I have lived in many places, but when the pandemic hit I knew there was one place I wanted to be.
Over the course of a few weeks in Brooklyn during this strange spring, I found myself a filmmaker with a very uncertain future. For the past year, I had been working on “Bluepoint,” a short film about an aquafarming couple on the North Fork whose relationship is tested when an algae bloom threatens the bay. A central question my collaborators and I asked ourselves was: “What do you do in a world forever altered?” Suddenly that question was taking on new significance. I was en route to graduate with my MFA in film directing in June, and “Bluepoint” was set to premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. All at once, the screenings disappeared, along with the dream internship I had just started in the production office for Martin Scorsese.
At first I took advantage of the extra time to cut the film, but as I watched clip after clip on the North Fork, I began to long for the scenery that inspires me most. So I campaigned with my relatives to go live in my late grandmother’s cottage by the bay in East Marion, where we shot the film. I don’t think it was conscious yet, but in the midst of so much destruction, I longed for the spirit of creation my Grandma Donna always fostered.
My grandparents bought this humble two-bedroom cottage on Bay Avenue in the 1980s. Growing up, I came here every summer, spending rare time with the family all together in a no-fuss zone, my brother and I camping in the backyard. I would soothe my bug bites in the Sound, collecting shells for art projects. The cottage meant autonomy and freedom, enabled by my grandparents’ collection of yard-sale bicycles, which we would ride to Rocky Point and swim out to the far rocks.
It hasn’t changed much since. I remember my grandparents being adamantly against doing anything to change the feel of the little house they loved. A perfect rectangle of land, with a one-story cottage, classic asbestos shingles and a backyard anchored by trees — the kind that are perfect to zig-zag laundry lines across, or for hanging a hammock. It was exactly what they needed; a breezy home base by the bay with a shed to house yard sale gems, messy art materials like charcoals and acrylics, Grandpa’s stacks of notes and all of Grandma’s art.
Grandma Donna was a teacher for New York City public schools and Grandpa Paul a writer; they met on an editing desk where she recalled it was love at first sight. For decades, they would take the LIRR to the end of the line and bike to the cottage where they sometimes stored an old car for occasional use. And for many years, they would spend their entire summer there, rarely leaving the littlest bit of the North Fork. She died last December at age 86. And now I found myself spending the entire summer here, too.
It was strange to return to the island after she passed, in the midst of a global pandemic, my grandparents’ presence lingering. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to bring new life to this cottage in a way that honored them.
While I searched for new life in a place associated with so much loss, I saw the community on the North Fork do the same. Neighbors were more open to one another; I witnessed a firefighter dropping flowers on everybody’s doorstep at dawn. Another morning a crowd gathered to ensure a turtle could cross the road safely, and cheered when she made it to the pond. I began to see these simple joys mirrored in much of my grandma’s work — the blooming flowers, the family of swans in Marion Lake.
Every nook of this cottage is full of canvases, sketch books and assorted materials that she used to paint, draw or scribble notes on. After my grandpa’s passing a few years ago, the family went through troves of writing, but with grandma’s belongings the culling is more tactile. She was a lifelong artist who went through many different stages — from charcoal to acrylics, oil pastels, watercolors and ink drawings. I know neither my grandmother, nor her subjects, would want this work to live in a dark box or closet, but there is simply not enough space on the walls to show them all the light of day. I felt like a keeper of her art and curator with a purpose. But I wasn’t sure even where to start.
So I turned my energy toward the outside. It began with our lopsided fence, which has slouched for as long as I can remember. Over a few weeks, my partner and I collected driftwood pillars from a wreck on a nearby beach, painted them white, and put them in the ground, connecting them with new planks. One day our neighbor came over with a chainsaw, claiming the unlevelness was driving him crazy. Our fence looks better than ever, although I wonder if this level of symmetry would be pleasing to my grandmother, who was a perfectionist at heart.
It brings me closer to her to imagine what her opinion would be on every project. In painting the shed, knowing she could appreciate a lively color, I chose a deep blue. I’m planning to trace one of her sketches on the shed doors: It may not have been something she would do, but then again, her friends and family know her drawings are better than she ever believed them to be.
As I dig my feet deeper into this mud, like the people clamming in her painting above our back door, I imagine what the world was like for my grandparents all those decades. Riding their bicycles around the farms and the neighborhood beaches, writing, watercoloring and eating fish from local markets. The more I imagine their life out here, the more I can draw connections with my own in the pandemic.
They were mindful and dined out only on very special occasions. Birthdays took place in the backyard, and while they loved having family around, they mostly relished each other’s company. The gallery of the cottage is foremost an ode to Paul, Donna’s favorite subject. Family lore has it he was impatient and wouldn’t sit still, even for her. Mostly, he is portrayed sleeping.
I have been isolated in this cottage with my partner and our beloved street dog for months, and I know above all else my grandma would be happy that we were safe, and finding strength in what they left behind. When I find myself getting stressed or anxious, I hear her in my head, or perhaps in the walls, telling me to be empathetic and to meet people where they are. That lesson seems more valuable than ever.
During a streak of rainy days I finally turned my attention to her stacks of canvases and notes. In every nook were yellowed tags from the Opportunity Shop, our favorite shop in the world. Her perfect script always forms a ball in my throat, her loss is felt in waves, and being here in her cherished spot enhances the potency of it all.
Most of all, I feel her in my inspiration and obsession with this place. I understand why she chose to dig her heels in here. Now I find myself equally enchanted, making films in the backyard and devoting my summer to producing a drive-in film festival with Community Action Southold Town, and feeling so grateful to have the privilege to keep creating art here.
Sitting in the midst of fireflies and rows of cars at Peconic Bay Winery as we watched my film “Bluepoint” premiere at the Sound Side Film Festival, I wanted so badly for my grandmother to see it. I know she would have been proud that I found a way to bridge art and community — especially one she thought of so dearly. I know, in that way that cliches are often true, that my grandmother lives on through my art. I may never have the same instinctual understanding of figures, or flowers, or the finicky medium of watercolors, but she is my biggest inspiration. We share a muse in the spirit of love on the North Fork.