High Tide

The CapeMay.com blog

Art of the Island Craftsman

There is art and there is craftsmanship. Once in a while the two magically come together. This occurs when the craftsman has so mastered his or her medium that it transforms into art, functional art. The craftsmen featured have each achieved a standard of excellence in their medium which has garnered them a reputation for excellence and enabled them to earn their living doing what they love.

Mary Stewart

By day she is Chief Outreach Officer at the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC). Part of her duties involve sewing – making and mending Victorian costumes for the interpreters to wear when leading the tours through the Emlen Physick Estate. By night she works with fabric of a different nature – turning all kinds of different fabrics and beads into all kinds of useful products. Hand-knitted scarves, shawls and beaded tapestry bags are her specialty. Although we did not peek into her closets at her North Cape May home, we took her at her word that they are chock full of fabrics which she has collected over the years.

It all started with the measles. “My mom taught us all how to knit,” she said, as we photographed her sewing room. “I was six years old and we all had the measles at the same time. This was in the early days of the television age. The television was downstairs and we were [confined] to the upstairs and our bed. She lined all four of us up on the bed and taught us all how to knit. I didn’t take it up again until after she had died and I [inherited] all her needles and pattern books.”


Sewing, however, was another matter. Mary started sewing at ten years old and has never stopped. “As soon as my mom saw I had interest and aptitude,” she recalled, “she let me go with the sewing machine and I [later] made my wedding dress, my bridesmaid dresses and my sister’s wedding dress.”

Her love of functional art soon led her into designing period costumes for MAC and, not one stay idle, during the few hours of off-time she has, she began experimenting with tapestry fabric and beading for purses. Her hands are always busy, but her handiwork can be seen at any of the MAC-sponsored craft shows at Convention Hall. “I’m kind of auditioning for retirement,” she said. “I’m not planning on retiring for a long time, but I was wondering if this was a viable pastime. It keeps me busy. It satisfies me because I have a product. And, it would be a nice way to make some extra money.”

Canyon Allen

His degree is in jewelry design but as Canyon Allen says, “When they kick you out the door, you don’t have that million dollars worth of equipment to make the jewelry and it’s really hard to get into that field.” So he decided to make pretzels. As part-owner of Auntie Anne’s Pretzels in Carpenter’s Square Mall, Canyon one day decided he needed to be doing something a little more creative. So, he went to the library and discovered a book on soap making – the old fashioned way. The way your grandmother, make that great-grandmother, made it. In the “olden days” the women gathered up all the fat, be it bacon or other cooking fats, added lye and made one large chunk of soap which the family used the rest of the year.


“I thought that was really cool,” said Canyon just as he was about to start the big mixer – a prelude to pouring the soap into the plastic molds. “So I tried it, but used olive oil instead, which is really great for your face. It was right around Christmas time, and I made about $1,000 off my friends for Christmas, so I thought ‘I got something going on here.’”

Nine years later A Place on Earth has relocated from its original Park Boulevard location to the downstairs level at Winterwood Gift and Christmas Shoppe on the corner of the Washington Street Mall and Ocean Street, and Canyon has successfully achieved his goal of “bringing soapmaking into the 21st century and reviving an art form.”


Shortly after his wholesale/retail business took off, his mother, Rose lost her lease on her retail Ocean City, NJ store. “So we thought this was perfect timing,” he said. “We put our heads together and thought we could do a mom-and-son shop.” They now have wholesale customers across the country, including Alaska. QVC has featured their soaps, and A Place on Earth’s new location has doubled their retail sales.

A typical day? “If I’m making product, we make the lye first. It heats up [in five gallon buckets] to 250°. Then I wait for it to cool to 100° degrees. There’s really more work in getting it ready than in actually mixing the soap. The oil tank has coconut, palm and olive oil which is kept at room temperature.” The oil mixture eventually heats up to 110° when combined with the lye. Then Canyon starts making the soap and adding the herbs and essences of oil. He works with about three or four perfumeries to help him get the right concoction of oils to create the scents people love.

“I have a Cape May scent – it has bergamot, rosewood, lavender, and apple martini. We make it pink. People love it.”

Other bars of soap people love? Sex on the Beach, Lemon Poppy Seed Bar and Wildwoods – all cut individually, weighed and wrapped in deli paper or, in the case of the bath salts, Chinese food containers. Sugar scrub? That’s packaged in pint-sized plastic deli containers. But if it’s for a special gift – glass containers and pretty wraps are available as well.

This article originally appeared in Cape May Magazine‘s Winter 2007 issue. For the full article featuring all five craftsmen, please buy a back copy.