An artist and photographer maximize the enjoyment and beauty of life in a renovated church in midcoast Maine.
For Erin and Mark Little, creating a home is an extension of the artistry and beauty they aim for in every aspect of their lives. With its gallery-like walls filled with family-made art; antique and salvaged furnishings from their Maine explorations; and lush, jungly gardens, Erin and Mark’s home is uniquely their own—with a style that seamlessly blends traditional and modern with their own artistry.
In 2012, Erin was searching for a new home for her family—which includes Mark, Erin and 8-year-old Elisabeth. Erin and Mark hoped to find a space that could accommodate living and working, with enough room for an art studio and a photography studio, yet something small enough to be manageable. Although she sought something small and efficient, most of the houses Erin had seen were historic buildings that required complete renovation to make them livable.
“What about that crazy old church?” Mark asked Erin one day. On a major road, a renovated church had been home to a number of businesses throughout the previous decade, then sat empty for several years after a counseling center had moved out. Erin was doubtful about the space, but she decided to go take a look at it. It was love at first sight. “I came here and walked in the first room, then I looked at my realtor and said, ‘That’s it. I want it,’” she says.
As a photographer, one of Erin’s first priorities is a space with great light. With its 8-foot-high windows and tall ceilings, the church is flooded with light at all times of day. And although the commercially zoned space needed some renovations to make it ready for residential living—it had no kitchen, for example—most of the major renovations, including updating the insulation and plumbing and installing walls to separate spaces, had been done by previous owners. After overcoming some difficulties in financing the commercial space for a residence, Erin and Mark were the owners of the church.
They set to work making the space their own, spending more than a month doing nothing but painting the interior’s grand walls. They collected materials from Craigslist and antique stores to create their own brand of eclectic, classic décor. “We don’t like anything new,” Erin says. “I’m always disappointed by the quality of the things being made now. Everything seems not built to last. In Maine, we have all kinds of antique and flea markets. If we buy a table that’s already lasted more than 100 years, I figure it will last 100 more.”
Personalizing their home wasn’t a challenge for Mark and Erin—they feel an imperative to create and surround themselves with art. “My husband’s an artist and I am, as well,” Erin says. “Elisabeth is really creative, too. We’re constantly trying to infuse this into day-to-day life. Life can get tedious, so we try to make up things and try a lot of different things. We’re always making something, whether it’s food or a painting. There’s a lot of creating going on. We all really thrive on that.”
Mark seconds Erin’s devotion to art. “I’ve always been an artist and I’ve always made things—I can’t keep myself from making things,” he says. “That’s the kind of thing Erin does, too. It’s a dialogue she has with the rest of the world through her camera. In a lot of ways you don’t have a choice; you’re compelled to do it. It’s the most enjoyable thing I know I can do.”
Erin, Mark and Elisabeth’s creations fill the home. “It hums along like its own little art factory,” Mark says. “You create some work, a photograph or a painting, and march yourself right downstairs and you’ve got a great gallery ready to hang it.”
One favorite piece is something Elisabeth came up with when they first moved into the church. It’s a series made up of paper shapes she cut out, which Mark then mounted onto a set of roof tiles he’d pulled off a house he had worked on a decade earlier. “Everyone always comments on them,” Erin says. “They were in a gallery show once. Really, there’s stuff all over—photographs I’ve taken or something Elisabeth has created. The art everywhere was a joint effort by all of us; it’s something that reflects us as a family.”
One of the home’s main focal points is a tall, red “gallery” wall. Erin says the wall developed organically over the time her family has lived in the home, and eventually it was totally filled with family art. Then Erin asked Mark if he would paint the wall red. After that was done, she had a startling realization. “From an incredibly young age (perhaps 3 or 4), I have had a vision of what my home would be like as an adult,” Erin says. “After Mark painted it red, I realized this was the wall in the vision I have had of my home since I was very small.”
Mark says decorating their home with their own creative output eliminates the stress of conventional decorating. “What’s nice is you don’t worry about making mistakes,” he says. “That’s what’s fun about a space like this: You can throw things together and you don’t worry about it. I know a lot of people who want to decorate their homes and live a certain way. They’re nervous about making a mistake. We don’t think that way. It feels really natural. It’s like pulling on a pair of your favorite jeans; it’s easy that way. It reflects us. When we entertain, that’s what people get—they get all of us. They get everything that we are.”
Outside, the family has also carved out their own piece of the world. Their impressive gardens are fueled mainly by alpaca manure from a nearby farm. “People always ask, ‘Why does your garden look like a jungle?’ I say, ‘It’s alpaca poop,’” Erin says. Erin gardens both for the fresh food and to establish memories reminiscent of her own childhood. “My mom and dad were both phenomenal gardeners,” she says. “We had a vegetable garden for as long as I can remember, and I always helped my mom. Those are fond memories of my childhood. I wanted Elisabeth to grow up with that, and to know where her food comes from.”
Erin tailors each year’s garden to her family’s tastes and their results from previous years. “Each year, I write in a journal what I did and how much I used—I planted way too much lettuce this year, or Elisabeth didn’t like this, so try this,” she says. The family grows lots of greens—kale, chard and a variety of lettuces; scarlet runner beans, which Elisabeth calls “magic beans,” that grow on a tunnel-like trellis; vegetables including green beans, cucumbers, broccoli and squash; pumpkins they pick and carve every Halloween; strawberries and blueberries; and peach and pear trees. Erin’s also devoted an entire bed to her favorite garden crop: basil. “I make tons of pesto,” she says. “I froze 48 jars of it this year! It’s my favorite part of the garden.”
