Category Archives: Redefining success

Too Much Talking!

No words required for this post–other than to identify the following glorious views as those amid which Mary Agnes Conard, whose story constitutes the final chapter of A Home of Her Own, spent her last 40 or so years.

Yael Ksander Really Does See Spot Run

Ksander in radio mode

Some of us call her the next Terry Gross.

Yael Ksander’s  finely crafted essays and voluptuous voice have made her a favorite among Indiana Public Media listeners. But the brilliance of Ksander’s broadcasts begins with her close reading of texts.

Ksander recently wrote a segment about A Home of Her Own for the WFIU program Artworks. While the book’s lavish illustrations may tempt many to linger at the surface, this graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in Art History took the time to absorb the words.  And how.

“A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she astutely calls the work. “Betty Friedan disguised as Martha Stewart.”

Instead of taping interviews for her program at the studio, Ksander chose to visit one of the houses in the book, confident that immersing herself in context would enrich her story. She arrived at the home of  Linda Oblack, subject of Chapter 7, with microphone, recording device, and her well-read review copy of the book in hand.

No sooner had Linda retired than she painted her living room and replaced the well-worn carpet.

For a  recording and transcript of the broadcast, along with more of Ksander’s writings on Hoosier history and culture,  cut and paste the following link into your browser: .


Colleagues David Brent Johnson and Yael Ksander at the offices of WFIU, Bloomington, Indiana

A home shared: Susann Craig

Many a woman living alone has taken in lodgers as a way to make ends meet. But having a housemate can enrich your life, as well as your bank account. There’s always someone to take care of your dog or cat. Your house will never be vacant. And unless your tenant is a mouse-like recluse (I had one of these–a doctoral student in chemistry named Guillermo; sadly, I think he was scared of me), there’s usually someone to converse with over a pot of simmering marinara sauce at the end of the day. 

Susann Craig's townhouse in Chicago, originally built to house faculty at the McCormick Seminary

Finding herself divorced and with an empty nest, Susann Craig decided she didn’t need an entire house to herself. She began posting cards on notice boards at a nearby college campus and soon found herself living with grad student renters, usually one at a time. One tenant from those years stood out, a young woman named Jeanne. Jeanne had recently completed a master’s in architecture at Harvard and was spending a few weeks in Chicago before leaving for Rotterdam to work as a lead designer for architect Rem Koolhaas.

Jeanne and Susann kept in touch, and after Jeanne returned to Chicago two years later, in 1995, she designed a loft to house Susann and her art collection.

Susann's loft today (left) and the same view in 1995 with Jeanne Gang supervising construction of the central shaft, which opens to the sky (right)

The two have become close friends–so close, in fact, that Jeanne’s mother made a curtain from stainless steel threads as a privacy surround for Susann’s clawfoot tub, which perches near the glass-walled edge of the second floor.

You can read their story in Chapter 9 of A Home of Her Own. Jeanne, whose work is now internationally renowned, was recently awarded yet another impressive bit of recognition–a MacArthur Fellowship. 

Photo Gallery

Susann with daughters Amy Craig Coleman, left, and Jennifer Craig Knight, right, 1968

Jennifer, Susann, and Amy in the 1990s

Jeanne Gang. Encore!

Substance and Style: Peggy Shepherd

From about 1990 ’til 2004, Bloomington, Indiana was home to a store called Grant St. Named for its location, Grant St began as a hole in the wall nestled in a bohemian enclave next to Pygmalion’s Art Supplies and around the corner from the Runcible Spoon cafe.

Some of us who knew Grant St in its early days, when it occupied a couple of rooms in an old-house-turned-retail-space, consider those years the store’s golden age. Packed floor to ceiling with surprises–quirky lamps made from dead tea kettles, ’20s  couches refurbished in velvet or paisleys,  ’50s dinettes  before ’50s became the height of cool–the store had an intimacy of scale that made customers feel like part of the family. 
Behind the counter you’d almost always find one of the owners, Sharon Fugate or Peggy Shepherd. Stylish and savvy, they grew their business steadily over the years, expanding first into a storage area at the rear of the store, then opening up a wall into the retail space next door. 

A furniture-filled corner of the original Grant St store. Yes, this may look like a chaotic pile of merchandise, but in reality every object was carefully arranged to heighten the shopper's sense of adventure. You had to be there.

In 1996 they relocated, becoming the  anchor business in a newly restored 1913 meat packing plant at the corner of Third and Rogers. With the move came other upgrades–a certain slickness and sophistication, a wider range of clothing. The store became a well loved destination. 

Frosted Foods Building, Bloomington (Photo: Paul Puzzello)

Peggy and Sharon at the store

Those of us who knew Sharon and Peggy beyond the sales counter–and there are lots of us, since many customers became friends–understood that the secrets to Grant St’s success were the proprietors’ sharp eye, entrepreneurial skills, and dogged work. Trips to shows in High Point, New York, and Chicago sound glamorous until you consider that they involved 14-hour drives, 20-hour days, and sharing a hotel bed to minimize expenses. Dressing in stylish clothes and serving a hip clientele in industrial-chic surroundings may seem enviable until you learn that closing the store at the end of the day opened up an evening’s work of balancing receipts, making follow-up calls to customers, and cleaning the bathroom.

Grant St at night

After they closed Grant St in 2004, Sharon opened a new store, Relish. Peggy, ready for a change from retail work, explored some interests she’d had on hold and worked to finish the barn conversion on which she had already been working for a few years.  The cover of A Home of Her Own features a view of that barn’s completed interior.


