Little Deer Isle artist Mary Eaton, armed with an oil seascape, was on her way by boat to an art show when she noticed a small white unpainted patch on the canvas as she was climbing aboard the craft.
“I had to say, ‘Wait a minute,’” Eaton recalls telling the boat captain. She dashed back up to the house where she was staying on Great Spruce Head Island. She added a bush and ran back to the awaiting vessel.
She had to transport her painting to the show by boat. Just as she was climbing aboard, she noticed a small white patch of unpainted canvas in the middle of her painting.
“I had to say, ‘Wait a minute,’ run back up to the house, throw in a bush and take it back down,” Eaton recalled.
After the show, Eaton looked all over the gallery for her painting but couldn’t find it. She asked the gallery staffer where it might be, and, much to her surprise, learned her piece had sold for around $150.
Eaton is not just a painter. She knits, weaves, makes jewelry and is a cross-stitch whiz. When she chances on a new form of artistic expression, she can’t pass it up.
“I’m apt to see anything that’s pretty and want to do it,” she said.
Eaton, who lives with her husband, Chandler, in Little Deer Isle, spends most of her time working on her art projects in the studio connected to the house that she and her spouse built in 1989.
One of her specialties is her sea glass jewelry. “Sea glass” refers to ordinary glass, often from bottles or jars, which has been broken up and transformed by the ocean into smooth, pretty chunks.
Eaton can be found selling her sea glass and beaded earrings and necklaces as well as her unique loom-knitted creations, including vibrant scarves, rich chenille sweaters, airy shawls and cozy socks, at four farmers markets across Hancock County.
Eaton began working with sea glass just four years ago. She buys her material from local collectors or friends — natural sea glass for necklaces and man-made for earrings as a general rule of thumb — but does everything else herself.
White is the most common color, and red and purple are two of the rarest, Eaton said.
Sometimes she comes across especially unusual pieces. For example, right now she has a large chunk of the rare red glass that she thinks was not part of a bottle or jar, but rather from a car’s taillight. That piece will probably become a sizeable pendant.
Eaton’s signature sea glass jewelry is her sailboat design, which she sells as both earrings and necklaces. She also makes pendants, often with silver wire twisted around the glass in swirls and curls, and a few other accessory designs.
First, the sea glass must be cleaned. If it has just been collected from a beach, it is naturally covered in sand. Each piece is washed and dried. Once it is dry, she dumps her haul out onto a large table and begins to cull through it.
“You separate the good pieces from the bad pieces,” she explained. “If you have any big ones, they’re going to be pendants. Anything that looks like a triangle or part of a sail or the hull of a boat goes in a separate pile.”
Once the collection is sorted, Eaton begins to hunt for the perfect pieces of glass for her jewelry.
“I find a piece, and then I have to find the right size,” Eaton said. “If you have a small hull, then you have to find small sails…and I try to find different colors that go together.”
Once she has found matching pieces, she glues the sails and the hull together. When they have dried, a clasp and chain are glued to necklaces and earring hooks to earrings. The finished jewelry then dries again.
Eaton estimates that she creates about 40 sailboats per month, and she ramps up production right before a market if she’s sold most of her stock. She usually sells the necklaces for $49 each, and red ones are a little more pricy.
The artist’s other source of income are her knitted goods. She uses looms to knit scarves, chenille sweaters, shawls and socks.
The sweaters are made from fine rayon chenille yarn, which makes them last a long time.
“I’ve had people who have had my sweaters for 15 years,” Eaton said. “And I back my product. If you ever have a problem with it, all you have to do is call me and I will do what I can to fix it.”
When she’s not knitting, painting or putting together jewelry for markets, she keeps herself busy by discovering new hobbies.
Several years ago, she picked up embroidery and counted cross-stitch and became skilled enough to find work as a “model stitcher,” or someone who completes a new cross-stitch pattern that is photographed for the cover of a cross-stitch kit.
Most recently, she’s worked on the Disney Dreams Collection. Nine of the 12 available kits in the collection feature her cross-stitching.
All her artistic skills are self-taught. She began hand-knitting as a young girl while living with her grandmother, and she started painting almost 40 years ago. She finds it the most relaxing of her pursuits.
“I always wanted to be able to paint, so my husband bought me some oil paints and I started painting,” Eaton explained.
“My first easel was my wood stove,” she recalled. “I used to set the canvases up on top of the wood stove in the summer and paint.”
Her work — whether it is a painting or a chenille tunic — is informed by color and the landscape that she calls home.
“We’ve traveled, we’ve seen a lot of places, but there’s nothing like Maine. Nothing,” Eaton said. “We have it all here.”
Eaton has one daughter, Eyleen, and two grandsons, Nick, 20, and Noah, 18. In the past, she held a wide variety of jobs, including clam digging, raking blueberries, waitressing and working in billing at Blue Hill Memorial Hospital.
“I’ve done everything you can think of,” Eaton said.
She also displays some of her work on her Facebook page under her label, Dream Weaver.
Eaton has no plans to slow down any time soon. As long as she can make it to farmers markets, she’ll keep producing great quantities of art.
“I can’t not do it,” she said. “I have to do something all the time.”
Brooksville Farmers Market: Tuesdays: 9:30 a.m.-noon. Coastal Road, Bucks Harbor. 326-8641.
Deer Isle Artisans Market: Thursdays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Former Deer Isle Elementary School parking lot, Church Street. 348-6294. [email protected].
Stonington Farmers Market: Fridays, 10 a.m.-noon. Stonington Community Center. 326-4741. [email protected]
Blue Hill Farmers Market: Saturdays, 9-11:30 a.m., Route 172, Blue Hill Fairgrounds. 374- 5273.