A Native Celebration
Betsy Turner grew up in a small town in the middle of Ohio and she spent her summers at a family cottage on Lake Huron in north Ontario.
“I looked forward to those trips all year. I saved my money to spend at a store in Little Current, near our cottage. They sold Inuit art, Hudson’s Bay blankets; it was this whole northern experience.” Little Current is located on the north shore of Manitoulin Island where over a third of the population are native peoples; modern day descendants of the Ottawa, Potowatamie, and Ojibway – tribes of the Algonquin family. Betsy told us that these summer trips and all the people she met eventually inspired her interest in native cultures, their traditions, art, and craft. But there’s more. After seventeen years of visiting Little Current, as luck or fate would have it, she met the handsome chap whose parents owned her favorite store. The store was a family business, founded by Isaac Turner in 1879. This handsome chap was his great-great-grandson, Grant. “I remember meeting Grant’s grandmother more than once. And his father was a fixture on the Main Street, in his shorts and knee socks.”
Grant on Little Current.
“It was great life there. Little Current is a small town, with good people. And I’m a small town kind of guy,” Grant shrugged, “For me, Manchester is the big city; traffic light and all. Betsy and I have been here now for more than thirty-five years. We’ve made the best of friends, and raised a family. And our kids get to launch from a beautiful place, and can compare the rest of world to what’s possible.”
A new business is born.
The Turners moved to Manchester in 1980. Betsy worked at The Incredible Tree at the Jelly Mill, and Grant joined the crew at Bromley Mountain. After a year or so, they decided to give their old hometowns a try, Grant’s in Canada and then Betsy’s, in Ohio. “It was after those first few years that we decided we wanted to make a longer-term commitment and that’s when the lightbulb went off. We headed back to Vermont. The opportunity of taking over the lease from Park Place brought us back to Manchester; and we were up and running on August 6, 1986.” Inspired by Grant’s family business, and sparked by the couple’s shared appreciation for culture and art, Long Ago & Far Away had begun.
Among the first items stocked, Inuit sculpture. Paintings. Southwestern pottery. Grant paused for a minute and thought. “We brought some friends out from Taos. Dee Dixon was a trader and offered to come out for Columbus Day. He brought a lot of Navajo jewelry with him and while we hadn’t actually considered jewelry as important at the time, we realized that it was a serious point of interest for our new customers.”
Today the shop is curated with distinct areas of focus. Sculpture. Weavings and textiles. Vermont pottery. Art. Jewelry – lots of jewelry. A little Fetish garden. “A fetish is like a totem or a lucky charm for native peoples. You might take along a mountain lion fetish with you if you’re going hunting. An animal with which you have an affinity, you might want to collect.” The fetishes range in price from $6 to $1k, depending on the stone and the quality of the carving, and are a terrific way to begin a collection. “Generally,” Grant explained, “our store represents people’s connectedness to nature. The sculptural pieces, the polar bears, the birds, the transformative pieces… They remind us that this level of connection exists right now, today, for the many remote cultures. And you can couple that with a little bit of lore and mysticism.”
Betsy pointed us toward an elegant dancer, about fourteen inches tall, carved from a piece of whale rib that had been buried in the sand for hundreds of years. “Native people dance to celebrate and this piece is really special.” She touched on various details, the whalebone, walrus tusk, polar bear fur, and fossilized walrus tusk. While the photo below is beautiful, this piece is pretty arresting in person.
Big World, Small World.
Long Ago… thrives on a mosaic of interconnected relationships. Friends may recommend a particular artist, so Grant and Betsy will seek them out; other friends might recommend the gallery to a new artist. It’s an organic process as one connection leads to another and another.
“In the late 80’s we had a client ask us to look for work from an artist named Sam English. We were on our way to Albuquerque and knew he lived there, and thought we’d make connecting with him part of our mission. We got in around midnight, slept a bit and hit the road early in the morning with a stop at a local grocery store. I went in, Grant waited in the car. When I came out, Grant wasn’t in the car,” Betsy’s laughing now. “There he was talking with a fellow down a few spots in a pick-up truck. Turned out he had found him, just like that!”
When it comes to connections, the past also comes into play. “When my father-in-law was a young man, he had an opportunity to go on an expedition to the high arctic with a well-known explorer named Donald MacMillan. MacMillan had built a schooner called the Bowdoin, and every summer, parents would sign up their kids to join him on a scientific expedition. Grant’s dad was the mate/navigator on two of these trips, and naturally became fascinated with the arctic culture. In turn, his interest inspired a collection of Inuit sculptures and focus in his family’s store. That was 1949. And today, some of our sources have actually come from these early relationships.”
At the same time, there were aspects of the retail trade that excited Grant as a departure from his family biz. “At Turner’s Store, we also worked with manufacturers. You know, taking inventory, checking off boxes and ordering things in sizes and color runs… That part of the business didn’t interest me – I wanted to do something more creative. Betsy and I work with individual artists that make one-of-a-kind things and it’s a never ending puzzle. We’re no closer to solving it today than we were thirty years ago. It’s a process of discovery and an exciting one. We educate our customers, and believe it or not, they educate us!”
