At Home in Rockport, Massachusetts
After nurturing her work within this 496-square-foot space and the surrounding grounds for 15 years, a contemporary New England artist is moving on from the charming seaside cabin.
Images: Joe St. Pierre
An artist by trade, Jenna Powell’s tiny coastal sanctuary serves not only as a home, but also as her trove of inspiration. Built on the footprint of a fishing shack and purchased by her parents in 1979, she inherited the property 15 years ago. In the time since, Jenna has transformed the once-seasonal harborside cabin into a unique home where she and rescue dog Della, a Bernese mountain dog/border collie mix, live, work, and play year round.
But now, after years of traversing Rockport and Cape Ann in search of natural materials for her art, Jenna is following her creative spirit and relocating with the help of Compass agent Christian Jones. As her time in her beloved home comes to an end, she invited us inside the delightfully petite space and offered insight into its storied past.
How did you come to live in this house?
Upon taking it over 15 years ago, I initially used it as a getaway and rented it out to friends. I moved in full-time while doing back-to-back graduate degrees and discovered it was the perfect place to make art and write two theses.
At the time, I was a sculpture technician fabricating artwork for other sculptors and taking part in a graduate program for Art Education at Lesley University. A few life-changing events prompted me to finish that degree and pursue an MFA (also at Lesley University) in order to realize my ultimate dream of teaching and becoming a serious artist. I currently teach in the Art Department at Middlesex Community College, and love it there.
Did living in this home creatively impact your work?
Absolutely. My work is influenced by site and historic industries, and Rockport has a rich history in the fishing, maritime and quarrying trades—as well as being a famous artist colony. The artwork I made while living here, Star Island Series and Sounding Patterns, use a contemporary lens to explore the same vernacular found in the more traditional art native to a coastal town.
This way of seeing and collaborating with place, history, and materials translates directly to the renovations I made to the house. It was important to work with locally sourced materials and artisans, and to ensure the aesthetics honor the existing architecture and the environment.
How has the house changed since its inception?
The house was built by a Yale-trained architect and three artisans to mirror the original fish shack; his only change was the pitch of the roof. In every other way, the scale remained the same in order to honor the original structure. My parents made a number of improvements when they owned the home; one of their tenants was a MIT-trained architect who often used his skills to barter with them for rent. He did a lot of great work, including the installation of the house’s cedar siding and the tall light post with the antique ships lantern on top.
Then in 2008, I commissioned additional exterior work, adding new windows, BEGA outdoor lighting, and a gabion-buttressed deck. [Editor’s note: gabions are wirework containers filled with broken stone and used to bolster retaining walls.] Architect Rob Trumbour and I researched the use of gabions throughout coastal communities in Europe; it was important that the structure we designed not only be gorgeous and sturdy, but also simpatico with nature. Local contractor Geoff Richon managed the entire renovation, selecting both the enormous granite slab and stone from a local quarry and hiring the talented artisans who installed it.
Six years later, I did an extensive interior renovation that included new wiring for the entire house, closed-cell green certified insulation for all exterior walls, and major renovations for the bathroom and kitchen. I adore the new kitchen windows and interior lighting by CB2 and Schoolhouse Electric.
What are your favorite spots around Rockport?
I love walking into town to the Shalin Liu Performance Center. There are only a handful of places in the country that have their acoustics, and programming includes everything from the New York’s Metropolitan opera to the Bolshoi ballet. My Place By The Sea and Roy Moore Lobster Company are fantastic places to eat and drink after a show.
As a kid growing up, I had a rowboat that I kept tied up out front. I used to paddle around the harbor, rowing in and out of the nooks and crannies. It’s a very safe town for kids, even today! My agent Christian came to the house yesterday, and his son happily explored the village while we chatted.
What are the various seasons like?
In the summer, you can sit out on the deck in the morning, watching the boats make their way to the yacht club or the groups of kids taking sailing classes. There’s a hometown parade and bonfire every 4th of July, fireworks every August, and in the winter, Santa arrives by lobster boat! Artists are drawn to Rockport because the natural light is so special here. At the end of the day, the sunset infuses the entire home. My agent, Christian made sure to arrange the pictures we took of the home around golden hour.
Initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect in the colder seasons, but it becomes a cozy and meditative space. Each season has its own gifts — in winter, I’ve even been visited by seals and swans at the foot of my stairs!
One of my favorite things to do is make a fire pit, sit outside, and look at the stars. Because we’re out on a peninsula, the darkness is all-encompassing. I’ve never seen more shooting stars in my life than I’ve seen here in November and December.
What’s next for you?
You know, I don’t know! I’m renting in Cambridge right now, but I’m hoping to buy some land — near the water, naturally — in Concord or Carlyle, or possibly much further west. However, one thing’s for sure, I am definitely going to build another tiny house.