A Couple with Vision

Marc Brown, the creator of Arthur, and his wife, artist Laurie Krasny Brown, have turned their Vineyard Haven home into the perfect setting to sustain and invigorate their creative pursuits.

“I knew Laurie was an artist the first time I opened her refrigerator,” Marc Brown says with a smile, talking about his wife, artist Laurene Krasny Brown, and her aesthetic approach to arranging perishables. “We like order in our lives, and we care intensely about our environment being supportive.”

In renovating their Vineyard Haven home, Marc and Laurie drew upon their appreciation of history, architecture, and antiques, together with their own lively creative instincts and that penchant for orderliness. They’ve spent years restoring and updating the historic eighteenth-century farmstead, transforming it into a tranquil haven that nurtures their personal, professional, and artistic selves. But the house is only one example of the couple’s transformative skills. Their typical attitude toward any project – revamping an old structure, reinventing a book, or making art from a box of rubber washers – is to give it a vibrant new life while maintaining the integrity of the original.

Marc, best known as the creator of the world’s most famous aardvark, Arthur (who celebrates his thirty-fifth birthday this year), has embraced electronic media – turning printed images and words into clever, interactive applications to engage, amuse, and teach children. Laurie, a research psychologist and writer turned visual artist, has immersed herself in the crafting of richly colored collage artworks that often use vintage materials.

Many of the couple’s artistic endeavors happen on the Vineyard at the secluded property they’ve owned for twenty-three years. Aside from a few months a year in New York City, where they’ve just finished a significant overhaul of an 1842 Greenwich Village town house (their ninth historic house renovation), Laurie and Marc, along with their two cats, Lola and Romeo, make their home here.

Laurie introduced Marc to the Vineyard back in the 1980s. “I rented a little cottage in Aquinnah overlooking the Elizabeth Islands. It was so simple and adorable, and when I moved in, I took everything off the walls and put it away for the month,” she recalls. “Marc came with my assistant to visit me there, and it made such an impression on him. We walked all along Lighthouse Road and around the tip of Gay Head. I remember thinking at some point, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a little place here?’”

They bought and renovated a small Greek revival house in Aquinnah. Then, Laurie says, along came their Vineyard Haven farmstead: “Marc really fell hard for it and brought me here four times. The scale of it scared me, but two things brought me back: the trees and the light. The trees...are so beautiful, their lines and shadows, their blossoms, the moss growing on them, all year long. I almost fell in love with the trees before the house.

“The natural light here is wonderful for working, for mixing colors. The quiet, the animal life, that whole atmosphere around us – it’s simpler here. We can focus on priorities, values. It makes it much easier to hear those inner voices,” Laurie explains. “I like the feeling this Island gives the world, an unassuming attitude that makes visitors want to come and hide away here.”

Charting an Artistic Course

Marc’s career with Arthur took off starting in the late seventies, following stints teaching college and illustrating books for other authors. Laurie’s artistic calling evolved more slowly. She worked at Harvard University as a research psychologist in education and child development, where she met Marc while studying the effects of illustrations in children’s books. She soon began writing books for children, which he illustrated, including the popular Dino Life Guides for Families, which help children deal with difficult subjects such as divorce and death. Laurie also wrote and illustrated a book of her own, The Vegetable Show, and the process of creating its collage artwork inspired her to leave child psychology and writing to embrace making art full-time.

Much of Laurie’s work is strongly geometric in form, inspired in part by early American folk art such as quilts, woven baskets, and hooked rugs, and making use of old-fashioned materials such as milliners’ supplies and vintage office products. She exhibits on-Island at the Shaw Cramer Gallery in Vineyard Haven, and in galleries in New York and Boston.

Last fall, Laurie was awarded a six-week residency at the Apothiki Art Center on the island of Paros in Greece, where she designed an exhibition of paper pieces inspired by ancient Greek amphorae, tall earthenware storage jars. (A selection of her work can be seen this summer in a solo exhibit, Another Island, at the Shaw Cramer Gallery from July 21 to 28.) The process of putting together the Apothiki exhibit challenged Laurie to stretch beyond her familiar working style.