When they’re not creating art or growing food, Mark and Erin enjoy cooking, entertaining and exploring their region. “I think it’s all embodied in the type of lifestyle we have,” Mark says. “We want to max out everything. We try to experience everything we can. We do things that are completely impractical. That’s how we like to live: fully.”
Erin says a sense of adventure helps her family experience their region more fully. “We call it exploring. We say ‘Let’s go check out this town,’ and we drive there and try a new restaurant. I don’t think a week goes by that we don’t go someplace.” Mark and Erin love where they live because of the wide array of people pursuing artistic work. Much of Erin’s photography captures people doing what they love most—her website’s blog is filled with studio tours showcasing artists and artisans in their own environments. “We like to be out experiencing what other people are doing,” Mark says. “In Maine, there are people doing all sorts of things: writers, painters, sculptors, violin makers. But you don’t find them clumped in one area,” he says.
The family also loves to invite friends into their sphere, hosting everything from elaborate dinners to casual weeknight get-togethers. They used to host a weekly taco night, where everyone brought a topping to contribute. They also enjoy high-end entertaining in which they might serve a four-course meal.
In the end, Mark and Erin want their home and life to reflect precisely who they are: engaged, creative people who live life to its fullest.
What is a favorite antique or salvaged item in your home?
Mark: An original Stickley oak rocker I bought from a whatnot shop in Waverly, New York, for virtually nothing.
What inspires you to create?
Erin: I am inspired by my husband’s work, my daughter’s creativity and all the amazing talent out there in the world.
What makes your house a home?
Erin: I think it’s our personality and how we have infused that into our decorating style. It happened in a very organic way, and I don’t think anything feels static or forced.
Mark: A home can be created anywhere. The more “alternative” the better. Paintings that we make help, too.
What’s your favorite way to start a Sunday morning?
Erin: Elisabeth goes outside to get the newspaper and we all snuggle in bed, sipping espresso (or hot cocoa) and reading the paper together.
Mark: Espresso in bed with my girls reading the newspaper.
What memory of your childhood most influences your life today?
Erin: This is silly, but my mother was once on the phone and described her aunt, who lived a creative, interesting life in California, as “eccentric.” From my young age, I always wanted to be eccentric, too. I think I’m pretty close!
Mark: Having had parents who would take me to New York City twice a year to see art.
What’s the most important value you hope to instill in your daughter?
Erin: That hard work can take you
far in life, and you should always be yourself—however quirky or different you think you are.
Mark: To trust her creative instincts and to work hard to achieve her goals.
What’s your favorite way to entertain or a favorite party you’ve hosted?
Erin: We hosted a fabulous holiday party this year, which was the first of many. We had people from all kinds of backgrounds and it was fun to watch them get to know one another. There were plenty of yummy treats, good wine, a photo booth and music!
Mark: I like cocktail parties to turn into dinner parties. Invite people knowing they would like to meet new people with similar interests.
Erin and Mark rely on eating healthful food and exercising for their health—Erin is an avid runner and eats mainly whole foods. She has also used naturopathic doctors and acupuncture. Last year, Erin got a surprising health diagnosis after intense back pain drove her to consult a doctor: She had contracted both Lyme disease and babesiosis, a tick-borne infection that infects red blood cells. “It was a shock,” Erin says. “I hadn’t been in a pharmacy in 15 years.” Erin believes she’d had the illness for at least two years, and that required her to take antibiotics and antimalaria medication for eight months. When a patient has had Lyme for an extended time, the antibiotics kill a huge swath of bacteria all at once, and it’s incredibly difficult for the body to eliminate it all. Erin suffered severe pain—a side effect of the overwhelming bacteria. Today Erin is off pharmaceutical medications and feeling better. To complement the pharmaceuticals, Erin’s naturopathic doctor created an herbal formula to help fight infection and detoxify as she works to fully recover. She says the intense ordeal has forced her to re-evaluate her life and eliminate as much stress as possible. “Even a little stress can cause a ton of inflammation and cause the Lyme to flare up,” she says. “I’ve evaluated the way I eat, the way I exercise, the way I work—I need nothing stressful in my life. It’s a real eye-opener.”
Erin, Mark and Elisabeth have a flock of chickens they adore. “I treat them how I’d like to be treated if I were a chicken,” Mark says. But getting to a peaceful place with the flock has been a bit of an undertaking. It was July when Erin and Mark decided to get chickens again (they’ve raised birds in the past), but they feared newly hatched chicks wouldn’t have time to grow strong enough to survive the Maine winter. Erin found a nearby farm with six-week-old chicks. They went to the farm planning to take eight hens, but the woman was moving soon and needed the family to take all 17 birds.“I didn’t know what to say, so we got stuck with 17 chickens,” Erin says. “Eleven of them turned out to be roosters.” Erin says everything was fine until one day in the middle of winter when all the roosters attacked each other in a brutal fight. After that, Erin and Mark delivered their 11 roosters to another farm. Today, they have six Bantam hens that lay tiny eggs the family eats for breakfast almost every day. Although the family and flock have found peace, the Little family chickens are still a handful. “They are more wild than domestic hens,” Erin says. “They fly. They don’t stay in their pen or in the fence. I even clipped their wings but they can still fly over the fence,” she says.
Mother Earth Living editor-in-chief Jessica Kellner is a firm believer that we should flout convention and craft our homes and lives around our personalities.
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