I met Annie Thomas in the‘90s when we both worked at a small software firm in Northern California. Annie was in Marketing and wore cowboy boots. She was a buoyant, fun and funny colleague, adept at making lovely handmade books for friends, and hand-drawn cards for her friends.
She went to Montana to experience life and work on a friend of a friend’s ranch in the Boulder River valley for a summer, liked it, quit her software job in California, and moved the Montana in the summer of 1999.
Long story, short: Annie now lives outside McLeod, Montana with her husband, Tom. She has lived in Montana for over 20 years now–a feat for anyone moving to rural Montana from big cities with all their diversions and cultural activities.
I wanted to talk to her about the art of making a home–especially in the wilds where the nearest store in 30 minutes away, and about her many creative pursuits and how she keeps them going…
TH: You’re from Philadelphia but spent 10 years in California where you worked in Marketing and PR in outdoor recreation book publishing, including a stint with the San Francisco Bay Area Book Festival, as an editing intern for the Whole Earth Catalog, and in the software industry. What were some of the creative activities you were especially proud of in your California days?
AT: Throughout my career, I was fortunate that my jobs offered the opportunity to use a variety of well-loved skills: writing and editing; designing and layout, event planning and promotion and even cooking. It’s interesting, at least to me, because as a kid, those same skills brought me much joy. I was able to incorporate all that into my professional life.
I delight in bringing “things” together whether it be people or food ingredients or strange and unusual items into artwork, collage-making in many forms, I guess you could say.
I find so many interesting things on my long hikes in the mountains and hills of Montana and incorporate them into different projects: mini-books, boxes, bowls, etc. All the items are so beautiful to me and have something meaningful to bring to whatever I make. Usually for others. I rarely keep anything.
“Let the beauty we love be what we do…” –Rumi
TH: Have you always been creative–making cards, little handmade books for friends, quilts, etc.? Were your parents creative?
AT: Yes, I’ve always been creative. I think I would go crazy if I couldn’t make stuff, or paint or draw or cook.
My father was an artist. He grew up very poor, so could not pursue those skills professionally. But he painted on weekends and taught me to draw and use paints, and he gave me encouragement. He loved being in Nature and took me with him on trips to the mountains, feeding my love of the outdoors and the closeness I felt–and still feel–to Spirit.
My mother was a remarkable seamstress and made beautiful clothing. She also played piano and sang beautifully. She had a great Irish wit, loved to write, and her humor kept us laughing into our older age. She was also deeply spiritual and wise; one of the kindest people I’ve known. A fighter for the underdogs, for sure. That compassion allowed her to create beautiful and safe places for so many who suffered. No surprise that she was a nurse. She was an avid letter writer/storyteller, and I still have all her letters.
The cards, boxes and little books of poems I make are to sooth and bring comfort to friends or to make them laugh. They’re always symbolic. Because I’ve always loved textiles, I mix various and unusual materials with poetry to make the books. Each one takes quite a bit of time because each book is specific to the recipient. I usually just let ideas come to me as I think of the person I am producing it for.
TH: Describe the process by which an idea comes to you for making something–is it a thought? Or a feeling? Or the sight of something that sparks your consciousness into creating a doodle, or a plan for a piece?
AT: It’s all three. Something reminds me of someone or some experience, and a spark lights up. And I because I love to make funny stuff and make people laugh, I begin thinking about puns I could use, and I play with, and twist words.
I am also drawn (excuse the pun) to dark things. Sad things. In 2000, I bought an ammo belt at an auction in town despite the fact that I do not like guns. It hung on the wall for years, but I knew that an idea would come; political in nature of course. When the horrors of gun violence at Columbine and school shootings occurred, the work began. It’s still a work-in-progress, but is an example of how seeing something sparks a project.
I keep projects within sight around the house for inspiration. And when “the monkey” (monkey mind) is quiet, my mind opens to a flow of ideas.