Peggy dressed up to watch the Miss America Show, circa 1959. Her mother recalls that after the show, Peggy asked her father if he would buy her a mink stole.

David Bender, Carie Bender, and Peggy Bender in American Gothic pose, preparing to build a new family house.


In the 1980s Peggy worked as an interior designer at the Bloomington business EnviroConcepts


Working on a friend’s roof in 1989
The Civil War-era house outside of Spencer, Indiana, the restoration of which is mentioned in A Home of Her Own:
Front porch

Watering flowers outside the kitchen, a more recent addition to the house

Front view across a small part of the lawn


Peggy with her son Brian, circa 1998, at the party they threw before leaving the Civil War-era Spencer house and moving to Sixth Street

Never one to sit still, Peggy dreamed up an even more daring project once she’d restored her house on Sixth Street.

The barn, pre-dismantling


The barn during dismantling


Packed on a truck, the barn timbers were driven to their new location


The completed barn conversion (Photo: Kendall Reeves)

Meanwhile, life went on. Brian moved to New York, and Carie married, then had two sons.

Peggy with her first grandson, Ross


With her second grandson, Trey, wearing the pipe cleaner crown he won in the Cutest Baby Contest at the Monroe County Fair

Inside the barn house, view toward the dining area



Betty Shepherd and Carie Bender with Trey and Ross, September 2011



True Grit: Amy Brier

Limestone sculptor Amy Brier has an impressive résumé. She studied stone carving in Italy and Germany, earned a BFA in sculpture from Boston University, talked her way onto the crew of artisans constructing New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and spent six years on that project before earning an MFA at Indiana University’s Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts. She’s the first female board member of the national Stone Carvers’ Guild. She co-founded, and continues to direct, the Indiana Limestone Symposium, currently in its fifteenth year. Now a professor of art at the Bloomington campus of Ivy Tech Community College, she spends much of her time outside of the classroom on commissions from private and institutional clients.

But one of the things I find most impressive about Amy is that her home studio, in the walk-out basement of her house, shares space with lines of drying laundry. I find this impressive not because she hangs her laundry, rather than using a clothes dryer (though line drying is certainly the greener option), but because this particular aspect of her situation so powerfully expresses the down-to-earth reality of most working artists, and countless working women (though in this day, such realities characterize members of every gender and sex), in an era that privileges surface over substance.

You know what I mean. There’s this insidious pressure to present oneself as Successful And Loving It!—but only if we subscribe to a definition of success rooted firmly in the ongoing commodification of everything. It’s not that we–and here I’m speaking to those of us who are women–are to see ourselves as commodities for purchase by men. No. Things have become far more subtle than that. We–men and women–are now invited, even pressured, to purchase ourselves, cosmetically made-over and professionally reinvented.


To look older than 35 has become unacceptable in an age when dermatology, surgery, and (for the less affluent) Photoshop are available. Rail-like thinness continues to be de rigueur—the ultimate sign of power (requiring, as it does, an admirably steely will), yet simultaneously, I can’t but observe–at least among women–a reassuring signifier of our delicate frailty and thus supposedly inescapable dependence on a “provider.” And of course one must, throughout, display a stylish joie de vivre; even if one does not have the longed-for partner or satisfying, appropriately compensating job, one must avoid complaining or appearing to be anything less than “Fabulous.”

This is why I find Amy Brier, with her subterranean laundry-sharing studio, so impressive. She, like her home workplace, is real. And proud of it.

Stone rubbing of lettering by Amy

(Header image is not by Kendall Reeves.)

Veni, vixi, vici*: Linda Oblack

*I came, I lived, I won

“I never win anything,” said Linda Oblack as she took a ticket stub entering her in a draw for a freshly baked persimmon pudding. I’d started mixing the pulp (from my own tree) with eggs and butter at 6 that morning in the hope that a door prize would increase attendance at a talk I was scheduled to give.

Frankly, I was surprised that Linda had turned up. She’d probably heard the same talk twice before. The Saturday Farmers’ Market was in full swing, complete with Morris Dancers for May Day. What was she doing in a windowless conference room at City Hall?

“I just came for a chance to win the pudding.”

Well, it’s nice to have an audience, whatever the reason for each member’s presence.


So here’s the thing. Linda’s my editor at the Indiana University Press. But more than that, she’s also the subject of Chapter 7 in A Home of Her Own. When you read her story, you may find it as hard as I do to believe her claim that she never wins anything.

I guess it all depends on how you define winning. Must “winning” involve no effort at all on the part of the winner—other than merely showing up? Or can winning be understood as doing well—that is, succeeding, or prevailing against the innumerable potential catastrophes that await each of us at any given moment—as in the working-class English expression for “How are you?”: “Aya winnin’?” 

Linda Oblack has certainly come out on top in the latter sense.

Linda's house "before"

Here's how Linda's house looked when she bought it


Here's Linda's home today

As I write, Linda’s on the verge of retiring—yes, retiring—as in, “with benefits.” What?! In this day and age?

Not only that. She has a part-time job waiting for her, following a month of mandatory nonemployment…just to make sure she officially retires and is not faking it.

Please, someone, tell me how I can qualify for this “non-winning” plan!

And to top it all off, Linda actually did take home the persimmon pudding.


Linda and Margo

Linda and Margo, her sprightly 14-year-old husky