Jen: What year did you arrive in St.John and what circumstances brought you here?
Catherine: Well, I bought land here in March of 2003, and moved here permanently in July of 2004. Over the course of that year I probably came to St.John about 6 different times to walk my land and to work with the architect designing the House of Open Arms.
Real Practical Advice on Being Your Own Contractor in the VI
Jen: You were your own contractor and foreman during the construction of your house. That takes a lot of grit, guts and strength as a single woman or even as a man. What advice would you give to others who are looking to build their dream home in the VI?
“The truth…allow yourself to cry.”
(laughs) I mean it!
Jen: (laughs) Did you do a lot of crying while building your house?
Catherine: (laughs) Yes I did. I probably cried every other day. Allow yourself to realize that (building your house) is probably not going to go right the first time, and you will probably have to redo many things. Really the best advice would be, the closer you can be to the project with your tool belt on, the better the chance you have of not running up huge error bills. The “oopps factor” is huge here. I would often tell the people working on my sight that “I am here but I am not watching you, I am here sealing and sanding and I’m probably 20 feet away from you so if you have a question, you need to come ask me. And if you don’t ask me, and the plans aren’t clear and there is an error we are going to have to talk about who is going to pay for it.” This is hind sight – but I would say “if there is even a hint of a question come find me!” The problem with all that bravado is that if you’re not careful, the person you are dealing with might just walk off your sight and then you will be left with no one to help you and you’ll be doing it yourself. So its definitely a balancing act.
“You need to realize there are always going to be mistakes that will need to be fixed and that’s one of the reasons why it costs so much to build on St.John.”
Jen: Yah, I was just interviewing Andy Rutnik who as you know has been a realtor and developer here for the past 30 years and he quoted the price to build on St.John at $600 per square foot!
Catherine: I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. Its a huge amount of money.
Learning to Live Simply and With Gratitude
Jen: You live pretty simply even though your house is magnificent, comfortable and beautiful. It has everything you could possibly want in comforts. Up until recently your house was completely off the grid. What is the one modern convenience you could not live without?
Catherine: Mmmmmm, I think the one thing I really, really love, I think its 2 things actually Jen! One is my solar refrigerator – I got that early on. It was just great to have a real refrigerator verses an ice box, which is what I had for the first 2 years I was here building. The other is a working bathroom.
“You know I lived for 2 years on the sight without sewer or electric or water! “
I would take a shower with a gallon of water at 6 in the afternoon after everyone had left. It was enough and it was was warm, BUT the pleasure of have a working bathroom with a shower and a refrigerator are the 2 things I would not want to live without again! Even without an oven, you can always grill your food. I just wouldn’t want to live without a refrigerator and I LOVED when I got my bathroom. (laughs)
Jen: Wow, doing what you did on St.John must have given you such a tremendous amount of gratitude and appreciation for the little things. I mean you ask someone stateside the same question and you know the answer could be quite different. “Well, I just couldn’t live without my Prada hand bag”. (both laugh) It really puts things into perspective when you think about how the majority of the world does not have access to electricity and running water on a regular basis.
Catherine: Right, and most often when you go visit a 3rd world country to help build like through Habitat for Humanity for example, quite often they don’t have a refrigerator or a working bathroom, so living like this you really get to appreciate how the majority of people live! I mean I only lived like that for 2 years but people live like that their whole lives!
[Interested in this topic? Please check out this link for information and inspiration on a world changing plan that is trying to bring fresh water and electricity to millions of impoverished people around the world billionsinchange.com]
Hospitality Comes with a Hot Meal
Jen: You run a successful Inn called House of Open Arms. One of the things that makes House of Open Arms so different than the majority of other VI Inns is that you actually cook for your guests the evening they arrive. Did this idea come from first hand experience? We all know how challenging it can be to get to St.John. Did you just say, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a meal ready for someone after spending all day getting here?”
Catherine: Well, I never didn’t offer a welcome meal to my guests. It really was based on my own travel experiences around the world and what I would have liked upon arrival. I mean, we would travel 14 hours and the very first thing we would do after arriving was to look at each other, exhausted and want to find a place eat. You know food is a comfort thing. Its the way you settle in and say “I’m here”.
“I think food a very natural way that people settle into their environments. So as an Inn Keeper, I wanted to gift my guests with that.”
To me, it was the greatest gift of hospitality that I could give. I knew they would be tired and I knew they would relish that gift and feel cherished and that is what I really wanted. Also, as you know I live here, and I think that St. John is not really conducive to having a schedule – breakfast between 8:30-11, activities between 1-3 etc. People want to make their own schedules so they can get out and explore the beaches and trails. This is why I also drop off homemade granola and coffee in the morning for my guests and why I didn’t want to be a traditional bed and breakfast…because guests schedules should be their own. I want people to know that I am basically a concierge for them and I’m very interested in making sure my guests feel welcome and comfortable.
