DEER ISLE — A rising tide lifts all boats, and so it is with a handful of creators, each of whom has been able to craft a living from her own work on this island.
Calling themselves the “Women’s Business Group” (tongue firmly in cheek), Carole Ann Fer, Julie Morringello, Melissa Raftery, Ellen Wieske and Megan Wood meet several times a year over dinner to brainstorm, float ideas and hash over issues arising from their respective businesses
In addition, the potter, jeweler, lighting designer and coffee roasters support each other’s endeavors, which has led to more success for all and perhaps a bit less worry at the end of the day and the season.
For example, take a look at last month’s issue of Architectural Digest. In the magazine, Wood and Raftery’s 44 North Café in Stonington is featured as part of a piece titled “The Most Beautiful Coffee Shop in Every State in America.” In the photo, Morringello’s “modern, hexagonal light fixtures” dangle from the ceiling and are singled out in the article. Their Main Street café is an outgrowth of 44 North Coffee roasters in Deer Isle. They produce small batches of organic coffee beans on site.
A Rhode Island School of Design graduate, Morringello makes her home in Stonington, where she founded Modernmaine in 2011. An industrial designer and furniture designer/builder, she has focused on creating contemporary illuminated sculptures from wood veneer in recent years.
Last year, Morringello was chosen as one of the Boston-based Society of Arts and Crafts’ “Artists of the Year” and her Light Totems were featured in the society’s show in the city’s Seaport District.
The mutual support between Morringello and the four other women continues at Deer Isle’s Dowstudio where potter Carole Ann Fer and her metalsmith wife, Ellen Wieske, often serve their favorite 44 North coffee — either Ethiopian or Sumatra — at their artist’s receptions and openings. In turn, the coffee mavens send their customers to 19 Dow Road.
Several times a year, the five gather usually before or after the summer season to bounce ideas off each other or take stock of how they did.
“I find it extremely helpful to have a supportive group of people to bounce thoughts and ideas off of and to know that I can get helpful information as well as honest opinions,” Morringello said. “The topics can range from very practical business issues to things like color, design and aesthetics and everything in between.”
“Talking with other members of the group helps me gain clarity about my goals,” the designer continued. “Often, the act of creating a narrative helps me to understand myself better.”
Finding high-quality coffee beans, which they carefully roast to showcase the beans’ particular flavor and character, is what drives Raftery and Wood. 44 North Coffee’s founders also take pains to know how the far-flung farmers who supply them are treated and paid. Sourcing green or raw coffee beans is their greatest expense.
In January, Raftery and roaster and trainer Kasi Billings traveled to Chiapas, Mexico.
“We find it extremely important to travel to visit the co-ops that we purchase from to have a firsthand account of both environmental and social conditions of the people working within coffee,” Raftery said.
In the lives of each business, over the past eight years, there have been times when the women have sought advice from each other. None of them went to business school, so it’s been good to have a place to talk confidentially.
Because Deer Isle is a small community, confidentiality is important. What’s discussed in the group stays in the group.
The word “safe” came up several times in a recent gathering.
“We’re not afraid to be too supportive,” said Fer.
Over time, 44 North Coffee has grown from just a two-woman venture to a staff of three to 10, depending on the time of year. The business moved its operations and expanded to include a seasonal satellite café.
Fer and Wieske both work at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in addition to working as artists and running Dowstudio. The couple were extremely busy in 2016, hosting a whirlwind of 85 artists. Bravely, the couple decided to give themselves a break to recharge and didn’t open last summer.
Morringello, Raftery and Wood were consulted and supported the decision.
“I was really scared to close for the year last year,” recalled Fer. She and Wieske are now readying their gallery for this coming season.
Wood replied, “But you did it and you’re coming back so much stronger.”
For 18 years, Wieske worked as a jeweler/stone-setter and designer. Now, she challenges herself to “elevate tin cans, steel garden wire, washing machine parts and other recycled materials to create objects equal to ones made out of precious materials.”
At DowStudio, that vision is carried through. Wieske and Fer strive to feature original, affordable creations.
“Our intent is to help educate about contemporary craft and the value of the handmade object,” Wieske reflected. “A unique one-of-a-kind object can elevate an everyday experience through redefinition and purpose.”
One reason Wieske, Fer, Morringello, Wood and Raftery think they work so well together is that their respective businesses have grown organically. No one has taken out a big bank loan to start up. At Dowstudio the first year, discarded odds and ends from the transfer station were transformed into things of beauty.
At 44 North Coffee in the early days, the label was handwritten on every bag of roasted coffee beans.
Fer said she thinks everyone in the group has an “innate sense of risk management or tolerance. All of us have had other jobs.”
The group also enjoys celebrating each other’s successes as well.
When Raftery and Wood started their Stonington café, the group gathered for a pizza dinner there before the grand opening.