Meet Bailey VanKirk, oil painter and owner of Desdemona’s Art Gallery in the village of Marblehead.
VanKirk, 31, grew up on the Marblehead peninsula and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art and painting from Kent State University. She lived for a few years in Cleveland, which she calls “the city,” and dabbled in taxidermy. (“I was trying to figure out what to do with an art degree.”) But she moved back to take over Desdemona’s from her mother, artist Laura A. Brown. (VanKirk’s stepfather is former Plain Dealer outdoors columnist D’Arcy Egan.) The gallery shows her and her mother’s paintings, as well as beach glass jewelry, lake décor and work by up to 10 local artists at a time.
VanKirk and her husband, James Cagle, bought a 104-year-old building for the gallery and moved into the residential space on the second story. She can walk to the Kelleys Island ferry and the Marblehead lighthouse. And she plans to never leave again.
Read on for VanKirk’s take on the solitude of the winter, the craziness of the summer and Lake Erie in every season.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What was it like to grow up on Marblehead?
The lake is everything. My family was a marina family; we owned Channel Grove Marina for 90 years. I lived in neighborhood with my entire family. We all had boats, and the beach was right there. We got to enjoy everything the tourists get to enjoy. If we wanted a Cedar Point day, it was right there We had this amazing resource in our backyard.
You’re just drenched in opportunities for fun, as a kid. All of it was amazing.
Is Marblehead different than when you were a kid?
Yes, completely. Then, basically one guy owned a half-dozen buildings in the village. The aesthetic was all kind of the same. He left six or seven years ago and we had a huge slowdown in the village. A lot of the people who owned business were a little older and followed the tradition of living in Florida for six months.
A couple of years ago, Rocky Point Winery opened up. New stores came. We’re on this big, big upswing. The last of the vacant buildings in our little village sold.
Everybody’s really working together. We get tons of compliments on our warm, communal energy. Everybody’s focused on the same thing, and people are really appreciative of that.
Did you always know you’d move back?
Yes. I missed the lake, missed the beach. The city was fun but really, really missed proximity to the local scene. Now when I do have an hour I can go to the beach or walk to the lighthouse.
There were 58 in my graduating class. Now people from my generation of high school are starting to move back. The median age in our area is 51, but I’m noticing younger people are kind of trickling in. More people missing it and wanting to come back.
It’s probably not as convenient. It’s pricier, it’s farther away from stuff, it’s essentially one road around the peninsula. I love it. And as for jobs, a lot of people make their own.
Did you know you wanted to take over the gallery?
I’ve always been a painter. I probably do an even split of landmarks and nature. I do commission work from all over the world. But I do so much local stuff, I cannot see myself ever getting bored.
I stepped in to the gallery when my mom’s best friend was stepping out. I didn’t think my career was going to go that way. I knew I was going to paint. I didn’t know that I was also going to be behind the counter. I didn’t know I would be selling nautical décor. But I love where my life has fallen.
What’s Marblehead like in the winter?
I get asked that question all the time. It’s really nice. It’s a totally different vibe. I’ll joke and tell people, have you have seen The Shining?
I get that winter time to be in my studio, to have a little quiet and recharge and get some serious work done. I get to breathe and enjoy. Even though it’s freezing – and this winter especially is a cold one — it’s great. You get the place to yourself. You get to stretch your legs. I have two dogs. I’ll take them to the beach. It’s just, no people. You get to really have the lay of the place.
People are really interested in it, especially this season with the ice shoves. People have been coming up, looking for things to do, just to see what it’s like.
There’s been a ton of footage between north point of Catawba and South Bass Island, where there’s maybe 1,000 shanties. It was crazy.
I do not ice fish. I personally, I’m going to stay inside and work on painting and give the fish a little rest.
But I’ve stood on the ice. It’s definitely creepy to stand on top of it, to look at the land from a different vantage point.
When do the tourists come?
All of it is completely weather dependent. The built-in traffic that comes with the tourist area is definitely Memorial Day to Labor Day. Couples start coming out in the fall, after the families clear out. We have an active merchants group that hosts events.
And where should you go if you’re a tourist?
I joke and call myself the information kiosk, I get so many questions. I ask back, what are you looking for?
Some people don’t even know Lake Erie has islands. Some just want to know weird history about landmarks. If someone’s in my store long enough I will talk their ear off about whatever they want to know.
The lighthouse is mandatory, pretty much. The Hidden Beach Bar is a new place on the water and hard to get to. I’ve been giving directions to it all year and I still can’t really explain it.
I love all of it. I meet so many people who have been coming up here for so many years, and they have so much ingrained nostalgia.
Do locals complain about the traffic in the summer?
You definitely learn to leave your house 20 minutes earlier, and don’t count on being able to make that left-hand turn.
If that makes you nuts, don’t worry. Winter’s going to come and you’re going to be the only car on the road some days. It’s just part of life.