People Places

It’s Elemental

Roll along the bends and dips of Stony Garden Road, which all by itself sounds like a place of magical monoliths as etched and curvaceous are the passage itself, and you’ll find a large studio workshop tucked neatly along the roadside edge of an expanse of woods.  If you’re the perceptive type, you’ll notice that everything about the “barnesque” building with its tall rolling doors and smaller, thoughtful details speaks volumes of the young artists who own it.  The gentleman stands head and shoulders over average height, tall and narrow as the studio opening.  His counterpart is considerably smaller with fine features that shimmer when she smiles.

The studio is two levels, one open and one lofted, to match the house that is situated privately further back on the property – past the henhouse and the goats.  On the first floor of the studio, large equipment abounds.  As large as the artist who puts to them to work.  The loft above features pretty, sliding French doors that open to a neater, smaller space where the instruments of art are handheld.  What seems like a catalog of opposites meet neatly in a center of the softest and strongest things on Earth: the simple, ancient, and formidable elements of love and metal.

Metal artists Carolyn Keys Hanisch and Justin Long of Kintnersville PA in their shared workshop. Image by Kristina Gibb.

Carolyn Keys Hanisch and Justin Long could have intersected a thousand times in their youth.  They both attended the same small high school and college.  But where Justin’s path was linear and direct, Carolyn’s meandered like a path through the woods of their eight rocky acres.

justin wall
Justin’s workshop resides on the first floor.    Image by Kristina Gibb.

Justin, the son of a scientist and an artist, moved to Bucks County in middle school and worked hard to overcome the challenges of a learning disability.  He attended the Solebury School, where – he says – they taught him how to “learn through” those struggles and set the stage for his academic success.  Perceiving the straight shot from high school to college as a grind, Justin knew he needed to burn off some energy and have some thrills.  Not wanting their son to lose his momentum, his parents encouraged him to spend the summers before his junior and senior years of high school adventuring.  First, he traveled out west with his brother.  The following year, he went to Martha’s Vineyard where he spent a summer “squatting on public lands.”  Having scratched the itch for wanderlust, he graduated from Solebury and went straight to Alfred University.  He started off with a focus on Environmental Studies but a sculpture class changed everything.  “After that I was diehard sculpture,” he says.  “A lot of it was stonework… but also incorporating metal elements.”

small tools
Carolyn’s small tools in her loft space. Image by Kristina Gibb.

Carolyn, in contrast to Justin, “had a long and winding road.”  She started in Haycock, a short distance from where the couple resides now.  Her mother was in business management but her father was a woodworker and architect, and Carolyn grew up immersed in his art.  She attended several high schools – including Solebury, was home schooled for a time, and spent her senior year on exchange in Mexico.  Upon returning, she discovered that her complete but migratory education left her without the option of a standard diploma unless she wanted to root herself and attend for an extra year.  Not wanting to sit through additional and ultimately unnecessary time in high school, she opted for a GED and moved on to the University of Puget Sound in Washington.  It wasn’t long before the wind took Carolyn again.  This time to Alfred University, passing through just ahead of Justin – not staying long enough to catch him.  Unsure of her direction, she put college on hold and moved to Philadelphia “for a few years until I figured out what I wanted to do.”

Stark contrasts in size of Carolyn’s work and tools. Images by Kristina Gibb.

Once she locked in on her target, she picked up her education at Drexel University and graduated with a degree in Interior Design.  She took a job working as an architectural designer for a building firm, a job that relied heavily of computers and focused more on technology than art – a fact that would change her trajectory again in 2012.  For six years, however, Carolyn lived the city life and designed residential construction.

During those years, Justin was a world away.  Far from city and office life, he was living in rustic, historic Carversville.  He rode a small dirt bike across open fields to his workshop on a friend’s farm, where he had a gas-powered compressor because the building’s amperage was too low to run a welder.  He got breakfast and lunch at the general store, because where else is there to eat in such a small village?   He worked day in and day out on developing his skill set and his art.

justin art in barn
One of Justin’s recent pieces in the studio. Image by Kristina Gibb.

For all intents and purposes, Justin and Carolyn couldn’t have been a less likely pair.  Despite growing up a stone’s throw from one another, the various points at which they intersected, and a multitude of mutual friends, they managed to never meet and lived different lives in different places.  Then, be it by fate or inevitability, after a long series of near misses, the two were finally, formally introduced by friends and began running into each other at various social functions.

It took some time to bridge the distance, but eventually Justin started visiting Carolyn in the city.  About two years later, Carolyn decided it was time for a change and found similar work in Bucks County.  That’s when the two settled in together near Gardenville, in a turkey coop.  Yes, that’s right.  A turkey coop.  It was fully converted and had a composting toilet.  Carolyn chuckles, “Not recommended.”

“It was kind of a cool house,” Justin says with a laugh.

