Playful art at 97

Stell’s works of wonder

By Dagney C. Ernest | Dec 19, 2012
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest Stell Shevis had a solo “Familiar Faces” show this fall at the Garage Gallery featuring portraits of Camden residents.

Camden — On the wall of her Camden studio, next to the proverbial kitchen sink, Estelle Shevis has posted a piece of paper that reads “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder.”

“That’s a quote from Abraham Herschel … and really is a good one for me. I’m still so amazed at so many things — life is a wonder,” she said on a day devoted to working on the dozens of handmade Christmas cards she sends out every year.

She is called Stell, and not just by her many friends. Her late husband of 72 years was a fellow artist and he was known as Shevis, so Stell’s works — primarily enamels but also many other media — are signed Stell. And at 97 years old, she is still creating art every day.

Shevis, who had been rather deaf and completely blind in one eye when they met as young art students at Massachusetts College of Art, was without both senses when he died in 2010, at home, at age 96. Stell and Shevis made all of their living, and raised four children, as artists.

“I don’t miss him — because he’s here! His art is all over the place. I can argue with him and he can’t answer back,” she said, adding “Oh, we argued all the time, I think that’s what kept the spark alive.”

Their lively life together began in art school, where the tradition of calling female students by their first names and male by last established them as Stell and Shevis. Their careers began on the National Youth Administration, part of the New Deal’s Work Progress Administration. The couple did many different kinds of design work including greeting cards, book jackets, posters and fabrics. By 1945, they had saved up enough money to buy a home — as long as they bought it someplace prices were low.

“As artists, we never had credit, so we had to save up for everything we bought. No one would give us a mortgage — oh, what would have happened if we had had credit cards,” Stell said.

Back to the land in Belmont

Influenced in part by the books “Five Acres and Independence” and “We Took to the Woods,” Stell and Shevis went back to the land long before Maine’s Waldo County became a magnet for such aspirations in the 1970s. They bought a fairly new house, albeit without electricity or plumbing, and 12 acres of land in Belmont for $1,800.

“We could have been on Belfast Harbor for $5,000, but I had told Shevis to find a place with no close neighbors,” said Stell, citing troublesome neighbors in Hackensack, N.J., for that fateful call.

Although they had never gardened in their lives, they plowed up an acre that first year and planted corn, beans, tomatoes, “everything you can think of! No one told us about rabbits and raccoons, but we still managed to feed the kids,” Stell said.

The addition of chickens for eggs, and dealing with a dairy farmer neighbor for milk and butter, made them almost self-sufficient. When that neighbor caught undulant fever from his cows, Stell and Shevis got goats, thus completing their own sustenance circle.

Maintaining their New York contacts in order to sell their work, alas, was not as easy in rural Waldo County — not because of the distance but because of the party lines. There were 22 households on their telephone line, each with a distinctive ring, and everyone was curious about what this couple from away was up to.

“They knew our ring and would pick up to listen in! The more people were on at once, the worse the reception would be, so we ended up losing our contacts because we couldn’t depend on the phone connection,” Stell said.

They were turning out a lot of marketable work, though, thanks to an old Washington press they used for printing wood and linocut blocks on silk scarves and linen handkerchiefs, as well as prints on paper for framing. Acquiring and electrifying a secondhand Kelsey Press speeded up the process for producing postcards and calendars, which they marketed via catalogs.

“So we had our own print shop. We went to craft fairs for a while, and shared a space in New York City. A rep liked our work and offered to take us on,” said Stell.

When New York agent Greta von Nessen, who had a showroom on Fifth Avenue, told the couple she would take 15 percent of sales, Stell and Shevis said they couldn’t afford that kind of a cut.

“She said, raise your prices! We did and it worked,” said Stell, who said they ended up working with von Nessen for 20 years.

When the couple bought their Belmont property, they insured it with the local grange. As their business became successful and grew, it never occurred to them to increase their coverage. One summer night in 1964, their barking dog awakened the family, who rose to find the house and barn in flames. They all got out, but they lost everything.

“We had $11,000 worth of insurance — and lost $50,000 of materials and supplies alone, including paper and bolts of fabric we hadn’t even paid for yet,” said Stell.

They also lost all their work, both personal and inventories of cards and calendars, so had no way to make a living. Their rep suggested opening a shop where they could sell work by her other artists while they built back up their own stock. That kind of retail outlet wasn’t a fit for Belmont, so they set their sights on the coast.

Coming to Camden

“Of course, we had no money to put down for a house. The only bank that would give us anything was Depositors Trust, so that’s where we went and I still do,” said Stell of the institution that is now Key Bank.

Stell and Shevis bought a house right on Route 1, where they established a shop in the front. Eventually, they were able to build up their inventory again and get back to making art for their living. They ended up selling the house, which has since become one of the town’s many inns, and building their own home on the lot next door — a home designed for two artists.

“We always had separate, equal studios and never interrupted each other, except for coffee breaks,” Stell said.

Because she had complained about the noise of being right on Route 1, Shevis gave their new home super-thick insulated walls, a decision that has led to many years of being able to heat with electricity for less than oil cost. Heating a house in the winter, and Shevis’ tendency to feel the cold, had led to the family’s spending a number of winters in Mexico and, eventually, Guatemala (where Stell, traveling with a museum buyer friend, experienced the 1976 earthquake in person).