Jen: And they do! You just have to look at the reviews of “House of Open Arms” on Trip Advisor or Home Away and that is how people feel “well cared for, cherished”.
Not to Miss Activities
Jen: You treat your guest like family but when your family comes to visit, what activities do you recommend they do while here?
Catherine: Well, I think that it’s great to rent a boat while you are here. It’s an incredibly beautiful island and if you can get out on the water and look back at the island, that is not to be missed. And with a boat you can visit places you can only get to by boat and the snorkeling is outstanding. Even if you rent a dingy for the day, just so you can look back at the island. This is the number one thing I consistently do with family. Number 2? We have the most incredible snorkeling here as I mentioned and the unique ability on this island to hike to some of these snorkel spots with just your water shoes and an apple and your mask and go snorkeling at a beach where you just may be the only person there! The hiking/swimming/snorkeling combo is a rare thing and we have over 20 beaches like that here which is another wonderful and unique thing about St.John.
The Art of Story Telling With Clay
Jen: Part of your dream of living on St.John was to be a working artist as well as an inn keeper. You’ve managed to create a whole separate and very successful business Art of Open Arms. In art circles in St.John you are best known for your unique wall sconces, but you didn’t start off with pottery as your main medium. Before moving to St. John you were starting to be recognized as a water color artist and had some very successful shows in San Diego. In what direction are you taking your art now?
Catherine: Oh that’s interesting because I think I have done sconces now for 12 years. I started doing them right away because I was making them for my own house and when people saw what I was doing they wanted them for their own houses. I never starting out thinking I was going to be a sconce artist, it just unfolded and I went with it. At the moment, I have no sconce orders for next year and I’m really excited by that because now I’m thinking I will have the time to explore other things in my art. My guests are always asking for my work and I haven’t had time to do anything because I was always making sconces for houses. So I think this year is a transition year for me and if I have the courage, I would like to explore those unknown elements of pottery that I haven’t had the opportunity to yet. I really love drawing and “low relief” drawing…the slip and then carving back, its one of my favorite mediums. I think because
“I’m a story teller and pottery allows me that process of story telling much like painting.”
So I don’t know if I’ll have the time but I’d like to think that I will go back to painting water colors and doing pottery for my guest.
Jen: Just you talking about you being a story teller and a potter reminds me of the very successful art show you did with Kimberly Boulon at her gallery last year. You did these elegant vessels with a story carved on the outside of them. What were they. Urns?
Catherine: Yes, yes they were urns. It was a St.John story about the slaves in the 1700s. It was the story of the West Indies and the culture that developed and their strong faith. The vessels were done in black and white. The insides were creamy white to represent eternity and hope and the outside was matt stained and carved back to white and depicted in a tiered section, the old world, the women being slaves working in the field and some of the petroglyphs here and the current faith which is a huge part of the west indies culture. Church, community, family, praising god – their favorite saying used almost like a greeting to one another is “God is good all the time, all the time God is good.” Its really quite lovely.
Inspiring Strong Women in Art
Jen: If you could meet any artist living or dead who would it be?
Catherine: (laughs) That is such a great question. There are so many, there are so many that I am intrigued with. One of the painters I was so intrigued with was Mary Cassatt. The reason is that she was a rare female painter in her day. She did a lot of portraits of mothers and children and that was the only real venue she had access to in a very limited masculine painting world. And, her work has stood the test of time. If I could go back and talk to her I would ask her about her heart! She never married, she never had children of her own. I feel like there is a story about Mary Cassatt that isn’t known and she must have been a very strong woman and very passionate about her art.
Jen: Mmmm sounds familiar.
Jen: What does family mean to you?
Catherine: My family? (Laughs) I think family comes in a lot of different forms. For me House of Open Arms is a kind of family. I have guests that come back every year and sometimes we bond and that changes both of our lives and for that I’m very grateful because my blood family lives so far away. I really only get to see them, if I’m lucky, 2x year. I have a son and his lovely wife and 2 grandchildren in California and a daughter pursuing her own art in Vermont. I think I would be very sad if I didn’t have such a full life making in roads with my friends and guests here on St.John. I think that helps balance being far away from my family.
Jen: Tell us about a unique or quirky habit of yours?
Catherine: (laughs) I use my hands a lot when I’m speaking!
Jen: (laughs) Are you using them now?
Catherine: (laughs) Yes I am! I’m very expressive with my hands. I think I also punctuate a lot of what I say with laughter. I also think that one of my most quirky habits is that when I’m afraid I will laugh and sometime that will come across as totally and completely inappropriate but its my fear. I feel horrible when it happens but thats how I handle fear, with laughter.
Phone #: 340-715-3001
Email: email@example.comTags:art, building on St.John, living on St.John, pottery