Aaron Margolis carves a piece in his Ellsworth studio. PHOTO BY JACK DODSON

Ellsworth couple carve out a life

ELLSWORTH — Deirdre McGrath and Aaron Margolis landed in Hancock County by accident.

They knew they wanted to live on the Atlantic Coast. But that could be any number of places. Route 1, which passes through Ellsworth on its way from Fort Kent to Key West, Fla., stretches 2,369 miles. Not too far from the U.S. highway in coastal Maine, an excursion to Bar Harbor led the New Yorkers to make the Downeast region their home.

“We just kind of ended up coming up here and thought, ‘Oh, this is nice,’” Deirdre said. “I think that’s probably how a lot of people ended up here.”

Sixteen years ago, Deirdre McGrath and Aaron Margolis moved from New York’s Westchester County to Maine where they create an assortment of household items from fallen trees and timber harvest discards.

Living in Maine since 2011, Deidre and Aaron are makers and artists. Practical ones, but the couple’s artwork comes first. Two years ago, they founded Rusted Pulchritude. Their Ellsworth studio’s curious name actually springs from a Middle English word meaning physical beauty. The name reflects their appreciation for antiquity.

“The name just came from a love of old ideas, objects, creative concepts and salvage that we used to, and occasionally still, incorporate into our work,” Deirdre, 27, said.

They make spoons, housewares, small furniture, sculptures and other things that strike their fancy. Their creations are made through “green woodworking,” in which freshly cut and unseasoned wood is used to create their works. They sell much of their work through social media and Etsy, an e-commerce site for small business owners, but they also peddle their creations at Maine farmers markets, including the Ellsworth one.

Sixteen years ago, when they moved to Maine from New York’s Westchester County, where they both hail from just north of New York City, Deirdre and Aaron bought a piece of land in Penobscot. In Maine, they sought to pursue a new kind of art. Building their own home was part of the plan.

Deirdre worked at the Blue Hill Co-op during that time, and the two of them lived in a small dwelling that they constructed before working on the main house.

Margolis, 35, had been working with his hands and building things since he was a kid. He learned from his Dad. Somewhere along the way, he built bicycle frames. His interest construction evolved from those experiences.

A friend who logged timber, offered to bring them fresh-cut trees to help build their house. That offer led to a new direction in their artwork. Now, when they source their wood for making things, they’ll source some green wood from him. Other people have supplied them with timber. Last summer, when some roadside woods were being clear-cut, they loaded up a pile of the leftover timber into their truck.

Because of all this, they said, they haven’t cut a tree themselves in a long time. Mostly, they work with fruit trees: apple or cherry. Always deciduous trees that lose their leaves in winter. Never evergreens.

Deirdre says they choose to use green wood not because it’s better. She says it’s softer, and can be shaped more easily. She described it as “a departure from the typical carpentry.” Recently, they’ve experimented with willow wood. Sometimes they’ll use birch for its rich colors as it ages, or poplar.

Deirdre McGrath and Aaron Margolis use green birch, birch, poplar, apple and cherry to carve a variety of spoons with individual decorative touches.

Two years ago, Deirdre and Aaron moved to Ellsworth. They settled a bit outside of the historic downtown on a hillside. The property includes a turn-of-the-century barn that they turned into an insulated studio. The old pole-framed structure may have once housed horses.

The studio’s framing had to be rebuilt, and they installed windows. They also added a pellet stove for heating and filled the shop with wood-working tools. This project occupied the first summer in the house. Now, wood shavings and logs waiting to be carved cover the floor. Their dog, Bella, a rescue pit bull, keeps them company.

“We just wanted a nice, clean, warm shop,” Aaron said.

Last summer was the couple’s first chance to focus full-time on their artwork and Rusted Pulchritude. Both of them are self-taught as they shifted from carpentry to fine woodworking. As they evolved their style, they began to incorporate some salvaged material.

Spoons are among the main products they make. The process begins with a green piece of wood cut to the desired length. The ends are coated with oil to keep the pieces from drying out.

Aaron and Deirdre use a band saw or occasionally an ax to cut a template for the spoon. They’ll draw an outline of the spoon’s bowl with a pencil, and carve it out with a knife. They use spoon knives, which are bended 180 degrees, to accomplish this.

Finally, they finish each product by smoothing it with a knife. Sanding the wood, they said, opens up pores and can lead to a fuzzy feeling on the spoon.

They coat each piece with linseed oil and candelilla wax, further smoothing and making the spoons shiny. The spoons vary dramatically in size and each one has a distinct feel.

While much of their work is sold through Etsy and their 2,500 Instagram followers, they also have a local retail presence. Swallowfield in Northeast Harbor and Spruce & Gussy in Bar Harbor stock a small selection of their work, and they’re aiming to participate in more festivals across Maine in 2018.

To learn more about Rusted Pulchrtude, check out Aaron and Deirdre’s Etsy shop at www.etsy.com/shop/rustedpulchritude, and follow them on Facebook and Instagram at @rustedpulchritude. They’ll also sell their work this coming summer at the Ellsworth Farmers Market.

Jack Dodson
Jack Dodson began working for The Ellsworth American in mid-2017, and covers eastern Hancock and western Washington counties. He grew up in the Mid-coast region before living in New York City for five years, where he freelanced in documentary filmmaking and journalism. He is particularly interested in criminal justice, environment and immigration reporting.

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