Public presentation on May 9

The Indiana Landmarks Center, Indianapolis

The Indiana Landmarks Center, Indianapolis

Join us at the spectacular offices of the Indiana Landmarks Foundation on Thursday, May 9 for a public presentation and book signing related to A Home of Her Own.

Reception begins at 5:30 p.m., with talk at 6 and book signing at 7.

Persimmon time

Persimmons have been dropping early this year, thanks to the drought. While mowing today–for the first time since about June–I stopped to collect fallen fruit from around the tree. The search for treasure hidden amid tall grass and clover put me in mind of an Easter egg hunt.

There are already several batches of persimmon pulp in the freezer, ready for cold-weather baking. Pulping is a labor-intensive process involving a hand-operated mill.

Sept 2012 persimmon milling

When it’s time to bake, I use my favorite recipe–the one that first introduced me to persimmon pudding. The recipe comes from the grandmother of a friend who originally misinterpreted the “1 t of salt” to mean a tablespoonful. The saltiness of that original pudding only added to the dish’s exotically Midwestern character on those first occasions when I tasted it. Although my friend eventually confirmed that the “t” meant “teaspoon,” the less-salty pudding remains a quintessentially Midwestern treat.

Click to enlarge

This is the pudding I made for my friend Edie’s wedding. The header photo is taken from her porch, where we ate the pudding–with celebratory champagne.

Carving course with Mary May

I spent the past week in a carving class taught by Mary May at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking.  Although I have incorporated simple relief carvings into several pieces over the past several years–some doves and petunias, a grape vine with a cardinal, a stylized tulip, the odd sunburst or daisy–I had never had any formal instruction in carving.  What finally moved me to sign up for Mary’s class was the frustration I experienced on carving a decorative edge for “Corona Plumosa,”** the 1920s Spanish Renaissance Revival-inspired piece I built for an Indiana University Arts Week grant-funded project. The decorative edge effect, which Mary informed me is called “gadrooning,”*  seemed flatter than the antique examples on which I had based it.

Close, but not quite there yet….

I was ready to learn some official carving techniques.

Mary is a great teacher. She explains principles and processes clearly and will demonstrate techniques as many times as necessary. Having her minute paring cuts magnified on a pair of large screens was invaluable; in fact, her movements became so deeply etched (or carved? ouch) in my mind that I literally dreamed about them last night.

I can’t wait to put some of those techniques into practice.

Mary teaches at other schools, and for $10 a month, you can gain access to her online carving school. She also has several videos. See her website for further information.

**The name is misspelled on my website. It should be Corona, not Corono. (I’ll ask Jim to fix this as soon as he returns from sailing.)

*According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word, which is sometimes spelled “godroon,” is likely related to the French goder, to crease or pucker.


Congratulations to Kendall Reeves, Linda Oblack, and colleagues at the Indiana University Press, as well as to Patricia Poore, who wrote our foreword! A Home of Her Own was awarded the Silver Medal in the 2012 Independent Publishers Book Awards Home & Garden category. Nice news for a Friday evening, by courtesy of our IU Press publicist, Mandy Clarke.

(Home & Garden is number 52 in the IPPY list.)

View of the lake outside of Rachel Berenson Perry’s dining room door
(Photo by Kendall Reeves, Spectrum Studio of Photography & Design)

A.Z. Vintage: A Business of Her Own

Sharon Fugate and Peggy Shepherd of Grant St, Bloomington’s now-defunct but long-beloved destination for all things quirky, stylish, and cutting edge, provided their employees with invaluable experience in running a business.  Two of those employees, Lara Moore and Alison Zook, have gone on to found their own ventures.

Moore’s bella bella arts produces tables and other furnishings for a national clientele. Many of her fans are so crazy about her layered tissue paper artistry that they have pieces of her work in nearly every room of their home.

Zook’s A.Z. Vintage opened just this month on Bloomington’s South Morton Street in a space cleverly packed with clothes, jewelry, furniture, lighting, dishware, shoes…even bikinis and sunglasses. You haven’t seen prices this low in years, possibly decades (many of her to-die-for vintage earrings are under $5 a pair), which promises to ensure a rapid turnover in wares. All the more reason to stop by often, lest you miss some ridiculously affordable treasure.

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.

Me and Arianna

Back in 1978, I watched 28 year-old Arianna Stassinopoulos shred an opponent during a Cambridge Union Society debate. I had attended other events at the Union–a screening of Carrie, a lecture on meditation–but the Stassinopoulos performance made by far the deepest impression.

I no longer recall the substance of that debate, but I will never forget Stassinopoulos. What captivated me was her sparkling blend of confidence with an apparent mastery of the topic at hand. Of course there was also that exotic Greek accent, so thick that even if you weren’t persuaded by her arguments, you had to admire her for speaking  before an audience composed overwhelmingly of privileged English students. She deftly skewered her adversary’s claims and tossed them flailing off the stage. At least, that’s how it looked to someone who spent her days in the hermit-like study of ancient documents in dead languages. There was no way the woman wasn’t headed for something big.

