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Gail Tipton Nurtures Boundless Creativity in a Small House

Profile by Catherine G. Finch

Our houses tell our stories and Gail Tipton’s passive solar home, nestled in the woods of West Tisbury, is no exception.

Gail is a lover of music, dance and poetry, an art educator, museum professional, and founding member of the Martha’s Vineyard Water Alliance. She’s a mother of three sons and, as she calls herself, a “maker of things.” A maker of drawings and sculpture, translucent photographs and videos. A maker and producer of Waterstories – short films that offer insightful information about the Island’s water quality issues. One captivating example, Beneath the Surface, documents four-week-old baby clams, oysters and scallops, showing the liveliness of the tiny creatures in a manner rarely seen.

Typical of many Island homeowners, Gail rents out the main house on her property and lives year-round in the 800 square foot guesthouse. Functioning as both home and art studio, she’s lived in the small two-story dwelling for more than ten years.

Curious to see how she manages, I turn left onto her driveway which runs between a ten-foot high rhododendron bush and an equally large and healthy looking azalea. When in bloom, they will produce a strikingly colorful doorway to pass through. Tables, chairs, sculptures and planters are placed about the yard, making the outdoors seem well lived in. Set a distance back from the parking area, the guesthouse is a contemporary saltbox with board and batten siding that looks recently washed and oiled, giving it a rich brown patina. French doors on the front wall open onto a half circle brick patio. An amaryllis in full bloom is visible through the glass and I imagine the yard amassed in flowers once the weather warms.

Stepping through the side entry door, located on the high south facing wall of glass, I’m not surprised to see the accoutrements of daily life and art making packed tightly into the twenty by twenty-three foot space. I am, however, amazed by its meticulous organization and the sense of aliveness. Often a place full of things can feel stagnant and drain your energy. Not here, and I am curious to discover why.

Warmly greeted by Gail, who’s just had a hip replacement, I find her walk is temporarily slowed, but not her humor. “Some come in and are overwhelmed,” she says. Then, with a twinkle in her eye, she tells me about a young tradesman who, upon entering her home, asked, “Is this a store?” She laughs and the sound ripples forth, deep and light and free.

My attention is drawn to an exquisite locust branch handrail on the stairs to the loft and then I notice an egg standing on end in the windowsill at the foot of the stairs. Gail explains that every spring equinox she balances an egg in each of the four directions in her house, honoring the balance and harmony of the season for new growth. The egg I’m looking at is in the east, the place of sunrise and new beginnings. Gail says the east egg has always been the one to remain standing the longest. Twenty-four days so far, this spring.

Facing the sky lit wall to the left of the entry is Gail’s studio area. The small well-organized space is open to the roof, which gives plenty of breathing room, and the expanse of windows before her drawing table gives ample space for her mind’s eye to wander and envision new unforeseen possibilities of creative exploration.

Straight ahead of the front door is a hallway of sorts. Framed by the loft above, the stairway to the right, and table high storage to the left, my eye is drawn to a tall bookshelf angled at the end of the passageway. Through the open shelves that hold books, platters, bowls, candles, sculptures and a food pantry, I glimpse a more private setting. Light permeates and the ability to see through to an inner space makes the house feel bigger. I’m intrigued and want to see more.

Passing the orderly and user-friendly kitchen, I turn left around the tall shelf unit and enter a living room area. Under the lower ceiling, the space feels cozy with a sofa directly in front of a wood stove in the corner. Around the stove are shelves with wooden bowls, clay bowls, cups and vases, baskets and more made by Gail and her friends. Everywhere I look there is something of interest. Within arm’s reach from the comfortable seating are books to delve into. Lively mobiles hang from the ceiling and art abounds on the walls. “I surround myself with objects,” Gail says, “things I’ve made or family and friends have made, and the handmade from many cultures around the world. Always, I have stories around me, worlds to look into or out of. That nourishes me, is food for me.”

I’m beginning to understand. Everything in Gail’s house has meaning, the stories cherished, and actively so. No stale, half-forgotten, nameless items gathering dust or shoved in a cabinet.

“I firmly believe in not having something unless it is visible and used,” she says. “My feather duster’s an indispensable friend,” she adds and we both laugh.

Passing generations of family photos, we walk upstairs to her bedroom loft and, once again, I see shelves in lieu of solid walls. Here, they partition off the bathroom but allow light and air to penetrate, allow the eye to see into another world or linger in the present, transfixed by one of the numerous creations on display.

In her artwork she uses back lighting to see inside a baby quahog, the low afternoon sun to see feathery hairs on a plant, the veins in a leaf. Working with light, she allows us to see beyond the everyday casual observations, urging us to look deeper and under the layers, inspiring curiosity just as her house does.

Throughout her small dwelling, the pathways are clearly delineated and narrow, but I don’t feel claustrophobic or closed in. I’m fascinated and engaged with my surroundings. Back downstairs, we settle on the couch surrounded by warmth from the fire and flourishing plants in front of the large French doors. I see the brick patio through the greenery and glass. Opposite these doors, in the kitchen area, is another set of French doors. When the weather warms and the doors are opened, swinging out and secured to the outside wall, I imagine the yard becomes a part of the house itself in a most tangible manner, doubling the size of the place.

I ask Gail if she has any advice for someone considering a move into a smaller space. “Get to know yourself,” she says without hesitation. “What do you love, dislike? What annoys, what makes you feel good? Stand back and observe yourself. No finger wagging,” she adds, “no judgment…. Just observe yourself.”

Radical cleansing every once in a while is also necessary, she points out, for a small space to remain supportive. Gail makes use of the West Tisbury Dumptique, schools, and friends for giving away items that could still be of use to others. On a more etheric level, she burns sage to clear the atmosphere for a special occasion or when a major change is about to take place.

The well-insulated, passive solar house, designed by Gail on a napkin twenty-four years ago, was originally intended to be her studio, not her residence. Yet, she has created a nurturing home in harmony with herself and her surroundings. The outside comes in with the warmth of sunlight and the opening wide of doors, allowing the natural, non-mechanical collection and movement of heat and air. The inside moves out with potted plants, seating areas, and tables to make things on and share meals. Both inside and out, Gail’s home celebrates the handmade.

As I’m getting ready to leave, Gail tells me there’s a sacred grove on the property. I pay the trees a visit. Just as the open shelves create boundaries one can see through, the circle of oaks define an energetically translucent space of centering and connection. The outside dances in and the inside dances out, weaving an ancient mystery of layers and light.

Gail is the dancer making the unseen worlds visible, the ultimate “maker of things.”