By Elke Dorr
STONINGTON, MAINE – Passion and life’s work are often mutually exclusive ideas. For Michael Connors, a long-time summer resident of Stonington and proprietor of the art and antiques gallery Eagull, the two are inextricably linked.
In a recent interview he reveals how his passion has been the very force responsible for shaping the direction of his work and life. Connors’ passion? The decorative arts of island cultures, a passion that has propelled his multi-faceted career as historian, lecturer, consultant, gallery owner, and writer with several books and numerous articles to his credit. Moreover, Connors’ passion has taken him to, exotic island locations where he has pursued his interest in the stylish furniture and other decorative arts to be found there, as well as the complex cultural and political history they reflect.
What began as a desire to make his living as a painter evolved to exploring a general interest in antique furniture and ultimately to the study of the furniture and decorative arts of very particular places: the islands of the Caribbean. But such a description only skims the surface of a passion that has consumed most of Connors’ life, in an evolution that had its origins in his desire to paint. Following his graduation from college with a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in fine arts, Connors said, he opened a gallery featuring his own art work in the hope of making his living as an artist. When those paintings didn’t sell, he said he decided to add some antiques to his inventory, primarily furniture from Maine. Much to his surprise, the antiques “flew out the door.” The shop was so successful that before long, he was making wide-ranging buying trips in order to meet the demands of his growing clientele.
Coincidentally, Connors, who is also an avid sailor, traveled often to the Caribbean, and when he “ended up in St. Croix,” where for a time he taught art to elementary school students, his interests in furniture, art and antiques coalesced, as he was drawn irresistibly by that island’s colonial-era furniture and decorations. Earning a Ph.D. in decorative arts from New York University followed, as did the opening of a gallery in Manhattan, where he also maintains an apartment, featured in the September 2007 issue of Traditional Home magazine. Over the years, Connors also has developed and taught courses at the Metropolitan Museum (NYC), has published widely in such magazines as Art and Antiques and Architectural Digest, and has even designed a line of furniture for Baker, which reflects the colonial-style of the West Indies.
Connors remarked that when his first book, Caribbean Elegancewas published in 2002, “it was a groundbreaker” in the field. Until that time, no one had seriously studied the furniture and other decorative arts of the islands, nor traced the historic developments influencing their style and ornamentation in the way he did. Most books in the genre were primarily coffee table books offering readers lavish photographs, but containing little substantive information to explain the evolution of style, materials and construction. A second book in what has evolved into a three-book series was published two years later. InCuban Elegance (2004), Connors used a similar approach as he did with its predecessor, examining the evolution of the furniture via a retrospective socio-political lens. He distills for his readers Cuba’s often turbulent history – 400 years of which it experienced as a colonial possession – in order to reveal how that history influenced the expression of a unique island style.
Traveling to Cuba and conducting research into its material culture, however, has been a very different experience for Connors from traveling in the French West Indies. While he points out that four flights leave Miami each day for Cuba, our nation’s embargo and travel ban against Cuba prevent U.S. citizens from visiting there as tourists. One may only travel to Cuba for humanitarian or academic reasons. Connors commented that he never entered the country in any way but legally, and that he goes through the proper political channels required. He has never been denied access to Cuban archives, he explained, though during early visits to the country, he and his crew were watched until the authorities were convinced Connors was doing the work he said he was there to do. He added that he has never felt “constrained by the Cuban government,” does not get involved at all in political issues, but simply “stick[s] to the decorative arts.”
Organized Chronologically by century, Cuban Elegance draws on old maps as well as journals, letters and other records to provide the historical background that significantly influenced the furniture and decoration. Elegant photographs of furniture, arranged in the homes and locations Connors visited, represent the bulk of the book. No quick snapshots, these photos are the result of a team effort. Connors commented that he travels with a crew comprised of himself, a photographer, an assistant and an interpreter, the latter necessary since Connors is not fluent in Spanish or French.
There is a story attached to nearly every photograph, he remarked, and often significant rearranging of a scene. For example, in one photo a horse stands just outside the enormous, floor-to-ceiling window of a room whose floor is ornamented with hand-painted tiles, and around the perimeter are placed ornately carved and caned chairs. It is not unusual for people to travel by horse in rural areas, noted Connors. The horse, as it turns out, had been outside with its rider, but not part of the photo shoot. Connors thought the horse might inject another element of interest to the scene and asked the rider if the horse could be repositioned so that it would be partially visible through the window. The rider agreed. While the picture shows the horse appearing to wait patiently for its rider, according to Connors, that rider is actually standing just out of camera range, keeping the horse calm. The result is a photograph rich in texture and romance, yet faithful to the reality of the area, while simultaneously showcasing the ornate chairs to interesting advantage.
Most recently Connors published French Island Elegance(2006), now also available in French, in which he turned his focus on the furniture of the French West Indies. He is donating a percentage of his royalties from that book to a historical museum in Martinique. Cuban Elegance also will soon be translated into Spanish, and Connors hopes to donate a thousand copies of the book to Cuban libraries, museums, and preservation schoo;s. He emphasized his desire not “to take from the islands,” but to share the fruits of his research. Of his future plans, Connors said he recently signed a contract wit Rizzoli, a new publisher under whose imprint he will produce a two-book project, one of which will focus on archecture and the other the furniture of the British West Indies.
These days Connors continues to spend a significant part of each winter in St. Croix, that is, when he’s not traveling to other exotic islands further exploring the subject about which he can’t seem to get enough, the decorative arts on which his enduring passion is focused.