Living Small: York Street Retreat

by: Leslie Linsley

photography by: Terry Pommett

When watercolor artist Barbara van Winkelen first came to Nantucket more than 40 years ago from her home in Windsor, Connecticut, she never dreamed she would own a house here.

Like many artists before her, she was attracted to the beauty of the island. She immediately discovered what a peaceful and creative environment it offered for doing the one thing that consumed her for her entire life, illustration and painting.

This area was where the artist often painted when she wasn’t in her Spindrift Gallery on Old South Wharf. The living room is part of the new addition with more of the artist’s paintings. The coffee table is from Ikea, and the slipper chairs opposite a newly-purchased sofa are from the Nantucket Lightship Basket Museum yard sale.

As a graduate of Yale University’s School of Art in 1943, Barbara spent a lifetime following her passion: drawing, painting and creating. For 30 years she spent half the year in Connecticut and the rest of the year on Nantucket. Many visitors to the island remember her from her Spindrift Gallery on Old South Wharf, where she could be found all day, every day painting the island flowers and harbor views she saw from her gallery window.

“This is exactly where I belong,” she often said, rarely looking up from the painting she was working on while chatting with anyone who wanted to pull up a chair.

The house she ultimately bought is on a sweet little lane in the heart of town. It was built in the mid-1900s as a workshop by island builder Peter Meerbergen, who later converted it to a one-bedroom, one-bath cottage before selling it to the artist. She loved its quaint charm and over the years, Meerbergen and Barbara became friends. They worked together to design and double the size of the house to include three bedrooms and two baths, a dining area and large living room. He also built a separate post-and-beam barn-like studio on the property.

Following a stroke four years ago, Barbara was no longer able to maintain the house. She moved to a nursing home in Connecticut to be near her husband Herb. I was a friend of Barbara’s for many years and represented her work in my shop. We always joked about her downtown and uptown locations just a few blocks apart. It seemed fitting when the family suggested that I buy the house. They knew I would maintain the island flavor that made it so attractive, not ripping out the country kitchen, for example, to replace it with sleek granite and steel, totally inappropriate for the cottage-style house.

Since this would be a house that I would use for my family when they visited the island and to rent out occasionally in the summertime, my goal was to keep the maintenance low but combine a bit of modern convenience with antique charm. The important thing was to keep the overall feeling of the rooms light and airy and to decorate them with her paintings so the house would always have the flavor of a Nantucket artist’s cottage. The country kitchen with open shelves, a 12-foot window seat and details like latch door handles and big beams in the new master bedroom add to its charm. Barbara’s paintings of hydrangeas and seascapes are filled with blues, her favorite color, and they helped to define the interior design of the house.

Furnishing a comfortable and stylish home on a small budget takes a lot of planning. Perhaps many of you are in the same situation, furnishing a house that you can use as your island vacation home but renting it for part of the season. Toward this end, I began with a floor plan, a color scheme and the Ikea catalog. It was important to be as efficient as possible in order to furnish the entire house in one trip off-island.

Organizing and planning are essential. Start with what you already own or a color scheme that you love. In this case it was the paintings and the blue and white color scheme as well as a few pieces of furniture that came with the house. A set of mismatched folk-art chairs were purchased from Rafael Osona’s auction and two comfortable wicker chairs were found at a yard sale. The old living room would become a casual family room with new cushions for the wicker chairs covered in the same fabric used on the window seat. A few throw pillows in blue and white tied all the furniture together. A new cover for a lounge chair was made from the leftover remnants.

Ikea is known for good design at very reasonable prices, and much of the furniture is made of light wood that is perfect for the house. Its fabric and curtains are also good value and careful shopping can yield a variety of simple, Swedish-style lamps for different purposes. Two Thomas Woodward blue woven area rugs softened the painted white floors in the family room. A colorful Kilim was a great buy at Ikea for under the dining table. Throughout the house, small antique accessories combine with the more modern pieces for a traditional homey feeling. Using folk-art chairs, for example, around an Ikea table with simple hanging lamps lends character to this dining area. A tall painted mirror fit perfectly between the windows, creating the illusion of a wall of windows.

Island artist Donn Russell maintained an art gallery next to Barbara’s for the 30 years she was on the wharf. One of his framed prints hangs on the dining-room wall, adding significance as another reminder of Nantucket’s early art scene.

One of the nicest features of the house is the brick patio between the house and the studio with a lovely cutting garden that was originally planted by Barbara’s daughter Susan Garner. This is a wonderful area for sun-bathing all day long, and the light also fills the new living area, which is accessed through double French doors. The cutting garden yields a variety of flowers and adds a fresh and inviting touch to all the rooms.

Barbara passed away last year, but her creative spirit lives on through her artwork and the house. She was a true island treasure and will always be remembered by summer visitors as “the lady who was always painting in her gallery.”