Fast forward to 2011. Arianna Huffington had become a household name. And again we found ourselves in the same room, at least figuratively speaking. My second book,  A Home A of Her Own, had just been published by the Indiana University Press. A publicist called to tell me that the Huffington Post wanted to include our book in its list of “Books We Love” and asked for a related essay.  A few months later, the Huffington Post published a grittier piece decrying ridiculously objectified images of women who work in manual trades and professions.

We still haven’t met in person, and we probably never will. But it’s fun to recall the fearless young woman I saw in action more than a quarter-century ago.–Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

I love men

Fifteen years ago I had to replace my refrigerator. Being a person who breaks into a cold sweat at the mere thought of facing the wires, tubes, and electrical panels that make up the contemporary fridge, I bought a new one–the lowest-end, no frills model from Sears, which came with a warranty–instead of gambling on a used appliance.  Delivery added so little to the price that I signed up for it.

Two young men arrived with the refrigerator, which they carried up the steps to the side door just off the kitchen. I know a fridge is a beast to handle, but as this pair crashed carelessly into the original fir door trim, they piqued my concern. I’m no stranger to the challenges of delivering unwieldy objects to homes where nervous customers hover close by (“Be careful of that newel post!” “Watch the wallpaper!“), and so I asked them, as a fellow working person, to show a bit of care.

“She don’t like men,” one of them commented dryly.

“No, she don’t,” agreed his colleague, casting a knowing glance at my workboots (Redwing, men’s size 8-1/2).

How do you respond to such a classic example of the ad hominem fallacy, whereby it’s acceptable to dismiss legitimate concerns of an individual by casting him or her as somehow other, deviant, and therefore undeserving of heed? This pair left me speechless.

Well, here’s the thing, boys. I love men. And this has nothing to do with my sexual orientation.

One of the most gratifying aspects of this book project has been its reception by men, starting with my collaborator, Kendall Reeves. Yes, the book’s primarily about women, but we did our best to present the subject matter in a non-gender-stereotyped way. Following are a few remarks from male readers.

From author Scott Russell Sanders:

Nancy Hiller is a premier cabinetmaker with a fondness for wood and old houses, and with a storyteller’s feel for character. Here she offers us a gallery of women who have created distinctive homes, often in buildings that others had abandoned, sometimes after having been abandoned themselves, always with resourcefulness and imagination. As these women restore the outward fabric of houses and gardens and furnishings, they also restore the fabric of their lives. Hiller honors their skill and pluck, and Kendall Reeves, through his photographs, enables us to glimpse the beauty of their creations. After reading this book, you will see your own home place with fresh eyes.

From English designer Johnny Grey:

I am always a sitting target for American settler stories and seeing ordinary people’s well-crafted houses seems a solid triumph in the battle for existence in a new country. It brings out a deep sense of the sanity of the culture, and something that I believe America should hold up as one of its key civilised offerings to the world – the ability to be able to build your own decent ‘home’.  The country has truly been able to provide this opportunity to willing souls, even those who are not at the centre of the monied groups and traditional male-orientated society. More so than many European countries – at least over the last hundred years. Your book outlines that so clearly. You must have spent alot of time listening to stories of your subjects’ lives and trying to make sense of them.

From Will Fellows, author of A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture

To my mind,  your book lends considerable support to one of my key conclusions: Gay men make extraordinary contributions in historic preservation, an arena well populated by straight women, because the mix of things that preservation is about strike many of the same psychologic chords in gay males as in straight females.

From Bruce Gleason, professor of music education and music history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota

Several weeks ago, I was pleased to come across your October 2011 Old-House Interiors article, “Women and Their (Sp) Houses.”  While I’ve read numerous articles on home restoration and construction during my own twelve years of projects, this was the first that truly captured my own feelings about restoration and soul work. In a mere two pages, you synthesized what I have attempted to tell countless people, but you added the further dimension of intimacy, which I hadn’t considered in so many words until now. After living with this idea for a few weeks, I’m pleased to report that this added piece gives further meaning to my work and life.

After reading the article, I ordered A Home of Her Own, which I began reading yesterday—and concluded ten minutes ago. Needless to say, I connected with your work deeply. I’m not sure which story/woman/house is my favorite.  All are remarkable on many levels, and I’m writing simply to thank you for sharing your work and wisdom.  Your writing is poignant and clear, and your treatment of each individual as well as the individuals who passed through their lives is reflective, respectful and reverent…. 

In another note, Bruce adds:

When I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique twenty years ago, I was surprised and grateful to find that she wasn’t setting up an “us and them” scenario, she was simply advocating for the retrieval and health of the human soul by examining gender roles and what motivates them….

