KENZIE & SHAWN
New York City to Mill River, Massachusetts
Stepping into Shawn and Kenzie's home is like walking into one of Shawn’s narrative paintings. Their storybook cottage is the frequent backdrop of Shawn's work, and feels like a rich collection of props, make-believe and imagination. Their three children, Honey, Odie, and Peter, are the stars of the show and this smart, curious and welcoming trio will make you wonder if you've somehow fallen into an illustrated fiction. On a typical day, Honey greets you in the yard with one of their pet rabbits, Peter follows you on his brass trumpet, and Odie performs a magic show. Kenzie is a masterful thrifter and crafter, and Shawn is an inventive carpenter and artist. Their house is small but rich with one-of-a-kind treasures and details. Their yard has a rabbit warren, an old gypsy car turned chicken coop, a swing and wild vegetation. The home overlooks Mill River, a bridge road and the family's favorite swimming hole. Down the street is Shawn's gallery space and Kenzie's office. In the next town in the top of an old Buggy Whip factory is Shawn's studio. The town's library, located a block away, is a haven for the kids, who spend many afternoons pouring through books and volunteering. The community puts on plays and trades clothes and skills. It's a tight-knit, idyllic place. Kenzie and Shawn had spent over a decade living and working in New York City. They had an apartment of decent size for their family of five, they both worked full time for established artists and things were going pretty well. When Kenzie’s parents moved to the Berkshires, the family came for a visit and they began dreaming of a life away from the chaos of the city. They wanted their kids to have good public school options, more independence and they were ready to focus on building Shawn’s art career as opposed to working hard to further the careers of others. Since leaving New York, this ambitious duo has built, through necessity and hard work, a strong foundation and audience for his work. He's incredibly dedicated to his craft, exacting and devoted. Kenzie's infectious enthusiasm and ability to connect with people makes her a natural partner, helping with Shawn's galleries and clients, and collecting models and props. Their shared vision of life together, their focus and determination, their talent, and their community have made their life in the country feel like the right move. Sure, living off of the unsteady income of a fine-artist is difficult, especially when unexpected home expenses arise and heating bills pile up in the winter months, but leaving the city has allowed this couple to focus on establishing their own voice and navigate their way through the fine art world. (Click here to jump to their interview)
What inspired you to move to the country?
Kenzie: It’s funny because leaving the city took us by surprise. We didn’t really feel driven out. On the surface, we were looking for a better school situation for the children. But deep down, the inspiration came from a desire to acknowledge everything we love and cherish in life, and then discover a way to see that manifested. Everyone in the family needed a little more nurturing- and the rural experience seemed like it would offer that to us all equally, including the cat.
Shawn: A combination of things coincided and made moving to the country a consideration. First, I lived in NYC for 15 years and loved it. I came to the city to go to art school and stayed. Over those years I went from being single and riding my bike everywhere, to being married and squeezing 3 kids car seats into the back of our Camry. Second, we had a 3 bedroom apt. with a separate kitchen, in Sunset Park Brooklyn which we really loved. In order to pay for everything we both needed to work...a lot. Third, Kenzie's parents moved to the Berkshires and we visited during the holidays. The calm and beauty of the country was extremely attractive. On what I thought was a lark we looked at a house in a town with a great little school. The mortgage on the house was about a third of our apartment's mortgage. That visit sealed it.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
Kenzie: I think going from a co-op apartment building to owning a house. A house built in 1756-- an 'affordable' house at that, so we had to learn very quickly how to deal with a not so great structure, a failing roof (hasn't leaked yet, ha!), and figure out what to fix first and what we could live with. Who to ask to do the work, what could we do ourselves, etc. It sounds kind of charming in retrospect, but in the midst of it, it was confusing. And for a while we were freezing.
Shawn: For me it was conjuring up enough courage to go through with the decision. It felt like an inspired idea but when I thought about all the unknowns and fears I would feel like logically it was a bad idea, since what we had in the city was really great. One unknown was how we would continue to make an income. I started to work with galleries before we left and our "plan" for a future income was with galleries. To supplement that we brought a few commissions portraits from the city and Kenzie worked as a gardener. In lieu of paying rent I got a part time job helping manage the building my studio was in. Maintaining an old house for us has involved navigating decisions like what is it that needs to be done compared with what we can actually afford to do.
What surprised you most about country living?
Kenzie: I didn't anticipate the friendliness of where we landed. Some of my growing up was in a rural area like this one, so country living wasn't totally foreign, conceptually, but the community here is unique, and very layered.
Shawn: I was at first and continue to be surprised by the beauty. There are endless things to do and see.
What were the hardest things to get used to?
Kenzie: Dealing with winter is very hands on. When buying a pair of insulated snow boots I remember thinking, after living in NYC for a long time, and other places before that, it has been a while since I've bought shoes for function.
Shawn: One funny thing to get use to was in our small town most everyone waves, whether they know each other or not. But now I wave too. Also a general sense of being guarded that people use to survive in a city full of people is not helpful here where knowing everyone is a benefit. Driving is necessary here. In the city you walk or ride your bike and take the subway, those do not work here.
What do you appreciate the most about life in the country?
Kenzie: It’s so beautiful. Not just the aesthetics of nature, but the whole thing. Playing charades with our neighbors, heating with wood, the animals, library pie sales, town hall meetings. Our friends down the road invite people over to sing traditional music every Sunday night, literally, standing around the piano after supper. I guess altogether that is summarized as culture. I appreciate most the culture.