“There is a way to be useful as a merchant where you take things from where they’re common to where they are rare. And where you can take creators who are not getting exposure and give it to them. In remote areas of the arctic, there is no cash economy so we’re able to work with makers to move their work from their small area of the world down here to Manchester. And for the tens of thousands of people we meet who are interested, we can offer a window into that particular culture from that particular, remote place. We try to tie those two worlds together. That’s the path, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Our purpose, too,” (from Betsy) “is to represent artists who are working today. Sometimes there is a preconceived notion that a native arts store is showcasing artifacts but that’s not the case with us. Grant and I invest our energy and dollars in representing living artists, and focus on showcasing their work and supporting them so that they can continue to work and create.”
We know from past projects that makers are interested in making and many, not so much in marketing their work. Long Ago… supports their artists by bringing them to Manchester, and to the shop; providing them with a platform to talk about their work. “Betsy and I also serve as a conduit to share feedback with those who don’t get to engage with the public very often.”
Talk a bit about your artists.
“In any hunter-gatherer culture, hand skills are vital. Vital for food preparation or making clothing. And excellence is mandatory. If you’re the wife making the clothing that your husband will wear standing on the ice fishing all day, it better be the best to keep him warm. If you’re the husband standing out on the slab, you’d better have the strongest, straightest spear, so you can be sure you catch your dinner.”
“We’ve found that a lot of our artists are not only creative but also masters at every step of the making process. They’re the guy that’s a really good shot, with a sled that’s the very best sled with the best-trained dogs, the four-wheeler that’s always tuned up.” Grant explained that early interactions between western folks like his dad and native, coastal peoples making art came down to the same kind of thing. “The guy who created a little model of a kayak last winter in hopes to sell it to someone during the summer is also the best fisherman and hunter in town. Can’t we say the same thing about a well-tended farm or garden?”
Also, there are simple craft traditions that are highly collectible down here in the states. “Where I grew up, native women work with birch bark to create vessels and objects, decorated with sweet grass trim and porcupine quills.” These are practical, and beautiful, and each box is different than the next.
Grant and Betsy have known some of their artists for thirty years, so they’ve become part of an extended family. “Like Denise and Dawn Wallace, the jewelers. Denise and Samuel started working together, a husband-wife team. She created the sterling forms and he would cut the stone to fit them. Today, their son David does all of the lapidary work, and Denise and her daughter design the jewelry. By extension, Denise’s sisters, who are also native Alaskans, make dolls which we also carry in the shop. Our families are close due to all the years of shared work and miles we’ve been together.”
Betsy next brought a piece of Hib Sabin’s out for us to look at and hold. Sabin carves these incredible, mystical pieces out of Juniper wood gathered near his home in New Mexico. Some of the pieces are cast in bronze and painted to finish. They’re the kind of art objects that leave you speechless for a second and pique your spiritual and intellectual curiosity. “The reactions that people have, moved even to tears as they encounter a particular piece that speaks to them, is what has always inspired us to go further down that path, to learn more,” she explained.
Education is essential. So is the experience.
Long Ago and Far Away offers a wide range of art pieces, including entry level objects so that someone can start to build a collection. “We always encourage our customers to handle things, to interact with the pieces. Very often, the people who come through our door are highly knowledgeable about aspects of our business. In part, because Manchester is such a cosmopolitan small town, with visitors and townsfolk coming in from places all over the world… someone is a National Geographic photographer, or best-selling author, or one of the world’s experts on Inuit art.”
“On more than one occasion I’ve pulled out a piece of art and someone has burst into tears. The piece touched something in their soul, which is very cool.”
“With our type of inventory, it’s great to sell things, but we really want to sell things to people who appreciate them. By having people exit with something small, or even just a great experience learning about something new, they’ll look us up next time, they’ll go to a place like ours that’s somewhere else, they’ll tell their friends. And that’s how the whole cycle works. And that’s the reason to keep the door open every day.”
A big anniversary.
“It was a fast thirty years,” they both agree. “It went by in a heartbeat. It’s interesting for us because we had the store for six years and we were in our mid-thirties when we had our first daughter, and both almost forty with the arrival of our second.” As an aside, the apple lands near the tree. The Turners have two gorgeous, talented girls, of whom they are exceedingly proud.
“Our youngest daughter went off to college last year so maybe part of this anniversary is the store coming full circle. Now Grant and I are free to do things the way we did when we first got going. We did a buying trip early in the summer to New Mexico together for the first time in ages.” She smiled, and he grinned.
Their take on Manchester.
“Some people come to Manchester and they’re just passing through, they blink twice and keep going. But many others, once they stay a while and start to scratch the surface, realize that there’s so much to experience here. More than fishing and hiking. Go glass blowing. Visit a cheesemaker. Go to a wine tasting. Hear music. See a show. Hit the bookstore; that’s a homerun.”
Discovery and Delight
While you’re wheeling around Manchester, make sure to stop in and say hello to the Turners for us. Click here to find additonal photos, store info, official website, and more!Long Ago and Far Away
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