In the Off-Season: January

Many creative Vineyarders find the quiet solitude of an Island winter to be a most fertile environment for productivity, no matter the medium.

On a blue-sky September Saturday, two writer friends met by chance in the midst of the Tivoli Day throngs on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. The air was warm, the bargains were hot, and the music was jamming. “No way was I staying indoors working today,” said one. The other nodded and laughed, and vowed to chain herself to the computer that evening. Or maybe the next day. For the moment, the agenda called for a sunny bench and a carton of Thai chicken nuggets.

With apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley: If autumn comes, can winter be far behind? No, to the bittersweet benefit of Islanders who make their livings being creative – with words, wet clay, wild mushrooms, or what-have-you – winter is the season to buckle down and get things done. Summer friends don’t pop over, let alone stay over. The kids are in school. The gardens sleep. The beach hardly beckons. And for those who do labor in summer, hawking their wares rather than horsing around, the customer base has largely vanished. Come January, once the holiday lights are put away, Island life grows still – one can hear even the faintest whisper of a muse.

Making music

Winter is more than quiet enough to pick up the amplified tracks of a thumping Brazilian band. That’s when producer-engineer-composer-arranger-musician Jim Parr holes up to work on projects that demand his sustained focus. “Holing up” takes on new meaning in his basement recording studio in Oak Bluffs. “It’s a nice cycle,” Jim says of the seasonality of his work. In summer, in between playing Mr. Mom to a small band of adoring tykes, he plays gigs with Island bands, records the occasional voice-over for a summering Hollywood actor, and takes on other quickie projects. He also tries to whisk the family away to his home state of Maine for a week or two of vacation. In winter, most of the kids are back in school instead of auditioning on toy guitars and kazoos on the studio sofa or itching to touch buttons on the engineering console. Jim then has long stretches of time, space, and peace to compose new material for himself or to delve deeply into client projects, such as the first CD release for Luiz Oliveira’s Brazilian band or a Geraldine Brooks recording of her last novel. “I might be writing, playing, producing, engineering, arranging – it all depends on who’s walking in the door.”

Culinary ingenuity

From May to November, Judy Klumick commandeers the bustling kitchen at Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown, transforming each day’s harvest into zucchini bread, chicken salad, and other customer favorites and surprises. After the farm store closes for the season, the mostly self-taught chef is freed up to channel more energy into conjuring new recipes. The test laboratory is her home kitchen in Ocean Heights. Judy’s judging panel is family: her husband, mother-in-law, and three grown sons – “whoever happens to be around at dinner time,” she says. Their reviews lean more toward Paula Abdul than Simon Cowell. “My husband is an Italian who was raised in Italy and New York; he eats and loves everything.” Last winter’s raves included poblano peppers stuffed with mashed butternut squash and Monterey Jack cheese, laced with a cilantro-lime cream sauce. Judy also dabbled with stuffed quahaugs and braised meats. Besides raising the recipe repertoire in winter 2011, she hopes to add her creative two cents to the construction of the farm store’s new bakery.

Clay interplay

Pack up, transport, set up, break down. Repeat. Such is the high-season ritual known as the Vineyard Artisans Festival for seasoned exhibitors like Lisa Strachan. She’s the creator of the popular wedding-white confections in tableware and vases, among other signature works in porcelain. Summer is when the selling side of her business is at its busiest. Fall is when she hustles to craft and ship custom orders. Winter is when she can slow down and truly create. “Winter affords me three months of time that are mine,” Lisa says. In a tiny cabin of a studio in West Tisbury, within inspirational earshot of the surf at Long Point, the artisan works in cherished solitude on new porcelain designs and techniques. She emerges now and then to swap feedback with her sister – mosaic artisan Jennifer Strachan – who spends the winter months in her own studio a few yards up the hill. Last winter, Lisa experimented with joining white porcelain and earthy stoneware in the same objects, for a smooth-meets-rough effect. From summer to summer, her regular customers expect to see something new and unique. “As a craftsperson, I have to keep growing,” she says. “I can’t just carve the same old grapes all the time.”

Story time

“It’s impossible to achieve a balance on Martha’s Vineyard,” asserts author Tony Horwitz, reflecting on five years of immersion in year-round Island residency with his wife, author Geraldine Brooks, and their two sons. “Summer is insane, exhausting, and over-stimulating. Winter is just the opposite.” Tony keyboards at his book projects most assiduously between September and June. In summer, between high-season happenings: “I just do what I can.” As Tony sees it, the Vineyard off-season nourishes the writer’s craft in particular. “Writing demands longer sustained periods of concentration than other creative pursuits. You can’t just block out ninety minutes for writing – at least, I can’t. I need at least four solid hours a day, day after day, or else I lose the narrative thread and momentum.” Hence, from the time the kids leave their Vineyard Haven home for school each morning until they return in the afternoon, both Tony and Geraldine try to “keep our butts in our seats and grind the work out.” This winter, with a keen eye on his publisher’s deadline, Tony is putting the finishing touches on a book about John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry. “I’ll come up for air around April.”

Cinéma vérité

Liz Witham and Ken Wentworth are the creative spirits behind Film-Truth Productions, a ten-year-old company with a growing renown for documentaries that shine a fresh and humanizing light on social issues. “Winter is a wonderful time for us to really sink our teeth into a subject and get the research done,” says Liz. “We have the space and quiet to go inward and dig deep. Then in spring, we try to pull the vision of the project together and prepare to make it public.” Most summers, they stage a screening or fundraiser. “Summer is busy and frenetic – definitely not a time of creativity,” says the Aquinnah native. Ken is her partner in matrimony as well as art, and their summers are about play as well as work – selected work. They do some location shooting, but sitting indoors behind an editing computer is a must to avoid. Most of all, they try to connect socially with friends who are on-Island just for the season. “Our dance card is pretty full.” On occasion, they get to dance with an influential connection who can help advance the distribution or financing of their latest project. This winter, Liz and Ken are resuming filming of the documentary they began last winter on alternative energy innovations as near as the Vineyard and as far away as Denmark. They’ll also continue to build their unique brand of “docu-tunes,” or web-based music videos, featuring members of Liz’s family – the talented Taylor clan – among others.

By the time the forsythia are in bud, the osprey are back, and the pinkletinks are chirping, the winter work agenda of the Vineyard artisan is all wrapped up, nice and neat. Right? Liz laughs. “When I realize cars with out-of-state plates are going by again, I think, ‘Oh my God.’”