Becoming Hanna

An artist’s living tribute to the mistress of Greater Light

by: Beverly Hall

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

In 1964 I arrived on Nantucket from New York City not knowing what to expect. I was searching for the artist’s life: a studio, inspiration and a community of creative people. What I found was a rustic, bare-bones fishing shack on the west end of the island, on Hither Creek, Madaket.

These many years later, I’ve been inspired by the life of a kindred spirit, Hanna Monaghan, who lived on Nantucket for nearly 50 years, from the 1920s until her death in 1972, in a house she named Greater Light, on Howard Street, just steps from upper Main.

Monaghan and her sister Gertrude had been students at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. They spent several summers on the island, renting various cottages, until they found an 18th century livestock barn on a quiet street near the center of town. They purchased the building and painstakingly transformed it into a home filled with art and a workshop, aptly naming it Greater Light.

The name came from their Quaker background. The Monaghan sisters had been members of the Swarthmore Friends Meeting House of Pennsylvania. Once they arrived on-island, they became heavily involved with reviving meetings at the old Quaker Meeting House on Fair Street. By 1938, in many ways, their home had become an expression of their faith, referring to the Quaker idea of “inner light.”

I see strong parallels between my life and Hanna’s. From 2001, my home, Ming-at-Om, has grown from a humble one-bedroom cottage to an enchanting multifaceted house, filled with art, including an Asian art museum. Both Greater Light and my home are living tributes to the arts in all their manifestations. I share with Hanna Monaghan that passion for a place to inhabit one’s vision, talents and creative powers.

Hanna and I both searched for a house that could be transformed into “the stuff that dreams are made of,” and “stuff ” may be the operative word here. Hanna and I have been collectors of all that engages our curiosity or appeals to our eclectic sense of beauty, no matter how difficult to acquire or install.

Greater Light was decidedly “stuffed” when I entered it for the first time in the late 1970s. I remember my astonishment at the tapestry of color and texture that greeted me when Selina Johnson, a close friend of Hanna’s, opened the door to welcome me into this eccentric home. The two sisters had been gone for some years. Gertrude died in 1962 and Hanna 10 years later. Johnson was living in the house at the time, and, out of her devotion to Hanna, was giving guided tours for the Nantucket Historical Association. I felt as though I were stepping back in time as I set foot on the faded Oriental carpet. Something in me quickened, the shock of familiarity and surprise. I tingled with the sense of instant rapport as I sensed I was about to be transported into another world. The room was imbued with a sense of the pulsating past and crowded with an exuberant and vital presence.

My eyes could barely take in the kaleidoscopic array of artifacts and bric-a-brac that had been gathered into this transformed studio/living space. It was more than a room. It was a chapel, a cathedral of sorts.

The red church windows spoke immediately to a penchant for “churchy” things in my own home: a fallback to the influence of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City that I had called my spiritual home for decades. Trunks, benches and tables draped in paisley fabrics held a variety of ritual objects and antiques scattered here and there.

There appeared to be an inherent order in the clutter. I had seen nothing like this in the island’s quaint, well-manicured homes. This house was truly idiosyncratic, as were its creators, which I was soon to discover.

From the moment I entered, I felt at home among the overstuffed chairs and embroidered sofa with folds of fabric and a very large embroidered harem curtain layering the old wooden church windows. The room was a collage of colors and textures, a hodgepodge of styles. A Spanish bench here, Guatemalan and Mexican fabrics over there, Southwest Indian rugs, Chinese porcelain and a brass Russian samovar were among the furnishings.

I felt a strong presence despite my ignorance of any of the Monaghan history. Somehow this stranger and I had become instant friends aesthetically. Greater Light wove a domestic tapestry that paid tribute to the Quaker sisters’ worldly explorations, honored the discoveries from their travels, and demonstrated Hanna’s perseverance in acquiring the objects that were just the right items to complement the montage of the family’s memories and travels. The Moravian star hanging from the ceiling pointed to the heavens that inspired Hanna in her work.

I could feel that familiar tug in my gut. I could live here. I was home.

Little did I suspect then that one day in the distant future I might be called upon to step into the shoes of one of these eccentric spinster sisters.