Shawn: The rivers. The seasons. The trees. Being outside. Having a wood stove. Stars. Not needing to buy things everyday just to deal ex. (bottles of water). Another thing I love and appreciated immediately when we moved was the fact that in our house we can make as much noise as we want!!!!! I regularly use a loud circular saw after 10pm. In the city our apt. neighbors all had different schedules so someone was trying to sleep somewhere close all the time. We were always ''quietly yelling" at the kids to stop running or to stop being so loud. The good friends and neighbors we have.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
Shawn: I believe I was attracted to the city because the city fulfilled a need I had for growth, and now I can say the same for being in the country, any of these experiences is as much if not more internal than external. If I were to move to a city again it would probably not be back to New York it would most likely be out of the United States.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
We were apprehensive about giving up life and diversity, but living in a village in the country was a good answer for us. We are steps away from a post office, library, car mechanic, and general store, even though the population is really tiny. Also, not to sound too mother earthy, we live across from a rushing creek, which is comforting and ‘busy’ sounding. There is no deafening rural silence - also thanks to our chatty village neighbor. Rural does not have to mean vast and empty.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
Kenzie: For me personally, domestic life is where I am most energized - building a new garden bed, taking care of the animals, cooking for ourselves and other people, making costumes for the school play. As far as a place, estate sales can be a real source of creative motivation. They often bring together all the threads, the visual cues that move me - wallpaper, kitchen tools, the culture of people, hand me down clothes, how people set up a house. But I also work with Shawn, supporting his work in the studio, anything from prop hunting to grant writing. For that, the inspiration depends on the task. But working shoulder to shoulder - something we didn’t have as distinctly in the city, is pretty galvanizing.
Shawn: I love to draw and paint, people places and things. I also enjoy sharing a sense of being loved and loving. This I feel I can do anywhere.
Have you noticed a change in yourself or your work since moving away from the city?
Kenzie: Mostly an awakening. Not realizing by living in the city how much of myself was in hibernation, so that when arriving in Mill River, it was kind of like waking up to spring. Shawn’s brother had a friend in Brooklyn calling me the urban pilgrim, so maybe the yearning for country life was not that deep down.
Shawn: Superficially yes the subject matter of my work has gotten more rural. However in myself, I have noticed a greater sense of confidence, due I think to having more mental space and perspective to understand what I am doing.
Walk us through a typical day in your country existence?
Kenzie: Hmmm. Well, Peter our six year old says, there are ‘school’ days, and then there are ‘plain’ days. ‘School days’ are about getting up, feeding the fire, doing the outside animal chores, making food and getting out the door. We all do our jobs. Then the kids and I regroup in the afternoon - instruments practiced, more cooking & feeding, homework, reading, animals get put away, bed. Shawn comes home from the studio later. On ‘plain days’ (ie: the weekend) things are more spread out. The kids spend a lot of time at the town library across the street. Also in summer we do lots outside house/garden projects - often Odie is with Shawn doing something in the studio, posing etc., or Shawn is taking the kids on highly intrepid tubing trips down the Konkapot River. How do the days compare? Incomparable. It’s like vacation here all the time, in terms of what you can do for fun. The city was fun in a totally different way - but definitely the fun comes a little easier here, or, naturally? Less organized, or manufactured, for sure.
Shawn: A typical work day, wake up early. The earlier the better in order to get a jump on the kids, happily they are starting to sleep in a little more as they get older. I like to take advantage of the early time before they wake up, before breakfast and cloths and backpacks, to listen and pray, and acknowledge all that is good with the world. That peaceful grateful perspective effects each activity. Kids fed, put on bus, I drive to studio takes about three minutes. (the commute to my last job working for another artist when we lived in the city took an hour and fifteen minutes each way) teehee. At work I usually read for a while and then work until I get tired, around 2:00, and then take a nap. I eat a little bit at a time through out the day. I often work until after 8 or 9pm and come home. Monday night and sometimes Friday I leave early to play soccer. At night and on the weekends I spend time with Kenzie, do house stuff and play with kids whenever.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before moving from the city?
Kenzie: Leaving the kids asleep in the car! NO really - only the obvious comes to mind. I think because like I was saying before, being here feels more like a reunion with myself than it does exploring new frontiers or pushing my limits.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
Kenzie: There is a spot up on the hill behind our house, where you can look down on Mill River, and see all the little yards and stone walls, and the two church steeples. The library, the town hall, and general store, and the bridge. It really looks like two hundred years ago, and it just makes me melt, it’s so moving.
Shawn: My favorite place to go is to the river across the street from our house it is beautiful and constantly changing. We go swimming, tubing, catch crayfish... sunbathe...
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
Kenzie: Roosters sometimes crow in the middle of the night. For no reason. Ha!
It is commonly thought that in order to meet people and have a wide circle of friends you need to be in a large pool, and by contrast living rurally will decrease your chances of finding true friends - that is a great misconception. I would say our relationships have deepened - both with people here and people we moved away from, since leaving the city. And although it’s not true that all people in small communities are more caring, the opportunity TO care is more present when you are out of the overwhelming scale of a city. When my mother passed away people we didn’t know well left us whole meals on our porch. The general store stopped selling lottery tickets because it was devastating financially vulnerable neighbors. In a small community you are more tenderly aware of the lives around you, period.
Shawn: That there is a lack of culture compared to the city, not so, there are lots of artists and writers, civically-minded people, basically people who would easily be drawn to the city but now live here. Life in this small community in the Berkshires is delightful. It is a great place for us to be a family and to work.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
Kenzie: Well some goals, to be properly nurtured, aren’t ready to be shared… but among the more quotidian... re-roof the house, finish the walls of the basement, start my micro-greens project, move the chicken coop, incubate a new batch of ducks, fence the yard, and start a new knitting project every three weeks.
Shawn: New roof. Attempt to reign in my wifey's "future plans."