My motivation comes down to wanting to help people feel joy, or to acknowledge their grief and to feel deeply. Poetry always does that for me. So does humor, even in the toughest of times–maybe that comes from my mother. I know I can’t fix things, but if I can take action—make something–to lighten someone’s sorrows, or acknowledge them, it is the most profound opportunity and gift to give.
TH: OK, I can’t get over how you find SO MANY heart-shaped rocks in this rock-strewn environment! I spent a few days there and never saw any hearts, despite looking REALLY hard! When did your collection start, and how many of these beauties do you have now?
AT: Oh, my old heart rock collection. I remember wanting to open a cafe just so I could call it Heart Rock Café, and cover the walls with heart rocks. I still might do that…
I can’t remember when I started collecting heart-shaped rocks. Maybe 2004. I developed spotting skills from mushroom hunting. Spotting them is like playing Finding Waldo. If I just stare long enough, they pop out. I just concentrate on the shape when I am out for walks, and there they are.
There are about 75-100 heart-shaped rocks around the house and outside. I gave many away. Which brings me to a good story, perhaps even metaphor for giving away cherished things.
My cousin came to visit. She’s a cardiac nurse. After two days, she remarked on the quantity of heart rocks in the house. I had one that was red and absolutely perfectly formed. It was indeed a real find. She could not stop admiring it and how something like that could be found in Nature.
The day before she left, I gave that heart rock to her. It was my favorite and the most perfect I’d ever found. She fought with me about giving it away, but I felt it belonged to her. After all, she was working with hearts all day long. Maybe the rock would give her strength when she needed it. I doubted I’d ever find another like it.
Later that day, I took her for a ride through the Boulder Valley and we stopped along the river to walk. It was a beautiful day. The sky was bright blue, the air cool, the river lapping the boulders, and so peaceful and quiet… until she yelled. There at her feet was a perfectly shaped heart rock at least four times the size of the one I gave her. It wasn’t red, but it didn’t matter. It was perfectly shaped.
We grabbed a shovel, dug it out of the sandy bank and hauled it home. Every day I look at that huge heart rock on my desk and smile. The size of that heart was big, like my cousin’s.
She keeps her little red heart rock on her desk at the hospital. It brings joy to everyone who sees it. And she tells them the story.
I believe it’s in the giving that the giver receives much more in return.
TH: I know you spent a few years here in Montana doing quilting. How did the idea of quilting come to you? Did you have to learn to sew first or did you already know how? What kind of quilts did you make–traditional patterns, or your own ideas for a quilt? Can you talk a bit about one quilt you made and how it came into being?
AT: When I moved here in 1999, the women I met were all quilters. They did traditional quilts and were kind enough to teach me. My first quilt was a wedding gift for a dear friend who was, herself, a seamstress. I was nervous and excited to make it for her. It was of course, one of the hardest but most beautiful patterns to sew; Trip Around the World. I spent many days, weeks, and months pulling out my hair along with stitches, until it was finished. Those great and patient women will never know how indebted I am… They worked long, long days but found time to help me.
After that first one, I made four others like it in different tones. In total, I made about 25+ quilts and then, just like that, stopped. I lost interest in traditional designs and moved on to an art story quilt of my maternal ancestors. It took about 10 years to come to the design stage. Over that time, I gathered ideas and materials, and family stories until I could actually see the quilt in my mind. And then I began to make it. It’s now hanging in my art room. I’m going to do trapunto on a few cloth photos of my great-grandmother, Fanny.
I knew I could not rush it. It was a good teacher because I am impatient and want to get things done, but this showed me that had I rushed through, it would not have turned out. I approach all my creative work like that now. I am much more observant, patient and let things simmer, like a good soup. Being older helps too.
TH: Your whole house–inside and out–and the garage–has such a beautiful vibe to it with all your “signatures:” sayings tacked to doors and walls, beautiful arrangements of dried fruits, collections of heart rocks, barbed wire sculptures, photographs, paintings… When you come to your house, you can feel the East Coast angst lift off your shoulders and your soul expanding into the beauty of it all. Can you tell us a little about your decorating aesthetic and how you’ve made this house a home that is so YOU?