Rustic charm and simple elegance defines the artists’ home. Image by Kristina Gibb.

“Yeah, it was, but after a little while, it was like…” Carolyn trails off with a giggle.  As she laughs, Justin explains it was then that the couple decided to start shopping for their own home.  The search included a home in which the exceedingly tall Justin couldn’t stand upright on the second floor and a geodesic dome.  Both were interesting and had workshops, but neither fit.  Literally.  Their current home was out of price range but had been sitting on the market for a long time.  The previous owner was ready to move on and liked that Justin and Carolyn were artists, so they reached, she bent, and the deal was done.  The pair flew the coop and moved into their A-frame log cabin in the woods in 2013 – a year after they were married.

This railing and floating staircase replaced a dated spiral and simple wooden posts… one of many projects the two have collaborated on.  Image by Kristina Gibb.

Some paint, a new kitchen, and other small upgrades were done.  They removed a wood railing and spiral staircase from the loft and replaced it with floating wood stairs in metal framing – a look that captures that which is both rustic and industrial.  Once the house was finished, they set to the task of building the studio.  Justin’s business was growing and his workshop, he explains, “was in the basement.  The fumes would come up, which was not practical.”

Carolyn was still working full-time in architectural design, a field Justin had become quite familiar with on his own.  He had grown his love of metal sculpture into functional design and was working on architectural installments both locally and in New York City, “mostly in restaurants.”  Their natural coupling in this area set the course for the studio construction.  She designed it, then he – with the help of a carpenter friend – brought it to life.  The pair still works together in this fashion on functional design installations.  “That’s more his business,” she smiles proudly.  “I’m just the supporting actor.”

Justin blushes a little with obvious gratitude and modesty.  “I wish I could do more art,” he confesses, then laughs as he continues, “but I like money… I also like the challenges in constructing [functional pieces].”

The couple’s studio fits serenely into their wooded acreage that is home to their dogs, some chickens, and a few goats.  Image by Kristina Gibb.

The studio, which took about 8 months to build and was finished in early 2014, gave Justin more space and Carolyn a studio – which called to her.  She missed working with her hands.  So, she quit her job with the builder that year and spent some time exploring ways to make a living as an artist.  “I was thinking I would do some architectural design on my own, which I did and I still do…  I was just trying a bunch of things…  I played with lighting design, which is an interest I’ve had for a long time.  By the end of that year, I’d decided to focus on jewelry.  I discovered there was a good market for it.  I love the small scale and working with metal, and even the production end of it is kind of meditative.”

Today, Carolyn’s jewelry is carried in about 60 boutiques nationwide.  She travels to various trade shows throughout the year.  Justin accompanies her, in the supporting actor role.  Some of her items are handmade.  She can also work on custom designs.  The one-of-a-kind pieces are mostly experimental ones, too complex for production.  Most of her items now, she explains, are sent to a small, specialized manufacturer who casts and reproduces pieces to fill orders placed by retailers – in quantities of about 100 at a time.  One can find her work most locally at the gift shop in the lobby of the Michener Museum in Doylestown and – of course – online.

Meanwhile, Justin’s business also continues to grow.  His functional work is in increasing demand, and his art will be on display through February at Exhibit B Gallery in Souderton.  Most of his art sells at festivals, however, like Carversville Day.  “I always do very well there.”

Wanting to get back to working more with stone, Justin has now added a deck off his level of the studio.  Stone, he explains, is enjoyable but quite messy.  He laughs a little at himself as he admits the dilemma, “I don’t like dust all over my tools.”

An overhead view of the room shows Justin’s furniture. Image by Kristina Gibb.

In addition to metal and stone, Justin can also work with wood.  In fact, the large and beautiful dining room table, complete with industrial style metal legs, where we sit and the nearby bench – a seat reminiscent of Nakashima’s natural planks held by rust stained i-beam supports – are both his pieces.  Furniture is tricky, though.  Wood is less cooperative and not as easily manipulated, and it is bulkier to store.  So, his furniture has to be privately commissioned.

Image by Kristina Gibb.

As Justin explains the perils of working in wood, Carolyn nods in agreement – sometimes finishing his sentences, which they each do frequently throughout the conversation.  She has also toyed with wood and realizes its delicate and somewhat stubborn nature.  Yet the two are surrounded by it…  The wooden workshop, the log cabin, the eight acres from which they harvest maple syrup for personal consumption, right down to the wood burning stove beside which their dogs lay – one bigger, one smaller, one dark, one light.  Even the dogs are opposites.

The odd thing is that for all their inversions, they are a perfect pair.  Like the cuts of metal to the scraps they leave behind, Carolyn and Justin fit together.  Wrapped in nature, inspired by wood and stone and metal, rooted in the simple life, and following their dreams… their love for one another, like their love for their work, is simply elemental.

Image by Kristina Gibb.

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