All photos/art by Nat Rea
Artist and writer Susan Branch creates a real-life world of magic in her Martha’s Vineyard wonderland.
Susan Branch is a collector of maxims: inspirational quotes, snippets of poems, song lyrics. She writes them up, artfully hand-lettered and watercolored, in her best-selling books and calendars, and hangs them, framed, around her Martha’s Vineyard home. They are mantras and mission statements, not just for her, but for her legion of fans, mostly women, whom she calls her “girlfriends” and who buy up everything she makes and licenses: the illustrated cookbooks, the stationery, the jewelry and rugs and pillows.
If Martha Stewart is the “Queen of Domesticity,” Susan Branch is its fairy godmother. In her art, she celebrates a world of blooming gardens, cozy quilts, old houses, and tea by the fire. And at Christmas, her real-world home in Vineyard Haven is a study in cozy comforts, every surface sparkling and twinkling and radiating holiday joy. It smells of greenery and the comfort foods that are her signature. At her annual Christmas party, guests sit on mismatched chairs and eat from vintage plates. The cats snooze by the fire.
When Susan first moved from California to Martha’s Vineyard 31 years ago, she was seeking refuge. Stinging from an unwanted divorce, she needed a quiet place to heal, so she left behind everything familiar, her parents and seven younger siblings, and embraced a life with four seasons. She bought what she calls “the tiniest house in the world,” a place called Holly Oak, where she soothed her loneliness with the old books she found there. Slowly, she says, she developed her skills as a painter and gained her footing.
A friend suggested she might be able to make a living combining her art with her cooking talents, and, after a series of fits and starts, she published her first book in 1986: Heart of the Home: Notes from a Vineyard Kitchen, a hand-lettered and illustrated cookbook with recipes for butternut bisque and herb-roasted chicken. The book then became a series. And Susan stayed on the island. “I thought I was going to stay here for only three months,” she says with a laugh, but first the island and then her little house and then a local man named Joe Hall all captured her heart.
Now Susan and Joe live in an 1849 house with a proper studio and a picket fence, and they look forward to the holidays all year. Their traditions are more fanciful than fancy. “You have to have whimsy at Christmas,” Susan says. A pristinely decorated home “looks good, but it’s not real,” she says. “Decorating really has to come from the heart.”
Her own heart expresses itself everywhere: in the piles of soft blankets, in the sparkling Christmas-tree lights, in Dean Martin’s voice crooning in the background—a tableau as inviting as the pages of her books and popular blog. Standing in her living room, she smiles. “This house has the most perfect window for the tree,” she says. And she’s right: The perfectly conical tree commands the space, lit by big old-fashioned bulbs and holding a lifetime’s worth of memories in its ornaments.
At the dining table across the room, Susan has garnished each plate with champagne corks repurposed as placecard holders, the little slips of paper tucked into the notches in the corks. A white bedspread has become this year’s holiday tablecloth, and her very favorite decoration, a beloved tabletop tree, is adorned with colorful cardinal, goldfinch, and chickadee ornaments—the same birds that delight her at the feeder.
As the oldest of eight children, quiet holiday dinners were never a part of Susan’s memories, and she loves the shoulder-to-shoulder intimacy of a holiday gathering. To foster that in their own home, Susan and Joe bought old small-seated chairs at the Brimfield, Massachusetts, flea market to shoehorn as many people as possible around the table. With guests so close, conversation spins. “I don’t want plate-scraping noises,” Susan says. “I want lively conversation!”
She cooks the meals at a 1956 O’Keefe & Merritt range, a nod to the one her mother used, where she roasts the cranberries that she combines with orange marmalade for an easy Christmas jam and bakes pans of Christmas cookies and coffee cake.
She even turns the cooling shelf above the stove into a decorative display. Some of the favorite objects aren’t new at all, but repurposed. “Shop in your own home!” Susan exclaims. She likes to gather objects with similar holiday colors and arrange them together. Mother Nature supplies a few additions as well. Supermarket fruit sparkles with sugar in a fast centerpiece. Joe cuts armloads of greenery in the yard to festoon the mantle or to spiff up plain store-bought wreaths. And every year, they hang Joe’s childhood stocking, complete with his pets’ names, noted and then crossed off with marker as the beloved animals came and went.
For Susan, the holidays surround her with the people and things she cherishes, and she wants her guests to feel the same. They do, taking refuge from the outside world in the cozy holiday atmosphere. “I understand how people need to feel as though there’s something steady in the world,” she says. “You can make that for people. You can take them back to a time they feel might have been safer than the time is now, when all was well.”
To see more of Susan Branch’s illustrations, visit her blog at: susanbranch.com
Susan’s Peter Rabbit Room
“Everyone wants to stay in the Peter Rabbit room,” Susan says about the guestroom that displays her treasured collection of Beatrix Potter figurines. “There’s just something so charming about it.” A visiting friend, delighted with her accommodations, gave the room its name, and now other friends request it. It sits high up in the old ship captain’s house, tucked into the eaves. Gesturing to the figurines, Susan explains, “I started collecting these in my early twenties. They were $32, and I would save up my money to buy them.” The collection grew over the years, and when she took a two-month tour of England in 2012—a trip chronicled in her new book, A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside (2013; Vineyard Stories)—she paid a visit to Potter’s 17th-century farmhouse in the Lake Country. “All my years of admiration for this woman came back to me,” she writes. “She was the first person I’d ever heard of who made a life out of watercolors, who had hand-written her own books. When I was younger, she was a big help in my search for my future self, in more ways than one.”
Download the instructions for Susan’s Homemade Holiday Gifts!