AT: I grew up in Philadelphia in a large, warm, gregarious extended Irish family. We all lived close to each other and there was much laughter and love. I had a great childhood, and my relationships were and are very important to me. I get very attached to where I am, and it becomes part of me. Of all of us, really. So I have photos of family and friends around me, and things that remind me of people or places I’ve been.
My home must have Nature residing in every room. It feels wholesome to me to bring that energy inside. I surround myself with things that have great energy and people do really feel it. They feel comfortable right away. And it’s fun because there all sorts of unusual things around the house that pique their curiosity, which leads to questions and then of course, the stories. Aren’t stories how we deeply connect? Isn’t it marvelous to have someone tell you a good story?
Muriel Rukeyser said, “The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” Imagine.
I carry inside me the life I experience in Nature. Bringing different forms of Nature inside my home is the way to do it visually. I find so many cool and unusual things on my hikes. Also the air is very dry here so I buy fruits and vegetables that dry quickly, like artichokes, oranges, lemons and limes. They make beautiful fillers in bowls and the twig wreaths I make.
When something catches my eye, I pay attention. Especially old furniture and unique pieces. I wonder what the story is behind it. Their spirit is very meaningful. There is a different kind of spirit in old stuff, shall we say, that is not present in newer things.
I still have my grandfather’s tools which are around the house. The patina is beautiful on the wooden handles. To know that his hands touched them is pretty amazing. He died before I was born. He was a blacksmith and a gardener. A man of many skills as they were back then. He and my grandmother were funny, witty people. I still have letters that she wrote on the old onion skin paper and keep them in a beautiful old wooden box that belonged to them.
I also have my old toy box. It is designed like a treasure chest, complete with a pirate painted on the top. It’s filled with over 35 years of letters from family and friends. That is a treasure for sure and to me, a beautiful piece of art. Hardly anyone writes letters anymore.
These objects keep me connected to my roots and my family and friends.
Many of the paintings around our house were done by friends and inspire me.
My husband is a painter and he and I are painting more now as we get older and have more time. I’m still a beginner painter. It took a long time to buck the negative voice in my head, and I still deal with it, but age is such a good friend. I don’t worry anymore whether a painting is “good” or “bad” or who likes it or not. I just need to do it because it connects me inward and feeds me.
“Don’t ask what the world needs.
Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that.
Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
– Howard Thurman
TH: What advice would you give someone who wants to create something but doesn’t know “if” they are creative, if they should try, or even how to take the first step?
AT: I can tell you that I struggled with this for most of my life. I grew up in a working class family, second generation granddaughter of immigrants, and the first to attend college. That was a big deal and although fortunate in many ways, a working class kid couldn’t pursue art. We went to college to get a good job. I am not sure that the message has changed much. I hope it has.
As I mentioned earlier, as a kid, I loved art, cooking, acting, and writing, gardening, and poetry and singing, and organizing. I wanted very much to study art, but it wasn’t to be, at least not then. But I never gave up and dabbled here and there, did theatre, wrote, cooked and catered, and made sure that I could use those skills in my field. Marketing and PR gave me that opportunity. And I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to all the people who encouraged me to do what I loved over the years, so I passed it forward, as they say.
I saw young people struggling with the same issues. Because of my experience, I became a sort of coach (something I had not had), to encourage young people to pursue what they love. That love might get quiet at times, but it will always be there. I encouraged them to listen to their own voice over all the other naysayers.
And I share Martha Graham’s words which saved me:
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you
into action, and there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique,
and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium; and be lost.
The world will not have it.
It is not your business to determine how good it is,
not how it compares with other expression.
It is your business
to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work.
You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate you.
Keep the channel open.
No artist is pleased. There is no satisfaction whatever at any time.
There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”