Turquoise, blue and green waves undulate across the walls. Bright colored wooden sea creatures float in these summery seas. Every coastal icon the mind can imagine has a presence in This Little Cottage Crafters, a new shop in Frisco on Hatteras Island. Not far from the sea itself, the gallery is a cheerful stop for folks looking for all-weather décor for their seaside home, or something to take home as a reminder of the restorative qualities of the coast.
At the heart of the shop is Laurell James, who is no stranger to retail. Before opening this venue, she ran This Little Cottage on the island, a lady’s boutique that included bedding, linens and more. “I had furniture in my store,” James says. She remembers telling her husband, “You can do this. You can make this.” They merged their strengths and formed a woodworking partnership that resulted in opening the new shop.
James’ husband, already a furniture maker was instrumental in teaching her how to work with wood. “I came home one day and there were scraps in the trash can,” she says. It reminded her of fish tail scraps one can see at a marina. She fooled around with the wooden pieces leftover from her husband’s furniture making and fashioned a funky fish. “So, I started picking up all his scraps,” she says. “I can do something with these.” Her husband taught her how to use the band saw. It was trial and error and took a lot of practice learning which saw blades would allow her to make the right cuts — some more intricate and tight than others.
After learning the tricks of the trade, James went full blown into the craft and created multiple lines of creatures and coastal iconography in a variety of sizes and colors that delight gallery goers.
She already had a passion and skill for drawing and started sketching sea-life patterns that could be transferred to the wood. Before long they closed the original shop. James was encouraged by a fellow artist to do art festivals, and for the last six years they have been travelling up and down the eastern seaboard offering their furniture and wall art. It was a good move for the family as her son was approaching school age. Home schooling became a viable option. Everything changed come Hurricane Matthew. “We had 44 inches in the woodshop,” James says. Fortunately, her brother had just purchased property in Frisco and made available a storefront with a room for woodworking. This Little Cottage Crafters set down roots, and the space became filled with delightful creations hand-crafted by the couple.
The James’ design the furniture together — tables with shell-shaped tops, a children’s “fish” picnic table, single, double and triple Adirondack chairs, gates with sailboat cutouts, headboards featuring whales, fish, sea stars, flamingos and boats, swings, high-top tables and high-top deck chairs, screen doors with sea stars, picture frames, shutters, and awnings. “We do a lot of custom work,” she says. He tends to the engineering and functionality of the trade. She makes things look attractive. He does all the assembling and painting. She has an artist’s eye and draws the patterns and does the cutting and shaping.
They use only pressure treated pine and exterior paint. James feels confident about the materials and hasn’t had any customers complain about weathering. “It’s really encouraging that people buy stuff and it lasts,” she says.
The creative duo craft a variety of creatures including fish, crabs, seahorses, octopus, sea stars, sand dollars, jellyfish, mermaids, whales, dolphin and sharks. They also create lighthouses, butterflies, sailboats, daisies, pelicans and a line of Christmas images.
The wall art comes to life with a varied palette of colors including, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, various shades of blue, and purple, grey and white. If you see something you like, but want it in a different color, you are in luck.
The shop demands a lot of work, and James has employed some help. The couple still does about 30 art shows a year including several in Avon, the Manteo Farmer’s Market, New World Festival of the Arts in Manteo and Holly Days at the Episcopal church in Southern Shores. It’s hard work, but satisfying. “I loved being able to take the drawing I’ve done and cut it out and put it on wood and be the finished product,” James says.
It’s a true coastal and entrepreneurial island experience.
Mary Ellen Riddle has been writing the Coast’s art column for more than 20 years and brings to her work a BFA in painting from East Carolina University and a profound passion for the role the arts play in society.