Many years later my fishing cottage evolved: from shack to chateau, as I was fond of saying. The transformation began when my European husband added a one-bedroom addition to the original house. My instinct for collecting was allowed to expand as each room filled up with books and other collectables.

Through a recent marriage to David Billings, I acquired an extensive collection of Asian art to add to the numerous Chinese snuff bottles inherited from my father.

My home, like Hanna’s, is alive with the art. It is filled with beautiful and transcendent “stuff.” Treasures worth thousands of dollars mingle with random objects brought home from the thrift shop or yard sales. Mission style blends seamlessly with Indonesian fabrics and Chinese artifacts.

Beautiful reminders of my trips to India and Africa are spread throughout the house. Every object has a story. Paintings and photographs take up much of the wall space. Like Hanna, I am both a creator and a collector, and, like Greater Light, I believe that my home epitomizes both beauty and delight.

Years later, when I took on the role of “interpreting” Hanna in her garden, I recalled what a friend once said to me: “You look more like a Hanna than a Beverly.”

In taking on this assignment, I found a story line around which to frame my own. I was, indeed, about to morph into my new persona. As I read Hanna’s memoirs about the creation of her historic home, I realized that here was a story that captivated something in me at such a deep level that it began to occupy my thoughts daily. I was hooked. Hanna had moved in.

Hanna Monaghan and I share much in common. Her home was an evolving tribute to all the arts. From a working studio to a performance space and venue for soirées, Greater Light was continually evolving to accommodate ongoing events and social situations, as is my home, Ming-at-Om.

Both Hanna and I share a passion for collecting, no matter how eclectic or difficult the objects are to obtain. Our intuition favors the chase over the purchase. We each will go that extra mile to acquire our heart’s desires no matter what the cost or, for that matter, having any place to put them.

We share an enthusiasm for animals, gardening, photography and travel. More significantly, we share a deep love for Nantucket as well as a strong desire to make a difference in our island community. In the dramatic soliloquies and continuing dialogue I have entered into with Hanna through her books, “Dear George” and “Greater Light on Nantucket,” I have been able to assist in fulfilling the mission of the Nantucket Historical Association to tell the inspiring stories of the island through its collections, programs and properties, as well as fulfill its mission in reconstructing Greater Light, to open a window on the emerging summer art colony.

In bringing Hanna to life through the use of her memoirs, I believe I am revitalizing her home and drawing an increasingly larger, engaged number of visitors to it as well as enlightening our community of year-round residents. As I have often said to myself, if I cannot own this home, then at least I can pretend to be its eccentric owner.

Hanna and I share an aesthetics of the heart. We are soul sisters. I have heard repeatedly from friends that it is difficult to tell where Hanna begins and Beverly ends.

“One of the main reasons I love Hanna is for her engaging sense of aesthetics, a healthy dose of materialism and that Quaker sense of the inner light that guided her spirituality, as well as her quest for just the right things that enhanced and embellished the eccentric and eclectic beauty of her home,” reads a quote from me in the NHA’s brochure on Greater Light.

Perhaps it is where art and spirituality intersect that I sense our souls truly are intertwined. Hanna’s ancestral Quaker faith and my Episcopalian roots make for a stimulating combination of contemplation and ritual along with a firm belief that “art captures the eternal in the everyday.”

Hanna is even more alive for me today than she was on the first day that I “met” her, albeit posthumously. It is my privilege to carry on her legacy and interpret her vision during the summer at this historical site. This feeling is best summed up in the final lines of the soliloquy I perform in the summer at 8 Howard St. It affects me when I recite it as if I had just received the news of a best friend’s death.

“When Hanna closed her eyes for the last time on Christmas Eve in 1972, I trust she had a smile on her face, knowing her home was in good hands and her legacy intact.

I hope she was pleased and satisfied with all that she has accomplished here – here in this one spot. I know I am, aren’t you?”

The papers and manuscripts of the Monaghan sisters are held in the archives of the Nantucket Historical Association on Fair Street, titled the “Gertrude and Hanna Monaghan Family Papers.” The collection includes correspondence, sketches and other items donated by the sisters, including Hanna’s manuscript on George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers.

Beverly Hall is working on a book about Hanna Monaghan for the Nantucket Historical Association, due to be published later this year.

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