I was surprised and grateful that I didn’t have to take issue with anything throughout [A Home of Her Own]. I assume it would have been easy to paint any number of the side characters in a dim light—and to focus on why the work of the protagonists was more involved and/or difficult because they were women.  You steered around this and you wrote about the central characters in such a way that we were able to identify with them as human beings—not as women or men—which resulted in telling men that there was room for us as well. Betty would be proud of you.

From Jack Longacre of Elkhart, Indiana

Normally I would not be too enthused about reading stories about women and their home acquisitions and on top of that, written by a woman!
When I first opened the book I was taken by the beautiful pictures. The Introduction was great! I find it hard to believe that Ms. Poore’s home was built as a Summer Cottage. As I continued reading I realized that many of the subjects were close to “dirt poor”. What they each have accomplished is remarkable…. 
I have had to lay the book down from time to time even though I… could read straight through–I have to rest the old eyes. What I am saying is I have  enjoyed each and every page.
From Herb Hiller of Deland, Florida
I marvel at your sensibilities, at how you integrate the world around you, like a plant absorbing nourishment from roots, grounded, that sureness allowing you to be yourself and unwavering….
For awhile before I watched Leonard Cohen. He was himself and holy for it. The production values fitted his subdued mantra. No pizzazz, only the setting in which his croak was masterful. With maybe eight supporting musicians, I felt that I’d come to the corner of a street I’d never walked in a town I’d never noticed. He made me think sparse as if I were reading Cormac McCarthy.
Of course my reading your work did not invoke Leonard Cohen this evening. Yet it’s easy to experience you as thrum, indulge passing thoughts of who people are, how they become and evolve in their way, and I find myself an observer of clarity. You and Leonard draw me in from wherever I otherwise am. I feel channeled, further along where I otherwise am but now, reading you, hearing him, I’m myself in reflected light. A good place to find.

More on Home and Gender

Author Will Fellows learned about  A Home of Her Own through my essay, “Women and Their [Sp]Houses,” which was published in the October issue of Old-House Interiors.  Fellows contacted me after he read the book, pointing out some intriguing parallels between the intense relationships the women I profiled had developed with their homes and those of gay men he included in his 2004 work, A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture.

He writes,

“I came to see your book as something of a companion volume, recalling a comment by a fellow whose work at the National Trust led him to remark on the longstanding design- and preservation-minded alliance of straight females and gay males: ‘There’s a joke at the Trust, that it’s staffed by lots of gay men and divorced women, which, if you look closely, is not far from the truth.’”

In A Passion to Preserve, Fellows  describes what he calls “key traits of preservation-minded gay men, past and present: gender atypicality; domophila (my term for ‘deep domesticity,’ an exceptional love of houses and things homey); romanticism; aestheticism; connection- and continuity-mindedness”–many of the same traits shared by the women in A Home of Her Own.

“To my mind,” he continues,  

your book lends considerable support to one of my key conclusions: “Gay men make extraordinary contributions in historic preservation, an arena well populated by straight women, because the mix of things that preservation is about strike many of the same psychologic chords in gay males as in straight females.”


Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, calls Fellows’s book “a rich and detailed examination of an important and heretofore neglected aspect of our urban heritage.”

Darden Asbury Pyron, author of Liberace: An American Boy, writes: “Clearly Will Fellows has hit a nerve with many gay men…. As with his previous book, Farm Boys, Fellows presents the material in people’s own voices as much as possible and the best of these essays (and there are many) are wonderfully readable capsule biographies and histories.”

Will Fellows is also the author of Gay Bar: The Fabulous, True Story of a Daring Woman and Her Boys in the 1950s.

29 hours in Chicago


Big thanks to Jean Alan and Susann Craig for hosting a couple of sparkling events in November. 
Susann’s event was held to benefit Intuit, the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art.  Afterwards, Kendall and I went home to Susann’s loft for dinner with several of her friends.

Mike, Laurence, and Marsha

The following morning Susann explored her bookshelves and retrieved a variety of treasures, among them a pair of original Art Sinsabaugh calendars from 1966, along with a rare Sinsabaugh color print.  

Kendall and Susann

Later, at Susann’s urging, Kendall and I visited Douglas Dawson‘s awe inspiring gallery and made a quick stop at the Blommer Chocolate factory. Sadly, Kendall lost his chocolate covered toffees between the factory store and his vehicle.
Jean and Ruthie Alan, working with their dedicated staff, put on a spectacular spread to celebrate the renovation of their showroom and a book signing to benefit the Cancer Center of Northwestern University Lymphoma Research Program.  If Kendall ever sends me some of his snapshots from that evening I will post them here, but in the meantime, there are beautiful images at Jean’s blog, which you can reach by clicking on “book signing” above.