Next to the canoe launch in the Ipswich Wildlife Nature Sanctuary, there is a grove of sweet gum trees, an ever-present reminder of how deep the mysteries of nature can run. Sweet gums—with their funky spiked seedpods that rain down in autumn—are more common along southern coastlines. But the trees flourish on the Audubon property. While a bit out of place, the exotic-looking trees have found a natural, life-giving home.
Sandra Venus, an architect turned textile designer, loves the grove, which is near her Wenham home. “It’s hearty and beautiful and quirky, all at the same time,” Venus says. “It’s an expression of design and nature. It’s protecting itself, in a beautiful way.”
The trees were a natural inspiration in Venus’s design studio, Sweetgum Textiles, where she works with local artisans to produce small-batch linens and other home items that ring with the spirit of New England. The sweet gum is just one of the nature-inspired motifs expressed in her textiles. Salt-marsh reeds, in shades of terra cotta, are hand-printed on cotton napkins. Other napkins sport images of cerulean-blue grasses, mossy-gray forest trees, and avocado-green succulents. The same expressionistic patterns pop up on tea towels, table runners, pillows, and fabric.
All have the same soft yet vibrant look and feel, homages to nature with roots in local craftsmanship and a sense of place. Venus’s background as an architect is there, too, in the textiles’ sophisticated lines and flourishes. Her overall concept, she says, is “the patterns in the built landscape and natural landscape.” Recently she was on a walk—with the sketchbook she carries most everywhere—and was struck by a fish scale pattern on a roof that will very likely end up in a textile design.
For someone who absorbs her vibrant, history-rich surroundings, Venus couldn’t have asked for a better region than New England, with its varied architecture and beautiful plant life. “I’m fascinated by sense of place, exploring the topic and how we’re drawn to certain places,” Venus says. “New England is a special place.”
Today Venus works in a home studio overlooking the flower garden of the 1940s Cape-style home she shares with her husband, Jon Richardson, an architect at Dore & Whittier in Newburyport and Burlington, Vermont, and their sons, Walter, 15, and Sam, 12.
Before settling in Wenham, Venus explored the world and its array of cultures and craftsmanship, driven by an interest in design. The first of her explorations was at the Rhode Island School of Design, where she got a degree in landscape architecture and did some painting. Before going on to graduate school for architecture in Seattle, Venus spent time in California and lived in Mexico for six months, studying anthropology, crafts, and adobe construction. “I was exposed to this concept of living your life through craft; I was captivated,” she says. The time she spent with one Mexican family who lived on Lake Patzcuaro—thought by native residents to be where the barrier between life and death is the thinnest—left a lasting imprint. Venus learned how to make adobe bricks alongside a local builder, using wet earth, dung, and straw. “Building with adobe is a very sculptural process of making a home,” she says, “so different than how we build here in New England.”
Venus moved to Oakland, California, and did odd jobs to support her first textile business, producing batik items in a home studio, including canvas sling-back chairs on wood frames that were sold in shops in New York City and Berkeley, California. While she couldn’t figure out how to make the business viable, she had the priceless experience of meeting fabric reps and other businesspeople while she learned business skills.
After marrying, Venus worked in Boston as an architect (she is licensed in the state) and had her sons. In spring 2016, the fire for craftsmanship relit, and Venus began looking at textiles again and exploring patterns. “I’d come home from work and start creating patterns,” she says. By August, she had developed a collection and launched Sweetgum Textiles. Last August, the business turned one year old and Sweetgum became her vocation and creative outlet.
Sweetgum Textiles is also a place for Venus to express her dedication to environmental principles, workers’ rights, and New England history. Her printing processes use natural fibers, including linen from Ireland and water-based ink. Printing and hand-screening are done in the region, and she works only with contractors and cut-and-sew factories that meet high standards of fair labor.
She works frequently with Griswold Textile Co. in Westerly, Rhode Island, which Venus describes as one of the few remaining flat-screen hand-printing mills left in the country. A new collaborator, Brahms Mount weaving mill in Freeport, Maine, is producing Sweetgum-designed throws. Venus’s website blog and a new venture, a publication called Place in the Making explore New England’s cultural and botanical riches.
For all our culture’s talk of social media and immediate gratification, Venus is seeing a trend toward a “makers’ movement,” a resurgence of crafts that counters our industrialized lives. “I think it has a lot to do with new technology and our attachment to screens,” she muses. “There’s a desire to get back to the tactile quality of handcrafted items.”