“In Greece I had six weeks to make a show, when normally I’ve taken years. I had to develop a different skill set,” Laurie says. “I had to use what I found there to build a language, a express something more important and poignant. It helped me grow as an artist.”

Illustration Comes Alive

While Laurie often leans back in time for inspiration, Marc’s professional curiosity these days is captivated by the possibilities of electronic media. In December, his illustrations came to life in Judy Sierra’s Wild About Books for iPad, based on the award-winning print best seller. Featuring sound effects and interactive elements, it’s the first in a series of collaborations. Marc says unlike some of his peers in publishing, he’s excited about the creative opportunities offered by such rapidly developing technology as e-books and apps.

“I was giving a keynote speech to fifteen hundred educators at Princeton. I put on the screen a slide showing Steve Jobs holding an iPad, and I asked who thought e-books were a good idea,” he says. “Not one person raised their hand, and I said, ‘I guess I’m in the minority here.’”

He explains: “There’s huge potential with e-books with their interactive features. Kids are so comfortable with electronic devices; they’re growing up with them. I’ve watched picture book sales decline over the last several years, and I think e-books are another way to reach kids.”

Witness the evolution of Marc’s creation, Arthur Read. The bespectacled third-grade aardvark headlines the book series, the long-running PBS television show Arthur’s World, and the interactive website More than half a million Facebook users follow his page.

In honor of Arthur’s thirty-fifth birthday, this year Marc is planning to visit thirty-five schools and libraries across the country to spend time with students, who give him invaluable feedback and ideas for new books. “Arthur’s Underwear was suggested as a subject over and over again for many years by kids when I would talk to them,” he says. “I love the way kids find the word ‘underwear’ so hilarious.”

Nearly 66 million copies of Arthur books are in print in the United States, starting with the first one, Arthur’s Nose, which began as a bedtime story in 1976 to Marc’s oldest son, Tolon, now one of the TV show’s producers. Arthur’s stories examine a wide range of social and pragmatic issues, ranging from bullying to head lice to asthma to sibling rivalry. Arthur Turns Green, published this spring, is the first new Arthur book in nearly ten years.

Lately Marc has been painting with gouache on gessoed wooden panels in an exuberant folk-art style, collaborating with writer Judy Sierra. Their latest book, ZooZical (Knopf Books for Young Readers, August), chronicles a troupe of zoo animals that combat the winter doldrums by staging a lively musical. He’s also got a new book with author Lindsey Craig, Farmyard Beat (Knopf, June). Apple plans to introduce an Arthur application for iPad by summer, and Marc’s working on an app for kids who want to write. In short, a busy year.

A Vineyard Tribute

This summer, Martha’s Vineyard Community Services plans to honor Marc for his longtime involvement in its Possible Dreams Auction, raising funds for the nonprofit social services agency. His donations of a personal visit to the school or library of the winning bidder’s choice have brought in nearly $200,000 over the years. Marc will be honored at this summer’s auction on August 1, says board president Wiet Bachellor, because “aside from the fact that his dreams generate much-needed dollars to help cover unfunded care, a Marc Brown dream always brings happiness to scores of young school children.”

On a warm Indian summer day last year, Marc and Laurie took time for a leisurely walk around their property. Woodsy and peaceful, surrounded by nearly one hundred acres of conservation land, it’s an eight-acre idyll with a lazy stream meandering along one side.

“I had no idea how luxuriously quiet this spot would be,” Marc says. “This is truly an atmosphere that encourages creative thought. Each and every day I am grateful to have the good fortune to enjoy the beauty that surrounds us.”

