On Fertile Ground
A family plot in Kinnakeet’s “Noth’ard” has inspired four generations of creative women.
by Susan West
Carrie Gray was a young wife with two small babies in 1934 when she left her home on Long Island and moved to her husband’s birthplace — Avon, on Hatteras Island.
She and her husband, Ellis, settled in the section of the village called the Noth’ard. A green highway sign that reads North End Road identifies the area today, but people in the village still say the Noth’ard and still call the village Kinnakeet, the name discarded by the postal service in 1883.
The Grays bought the Methodist Church North building, which was no longer needed after the northern and southern Avon congregations reunited. Ellis, a carpenter and fisherman, set to work converting it into a home for their growing family.
There were no clues foretelling how the family land would become the anchor for four generations of women who have shared their love for Hatteras Island though art. Each artist — Carrie, her daughter Elizabeth Gray Gaskins, her granddaughter-in-law Denise Gaskins and her great-granddaughter Antoinette Gaskins Mattingly — has created art inspired by the environment and influenced by familial bonds.
“We had some good times painting together,” Denise says of her painting sessions with Carrie in the 1980s. “I showed Carrie how to use watercolors, but she took off on her own and had her own style. And Carrie told me stories about the history of the island and the way of life here. She taught me so much.”
Carrie’s style was loose and confident, with a free use of colors and brush strokes that appear almost spontaneous. Flowers were a favorite subject. She painted almost every day from age 76 until she was 85 and signed her work “Mama Carrie.”
“She had a little spot on her front porch where she painted, listening to Jimmy Swaggart preach on the radio with her dog sitting beside her,” Denise recalls.
Denise grew up in Chesapeake, Va., on a small farm in a house with a ceramics studio. She painted with acrylics until she took classes with Tidewater watercolorist J. Robert Burnell.
“There was no turning back once I found watercolors,” she says. “The colors are much more vibrant and transparent, and the brightness shines through.” Her watercolors often feature shore-side scenes of old boats, fish houses and homes, all tightly rendered in intricate detail.
Even as a child vacationing on the island with her parents, Denise says, “I always felt like I was supposed to be here. I would have a special feeling when we crossed Oregon Inlet, like I was home.”
In 1992 she and her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Gray Gaskins, also a watercolorist, opened Gaskins Gallery on the highway in Avon. In 2002 they moved the business to the family land in the Noth’ard and dedicated the new building to Mama Carrie.
Today the shop is the home of Kinnakeet Clay Studio and Showroom, owned by Denise’s daughter, potter Antoinette Gaskins Mattingly. The gallery represents 40 artists working in pottery, watercolor, metal, photography, textiles and other mediums. Nearly half the artists are local.
“There’s never been a time when visual art wasn’t a part of my world,” Antoinette says. “When we were kids and my mom wanted to paint, we were given paper and paint too and encouraged to go for it.”
She has worked with a variety of mediums but has focused on pottery since 2002. She creates stoneware mugs, platters, plates and bowls as well as decorative wall hangings, all inspired by the island, the ocean and the sound. She favors blue and green palettes, and her work features flowers and nautical subjects, including sea turtles, blue crabs and other marine life.
The detail exemplified in her mother’s paintings and the looser style of her great-grandmother’s paintings both influence her work, she says. “I struggle in both directions sometimes,” she says.
A greater influence, though, was the support from the other artists in her family to explore a wide range of mediums until she discovered pottery, which resonated deeply and immediately with her.
“There’s value in going far and wide,” she says, “but for me, there is a greater value in being close to my family, and it doesn’t hurt that we happen to live in such a beautiful place.”