Made on Nantucket
Kathleen Duncombe's island inspiration
By Aimee E. Newell* as published in the Winter 2000 Times of the Island Magazine
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It's a hazy July afternoon and Kathleen Duncombe is in her element. Working in her Main Street gallery, Made on Nantucket, she greets customers and cheerfully offers to answer questions, tends to phone calls from artists, and reminisces about her lifelong love affair with Nantucket Island.
51 year-old Duncombe first came to Nantucket at the age of three months, the adopted child of two successful attorneys who lived in New York City. Duncombe's parents passed along "an absolute love addiction with Nantucket," she says. Her parents courted on the island, eventually honeymooning here, and brought Kathleen and her younger brother, Stephen, for annual summer visits.
Once Duncombe entered her teens, she would come to Nantucket for a week with her family, and then extend her stay by moving in with Gail Bretschneider and sleeping in that family's attic. Duncombe remembers these friendships fondly and continues to get together with many of the girls she met when she was 13. In fact, she says of the Bretschnieders, "I consider them my family."
Once she graduated from high school, Duncombe returned for the entire summer with her brother and a friend. The three rented a place on Hussey Street and Duncombe worked three jobs: in the White Elephant's kitchen as a salad girl, as a waitress at Arno's and at a bicycle shop where she took orders from "Suitcase" Simpson.
Duncombe returned to college in the fall, but over the next few years, she remembers, "I finagled my way back to Nantucket every summer." Even then she knew she wanted to live on Nantucket. "I would sob uncontrollably on the boat as I left each year," she explains.
Duncombe found a solution to her sadness by entering into a year-round lease at the end of the 1960's. "I was very blessed," she says, "there's no other way to put it. I always found housing when I needed it." Not only was Duncombe lucky enough to find rentals when she needed them, she also had wonderful landlords and reasonable rents. These early experiences have shaped Duncombe's philosophy now that she is the landlord. "I believe that if you're fair with someone, they'll be fair to you," she says. "I always had good experiences when I was a tenant and now I try to provide the same for my tenants."
Although Duncombe's luck with housing meant she was spared the "Nantucket shuffle" (a term coined by year-round residents to describe semi-annual moves before and after summer rental rates skyrocket), her résumé exemplifies a "Nantucket shuffle" of a different kind. As Duncombe recalls, "I've had so many jobs, I've worked everywhere!"
When she was in her 20's and 30's, she worked a long list of island nightspots, but she still remembers Preston's Airport Lounge as "the best bar I've ever been to in my life." Duncombe worked there from the time it opened in 1970, on the site of the present day Nantucket Inn, until it burned down in 1979. "It was a blast," she explains. "They had fabulous food and awesome bands." Sunday was pool tournament day, which became family day, as well. "It was like family zoo day," she chuckles. Duncombe kept busy making pitchers of Bloody Marys and bull shots for the adults, while the kids ran around underfoot, playing pinball and eating maraschino cherries from the bar.
Between summers on Nantucket, Duncombe earned her bachelor's degree from Marymount College in Manhattan and a master of fine arts degree from Brooklyn's Pratt Institute.
Her twin passions for art and teaching led to a job as an art teacher at Nantucket High School. "Teaching is what I love more than anything I do," she says. "It's what makes me tick." Despite her love of teaching and her popularity with her students, "I got into hot water," she recollects. Duncombe's belief that her students should be taught English in conjunction with art blurred the lines between art classes and English classes, which proved too controversial at that time for some members of the school's administration and the community. As a result, Duncombe's contract was not renewed and she moved on.
Always looking for new challenges, Duncombe took a job managing the island's Comprehensive Employment Training and Assistance (CETA) office, a federally funded program intended as a "springboard to get people back into working," she explains. She experienced success in this position and was recruited by the island's unemployment office, eventually putting in 14 years between the two positions. During those years, Duncombe continued her teaching as a volunteer at the Nantucket Boys & Girls Club and the Nantucket Teen Center. She also served as a board member on the Children's and Family Services of Nantucket.
About 10 years ago, she left her job at the unemployment office to take a break and do something different. Duncombe had inherited some money, which enabled her to start her own school, and her friend Manny Dias suggested that she go out on her own. She then broke down his resistance-shredded it, he told her-and persuaded him to teach at her new studio, "You're a shredda," he said to Duncombe, who laughs at the memory. "I named my school after the cat," she says.
Shredder's Studio was established in 1991 with a rendering of her cat as a logo. "It's my instrument," she says. "It allows me to be able to teach." These days, she's seeing the children of her high school students in her classes. As a second generation is introduced to her unique style, Duncombe's strong opinions, enthusiasm and passion for sharing art will make a lasting impression.
In 1993, two years after establishing Shredder's Studio, Duncombe opened her gallery, Made on Nantucket. Tucked upstairs on Main Street, next to the Expresso Café, the gallery is full of island-made treasures. The inspiration for the gallery came from a special exhibition that she coordinated for the Artist's Association of Nantucket. The show was comprised of artwork made on the island; it included finished pieces as well as examples of work in various stages of completion.
Today, the gallery includes the work of about 80 artists, including Duncombe, all of whom work on the island. "They don't have to live here year-round," Duncombe explains, "but here has to be a strong connection. For example, my jewelry is designed here but cast in New York."
Kathleen Duncombe's reverence for her life on Nantucket is evident. She speaks with deep feeling of her emotional ties to the island, and with appreciation for her longtime close friends. "Now that my parents are gone, my friends are my family." Despite the changes that she has witnessed in her years on Nantucket, Duncombe still loves the island's natural beauty. "I'm a water person," she says. "I need to be close to the ocean." She also cherishes the community feeling that runs so deep among island residents.
"I'm extremely fortunate to have lovely home in an undeveloped area," she says. Duncombe shares her home with four cats and about 70 guinea hens. And, yes, the birds and the cats seem to get along just fine. "My cats hang out with them," she explains. "I just started feeding (the hens) and more and more appeared." One of her tenants even collected the feathers dropped by the birds and used them to create decorative wreaths, which Duncombe sells in her gallery.
Duncombe can't remember a time when she wasn't interested in art. "I was very fortunate to have parents who supported my creative aspects," she says. "I always had art available at school." These experiences inspired Duncombe to become a teacher herself, which has allowed her "to give something of myself and have it returned threefold."
Jim Day, one of Duncombe's students at Nantucket High School, and a visitor to the gallery, confirms Duncombe's positive impact on her students. "She worked out of the box," he says. "It was edutainment."
*Aimee E. Newell is curator of collections at the Nantucket Historical Association and a freelance writer.
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