Laurie shares her husband’s sentiments about their life here. “I love the layers of experiences I have with this island: how many times I’ve come here, under many different circumstances, with different people, how they accumulate, how they make anywhere you live feel more and more like home,” she muses. “The Island is a good size, not too big nor too small. There are still places I haven’t seen, that I want to get to know.”

“We spend as much time as possible outdoors,” says Marc, who takes a walk most mornings while Laurie goes for a run. “It’s such a pleasure to start the day outdoors. Then we squeeze orange juice, grind coffee, and spend some time together before we get to work.”

Bringing Out the History in Their Home

The low, sprawling farmhouse nestles comfortably into the gently undulating grassy landscape. The weathered gray-shingled buildings around the property – unobtrusive in the dappled shade of age-old trees – look as though they’ve been there for generations and, in fact, they have. They date from the 1730s through the early part of the twentieth century, and their careful restoration in recent years has been influenced by a deep appreciation for early American architecture and antiques.

“I love New England homes,” says Marc, who clearly also relishes the challenges of a historic fixer-upper. The couple’s passion for the past is also on display in their quirky collections of antiques, folk art, and vintage found objects.

For the most part, the Browns have foregone fancy landscaping for a more traditional New England approach to outdoor living: a small raised-bed vegetable garden alongside the house, unpainted Adirondack chairs circling a millstone table by the stream (“the sweet spot,” they call it), a sprawling expanse of daylilies by the gravel driveway. A swimming pool tucked into the slope on the back side of the house is a concession to luxury much appreciated by visiting grandchildren and friends.

The Browns’ Island property includes five buildings: the main farmhouse, a cow-barn-turned-carriage-house with Marc’s studio upstairs, a guest house created from an old addition they removed from the main house, and two smaller seasonal structures, one that serves as Laurie’s work space during warmer months. The architecture feels authentic to the longtime farm, but it didn’t when they bought the place.

“The historic integrity had been lost over the years. The previous owners didn’t keep it up. They rented out portions of it; there was gold lam é wallpaper in the foyer,” Marc says. “We insulated, rewired, replumbed. We very boldly did the architecture ourselves.”

The Browns’ blueprint for a seamless transformation to twenty-first-century living is simple: attention to period detail, employment of traditional handicrafts, use of historic paint colors, and perhaps most importantly, sensitivity to the surroundings.

“The most successful architecture is respectful to where it is,” says Marc, who has been researching the three-hundred-year history of the property, which he and Laurie bought in 1988. He recalls that time: “Something about it called out to me. The location was so appealing. I couldn’t believe what it had....It was the closest thing to heaven, and we could walk through the woods to the beach.”

Laurie relates how they oversaw the renovation of the Vineyard Haven house while still living in their former home in Hingham, even picking out paint colors in absentia. Now that they’ve lived here awhile, and the last of their three children has left home, she’s begun repainting the rooms.

A few years ago, she turned her attention to a former two-stall horse barn and chicken coop on the property, with an eye toward making it into a new art space for herself. She collaborated with Hutker Architects’ Gerrit Frase in Vineyard Haven to convert it into a working art studio. Vintage cupboards, shelves, and work tables contain the craft, office, hardware, and sewing supplies that fill her three-season studio, an open space with many windows and white-painted walls, anchored by two stately columns near one end.

Marc’s studio occupies the top floor of a 1930s cow barn with a three-bay garage below. During World War II, he says, the former property owner brought friends’ children over to the farm from London to keep them safe during wartime bombing, and converted the cow barn to serve as their schoolhouse. Today the one-time schoolroom is spacious and open, with large dormers and a red painted checkerboard floor. Marc likes to work standing up at a wide drawing table stocked with wooden trays of paints and pencils and pastels. Painted game boards, a wooden sign in the shape of giant spectacles for a long-ago eye doctor, and other colorful folk art line the walls. It feels like a grown-up version of a creative child’s dream playroom, a connection that isn’t lost on Marc.

“I love that children went to school here,” Marc says, “and I love that cows once lived downstairs.”