“The first time was in 1952; one of our daughters was at Northfield Academy, but we drove down with three kids,” said Stell.

The couple raised the money by asking their catalog recipients if they would consider sending $5 or $10 in exchange for a piece of Mexican silver or leather craft.

“We ended up with $600, which was enough for six months in Mexico and a lot less than it would’ve cost to heat the house in Maine,” she said.

The last winter they went south was 1985, but reminders of those years are all around the home, in works on the walls and the woodblock-print books that Shevis wrote about the family’s adventures. One tells the tale of a daughter so enamored of burros she rounded up all she could find, to their owners’ consternation.

“We ended up having to rent one for the winter,” said Stell.

‘Playing’ with enamels

Stell still travels; she has a memento from a trip to China on her kitchen wall. She is hoping to go to a family gathering in Florida after Christmas. Stell went to the last Enamelist Society Conference in Tennessee with her daughter-in-law; next year’s 10-day biennial conference will be in Kentucky. Stell was working primarily in clay 30 years ago when a master enamellist friend, with whom the family had stayed on their way to and from Mexico, died and left Stell all her enameling supplies and equipment.

“Shevis rented a truck and drove to New Orleans, came back with a huge kiln and a thousand jars of frit,” said Stell, explaining that frit is the ground glass that is melted on metal plates to create enamel.

Stell had experimented with enamels earlier but took to the medium with a passion after everything arrived. The big kiln from New Orleans still stands in her studio, but now she uses a more petite kiln, a box-like device that heats to 1,500 degrees.

“I sold all my clay stuff, had to do it — I just love the color,” she said.

Her love of experimenting with the ancient medium not only keeps her coming back to the studio each day but also has led to her sharing her discoveries in periodicals dedicated to enamels. Gold and silver leaf have become even pricier than usual — she uses every micron of every sheet, including the negative space patterns created from stamping out shapes — so a recent series of experiments has used kitchen aluminum foil, disposable cake pans and even the inner seals from yogurt containers.

Enamels by Stell are marketed these days at Island Artisans, a seasonal gallery in Bar Harbor; and Mainely Pottery in Belfast. They include pins, magnets, enamel-topped music boxes, small bowls and dishes.

“I like to keep things small, so they’re affordable. But you know, some of the glass is $12 an ounce and there can be several ounces on a dish,” she said.

Much as she enjoys her enamel work, which she calls playing, Stell also paints as part of a longtime group of sister artists known these days as the Lively Ladies. They show in an unlikely space that has turned out to be just the right place, she said. Their Garage Gallery is comprised of the walls in the waiting room of Eastern Tire & Auto Service on Rockland’s Park Street.

“You know, many of us have sold more work there than in other galleries,” she said.

When Shevis was still able to work, the group showed as The Lively Ladies & Shevis. Stell said when the group began some 40 years ago, there were plenty of other men in it.

“We used to pay for a live nude model but when we stopped, the men stopped coming,” she said.

Another group Stell is meeting with these days is the Coastal Senior College memoir writing class led by Alice Dashiell in the Thomaston Academy building. Even though the next session does not begin until February, the men and women still meet once a week.

“Shevis wrote a lot. The first book printed, a vanity press book, was ‘Stell’s Dream House’ about Mexico,” Stell said.

Shevis’ books and prints and drawings fill his studio, which is separated by a wall from Stell’s. When they built the house, they put their studios upstairs — his has a bathroom and hers a kitchen in case the floor ever had to be an apartment — and their living quarters below street level. Stell said she has been encroaching on Shevis’ space and keeps finding work there she hasn’t seen before.

“We sold a lot but love what we do and always had a great time doing it,” she said.

Stell is still having a great time, attributing her lack of arthritis, which would really hamper enamel work, to not eating sugar for years.

“It’s poison! People say I’m lucky, but I work at it. I eat right and do my exercises every morning, my tai chi — look!” she said, easily bending down to touch her toes.

Stell shares her birthday with a granddaughter, who is planning a celebration for when they turn 100 and 25, respectively.

“So I have to make it,” she said.

Courier Publications’ A&E Editor Dagney C. Ernest can be reached at (207) 594-4401, ext. 115 or dernest@courierpublicationsllc.com.

Comments (2)
Posted by: Dagney C. Ernest | Dec 20, 2012 11:56

Thanks for your kind words, Dianne, it's a privilege to do stories like this :)



Posted by: Dianne Horton | Dec 20, 2012 07:29

Dagney, you have done it again!!  That was a fabulous article. I have an enamel of Stell's that I got from the MPBN auction and absolutely love it!!!  I was very fortunate to meet Stell and talk with her about her work as well as my son Rob graduating from MassArt in 2003 and how much different it is now there. She was fascinated by the fact that he got a job with Martin Puryear right out of college and still works as his fabricator.  She told me how difficult it was for her husband as well as herself in the early years.  She must have known she would be famous at some point!!! Maybe not.  I am absolutely thrilled that you wrote this fabulous article!!  We are so lucky to have such beyond wonderful artists right here in Maine!!  And you too Dagney!!     Dianne



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