Life Well Crafted
Quilter Kate Adams and Woodworker Bob Collins take DIY to a high level at their home and garden in Kennebunkport
When Kate Adams bought her home in Kennebunkport almost 30 years ago, it was an unremarkable Cape with a front yard of hard-packed dirt next to a hill strewn with granite boulders. A native of northern California, Adams had decided to move to Maine after her divorce from her first husband, in large part because there was a market on the East Coast for her art: Adams creates miniature quilts. Her first home renovation project, extending the kitchen and building an attached two-car garage with her airy, quilt-making studio on the second floor, required a retaining wall—and lots of dirt. Those changes helped launch the transformation of the yard into what is now a stunning garden: beds of perennials, shrubs, and specimen trees, connected by lush swaths of lawn and bordered by forest. After Adams’s husband, Bob Collins, moved in 15 years ago, the two of them worked together to open up the house to the landscape. They replaced small windows with larger ones and built three decks, the largest of which extends along the front of the house and overlooks the garden. In the summer, they eat dinner on the deck as often as the weather allows; swatting mosquitos is a small price to pay for the gorgeous view.
Adams has turned the abundance of granite on her property from a hardship into an asset. When the retaining wall went in, a stonewall- enthusiast friend added a wall to separate the driveway from the garden, and moved many of the stones that define the beds into place. On the left, just as you enter the garden, is a “room” with an outdoor dining table and chairs centered on a rectangle of lawn, bordered on the far end by a large, sculptural piece of stone dappled with lichen and moss. At its base a hollow holds a collection of smaller stones. Sculptural elements, both from nature and manmade, add to the garden’s richly layered aesthetic. Adams points out a patinaed copper pumpkin on a vine by Gale Blalock at the base of a contorted filbert tree. Up on the hill, a modern wooden sculpture made by Collins rises above wild blueberries, ferns, and boulders. She has also chosen trees for the sculptural appeal they provide in the winter, such as Henry Lauder’s Walking Stick, with twisting and curled branches, and Prairie Fire dogwood, a shrub whose bright, orange-red bare stems seem to glow against the snow.
On this unique and inspiring piece of land, Adams and Collins have woven together a life that celebrates making beautiful things by hand. When I arrive for my second visit, they are both busy atthe antique table that serves as an island in the center of their kitchen, putting labels on bottles of homemade bitters. The first project they did together was to construct Collins’s woodshop behind the garage. It not only provided a foundational space for their home renovation work, but is also where Collins built the wooden sea kayak that is his pride and joy. “Bob’s dad was an avid and really wonderful woodworker, and he’s gone on to do the same,” says Adams. While he was growing up, Collins’s family “never had a skilled tradesman in the house,” he says. “My dad made the cabinets, he did the trim, he painted; we grew up with a generation of people who did stuff.” Now retired, Collins spent his career in manufacturing quality, helping companies figure out systems to improve their processes for making everything from underwater floatation gear to batteries. In between jobs, he worked as a handyman, using and honing his hands-on skills. Adams, who learned how to sew when she was very young, was working in costume design when she was asked to make a miniature quilt for a dollhouse. Piecing together tiny bits of fabric into art objects became her career. Her framed quilts, which are in collections around the world, were at one time sold at shops in Paris and Tokyo, as well as at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and at Colonial Williamsburg. She and Collins have applied the diligence required to create a collectable miniature quilt or a seaworthy wooden kayak to their home. “When Kate and I started to work together on this house, it kind of amped up the level of what we each could have done on our own,” says Collins. “You know, how do you punch a four-footby- six-foot hole in the side of your house and put a window in? We just had to figure a lot out. After you do it a couple times, you realize it’s not all that hard, as long as you put the right pieces into place. One thing led to another and we just kept doing it.”
The windows Collins are referring to are in the dining and living rooms: tall, three-paned casement windows on either side of the front door that replaced the small double-hung windows original to each room. “It was dark and you couldn’t see the garden,” says Adams. The couple also installed a greenhouse window over the sink in the kitchen, which not only lets in more light, but also provides a growing environment for herbs in the winter. “One of the things we’ve been really fortunate about is that we had a master plan idea,” says Collins. “We would try something, and dummy it up, and just see, does it look right? Before we decided to put the greenhouse window in, we drew it on paper and taped it up over the sink. When you can work together to try things, and you have the confidence that you’ll get to where you want to go, it’s a great way to evolve the structure of your house.”
One aspect of their home’s renovation they didn’t do themselves was installing the beam that allowed them to take down a bearing wall and enlarge the living room, which now runs the length of the house opposite the central stairs from the dining room and kitchen. “We hired a contractor for that, and we had him sand the floors,” says Adams. “But we did the sheet rock and the painting,” Collins says, finishing her sentence. Heated with a sleek Scan woodstove, the living room, like all the spaces in the house, is decorated with art and objects collected from friends and on the couple’s travels. “We picked up those wonderful little cups the last time we were in France from a potter at one of the markets,” says Adams, pointing to a row of pottery pieces lined up on a faux mantel in the dining room. “I had so much exposure to handmade things when I was doing the fine craft circuit with my quilts. Ninety percent of the art and furnishings in our home were made by people I know.”
With the house and garden done except for maintenance and smaller projects (Adams would like to create a meditation path to wind up the hill), the couple’s time and resources are channeled into travel. One of Collins’s daughters lives with her husband and children in Istanbul, which is a regular and favorite destination; other recent trips have involved long hikes in Scotland and England, and they are hoping to hike Turkey’s Lycian Way. The original master plan included a big screened porch off the living room, but once the deck was built, Adams and Collins decided it was enough. “We thought, ‘That’s three or four trips if we build that screened porch,’” says Adams. “You do have to fight off the mosquitos a little every now and then, but for the most part, we’re very happy out there.”