nearby means seeing them more often, and Wyeth recently celebrated a big birthday with all her sons.
Several years ago Wyeth went back to complete her bachelor’s degree in fine art from Union Institute & University at Vermont College, finishing in 2010. During this time she produced two bodies of work: the interior scenes in her New Jersey home (“A Visual Sense of Self”) and plein air landscapes from Italy.
Nearly a decade ago, Wyeth attended the International School of Painting and Drawing in Umbria, Italy, as a resident, and was invited by the director to work there as an assistant for two months a year. She learned Italian and continued with that position for five years until the school was discontinued.
During her five years in Italy, Wyeth switched from painting in acrylic to painting in oil. “It’s much more satisfying and expressive, and more forgiving,” she says.
In Italy, Wyeth says she learned to paint from observation and learned to see. In Skillman, she is working more from her imagination.
She has kept a dream journal to help with the images. So there are paintings of animals in bed, sleeping — foxes, raccoon, wolves, rabbits. “The wolf is the only one awake, and that’s me,” she says.
In another painting, “Everyone I’ve had to let go of is floating in the sky,” she says. A wolf under the table represents her childhood nightmares.
Birds, too, appear in her interiors. A crow is a protector, a guardian, and has knowledge. Sometimes the birds are only shadows.
“Twilight” comes after the animals have gone to bed; it’s late at night, the covers are askew, and a striped tail comes out from under the covers. A wolf is peering out from under the bed, and the night sky beckons through the window.
The interiors are painted in saturated colors — deep salmon, royal and turquoise blues. Wyeth has a collection of fabric remnants that inspire her textile designs.
Raised in what she describes as a “skinny Victorian house with shutters” in Katonah, New York, Wyeth, referring to her name, says that she is “very very distantly related to Andrew Wyeth dating back to our ancestry. He was not a close relation.” Her father was a senior editor at Harper & Row, and her mother taught art. “We had a lot of writers around growing up, and we visited them when traveling.”
After boarding school, Wyeth spent a year in Paris, then moved to New York to study art. Her goal was to be an illustrator for the New Yorker — she did in fact illustrate a story by John McPhee for the magazine — so she worked part-time while taking classes through the Art Students League, Parsons School of Design, and the School of Visual Arts. Heroes included Edward Gorey, Maurice Sendak, George Booth, and Charles Addams, but she very much sought her own individual style. Part-time jobs included designing theater fronts, posters, and greeting cards, and working as a TV production assistant and in film publicity.
Logan Fox had been Wyeth’s childhood sweetheart — the parents were good friends before the children were born. Logan attended Ellie’s three-year birthday party, and they married in the mid 1970s. Fox had worked at the Strand Book Store in New York while studying American history at NYU and began looking for a college town in which to open a bookstore.
The couple moved to Princeton in 1981 to open Micawber Books on Nassau Street. Wyeth has lived in her home in Skillman since 1984 in a house she inherited from an aunt. Her great uncle, John Wyeth, a painter, had moved here at the end of his life, and her aunt added on to the house to accommodate him. Wyeth added on to the house again to gain more space for her three sons. The studio, in a former garage, was once used by a carpenter as a shop.
At Morven in May, Wyeth will offer prints from her paintings, note cards, and floorcloths in all shapes and sizes. Subjects include squid and crab, fish and chickens, dogs and cats, chard, kohlrabi, collards, bok choy, radicchio, birds, and flowers. There is whimsy and the unexpected.
“Be careful what you wish for,” says Wyeth, who has been so busy fulfilling the demands of her customers, producing work to replace all that she has sold, and keeping up with commissions.
Morven in May, Morven Museum & Garden, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Friday, May 2, through Sunday, May 4.
Preview Garden Party. Friday, May 2, 6:30 to 9 p.m. $125 and up.
Art Sale Tent. Saturday, May 3, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, May 4, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. $8 to $10 includes museum admission.
Booth Talks are as follows on Saturday, May 3:
Lisa and Scott Cylinder, jewelry, 11:30 a.m.
Deborah Falls, decorative fiber, 1:30 p.m.
Barry Newstat, furniture, 3:30 p.m.
On Sunday, May 4:
Leslie Rachlin, knife making, 12:30 p.m.
Sheila Fernekes, jewelry, 2:30 p.m.
The Heirloom Plant Sale is free and open to the public.
609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.