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Greta Rybus

Greta Rybus is a photojournalist and photo editor living in Portland. She started her blog, “Who I Met," as a way to begin juicy conversations with interesting people she meets. The blog has migrated with her from Montana, Europe, and, finally, to her new and dearly-loved home in Maine. You can see more of her work at www.gretarybus.com

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Who I Met with Greta Rybus
Posted: November 13, 2013

Kris and Marilyn Kristiansen- painter and his wife

 

I met Kris at the Portland Head Light while on a photography assignment. I was working with a British woman and an Australian woman. The moment we parked their car, they made a beeline for Kris. They said he looks like a “real Mainer.” And with his white beard, red suspenders, and tattooed arms, he does look like a caricature of a Maine fisherman. That is, until he began to speak.
Kris is from Scotland and he still speaks with a Scotsman’s lilt. Seven years ago, moved to Cape Elizabeth with his wife, Marilyn, whose family has had land in Maine for over three centuries.  They live together in a tiny, cozy home by the ocean. About two years ago, Kris took up painting, and in the warmer months he sells his paintings on the hillside above the lighthouse.


TELL ME THE STORY OF HOW YOU GOT TO MAINE?

Kris- Basically, I met Marilyn 36 years ago, in ’76 in Scotland. She was on holiday and I was chasing vulnerable young ladies at the time. And I spotted Marilyn and we got to talking to each other. We stayed in Scotland and opened an arts and crafts shop and then spent 25 years with the store. We had a house where you’d just work for it, gardening and caring for the owner. The owner died and they wouldn’t sell us the house. We couldn’t even find a house to rent. So in the end, this house was just setting here. I used to feel bad for Marilyn being deprived of her family in Maine. So I thought we’d come here because her mother was still alive then. And her brother and sisters. It’s a bit drastic to move from there to here.

WAS THERE SOMETHING IN YOU THAT KNEW IT WAS THE RIGHT DECISION TO MOVE TO MAINE?

Marilyn- It was the best option, I think. When it came down to housing, it made the most sense. We’d always lived on the water’s edge. And in Scotland, like here, it’s becoming more expensive to live by the water. It’s not accessible to people with an ordinary income. But in Scotland, it’s even worse. All the people come up from London and buy all the property. It’s like Maine, but smaller.

Kris- We lived in a rural place, only 400 yards from the water’s edge.

Marilyn- We lived there 25 years and couldn’t get a foot in the door with housing. It’s like here, fishermen want to live by the water and can’t anymore.

Kris- Well, I was surprised to find traps so far inland with all the traps in the front yard.

 

TELL ME ABOUT YOUR HISTORY IN MAINE.

Marilyn- The spot we are on now, was the bottom of the farm. The Alewive’s Brook Farm at the top of the road? That was my family’s farm. It’s been in several places, but it started in the late 1600’s. It’s been in my family for 360 something years. There were seven cottages down here. My grandparent’s built the first one, just as a place to come. Everyone lived in the town center in the winter because there wasn’t any winterization down here then. They died in the 60’s and there were 12 brothers and sisters. Half took the property in the city and the other half built cottages down here. So, all the cottages were built by aunts and uncles. My grandparent’s house is still standing, but it is owned by millionaires. My father’s house is now on the market for 2.4 million. They did a lot of work to it, and I don’t think there is a nail left that is original.

 

IS THAT SAD TO SEE?

Marilyn- It doesn’t worry so much, it’s just that it’s what is pushing people out. None of us have a lot of money, one sibling works for the water board and another works for Hannaford’s. Every time a house goes up for millions, we become instant millionaires on the tax rolls. And they say “Oh, that’s how it’s got to be.” They use it for a benchmark for making taxes. This house is hardly more than a shack. It used to be a one-car garage.  We used to spend our summers here.  I don’t know if the next generation will be able to hang on to this house. Someone will knock it down and build a bigger house here.

Kris- I always like to see the listings that say, “view of the sea” and it’s miles inland! The sea must be a little blue speck from there.

 

Left: antler utensils made by Kris. Right: Kris at 15 in Scotland

 

KRIS, WHEN I FIRST MET YOU, THE TWO PEOPLE I WAS WITH SAID, “OH! A REAL MAINER!” WHEN THEY SAW YOU. WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE AN UNOFFICIAL SPOKESPERSON FOR MAINE?

Kris- I’ll be walking by the lighthouse and people will call me over and say, “Can I take your picture, you look like a real Mainer.” And I’ll say, “You won’t think that when I open my mouth!” But in a picture, they’ll never know that I’m Scottish. One time, a guy says, “Hey, where’s your ship?”

Marilyn- The tattoos add to the image!

Kris- Well, I used to paint at home and sell prints in the park. And then I was sitting in the park, and I started to think I’d sketch. And I’d sketch what I’d see, the same scene of the lighthouse. I have about nine or ten of the same thing. Sometimes, people would like to peek over my shoulder. It was great fun, I met a lot of people from all around the world. Generally, I paint, and I like to paint here by the window.

 

WHAT INSPIRES THE SUBJECT MATTER OF YOUR WORK?

Kris- It’s hard to tell! You just look at something and it grabs you.

Marilyn- Water. There’s hardly a picture without water.

Kris- Water and mountains. I like realism, too. A lot of people come up and think they are photographs. Some people walk away. I like them to look real. I’m doing a river scene at the moment. I’ve spent a year on it, I can’t quite get the colors right.

Marilyn- The water’s moved a bit. The paint is so thick now!

Kris- I never painted when we had the store, for that whole 25 years. I turned my hand to other things like wood burning, all sorts of things. I was mostly selling other people’s work. We tried to sell the best we could find of the handmade and antique things from Scotland.

  

 

MARILYN, ARE THE CURIOS AND TREASURES YOU’VE COLLECTED WHERE YOU FIND YOUR INSPIRATION?

Marilyn- I think so. I’m not creative at all. I do all the boring practical stuff. The bill paying, the paperwork, the stock-taking, the organizing. I’m an office. I always have been. But I do love nature, natural things and handmade things.

Kris- I wouldn’t be able to do the business without her. In Scotland, we turned the business into almost a museum because we were involved with the local historical society. It’s quite funny, because this American Marilyn was the secretary!

Marilyn- Genealogy, I like genealogy. People would come in and ask me about their heritage, and I could tell them.

Kris- And she wasn’t even from there! We filled the shop with all sort of things local and handmade, and would have exhibitions for the historical society. It was good fun. A lot of people from the old days would come in and spend hours and hours just looking at things. Like looking at ration books from the war. People would remember their war days. People used to joke when they came in, “This is the shop where nothing is for sale!”

Marilyn- I think crafts and homemade things are well made. People used to take time to make beautiful things.

 

 

TELL ME ABOUT PAINTING.

Kris- I used to go into the galleries in Europe and just look at art. Some of them, they would let you paint there. Here, I do my painting in the winter here because it’s so cold and long. I paint here because I need this window for all the light. Three or fours hours in the winter is all I can get. But I need it because otherwise, I’d be totally bored.

Marilyn- I made him start because he was driving me crazy. I think that was two years ago. We always go to yard sales because we collect antiques and we are collectors. I bought a bag of paint from a yard sale, and a lady was selling everything. I found a bag of paints, asked her “It is oil or acrylics?” and took a chance! I gave her $15 and that was it.  He’s never not creating. And for a while he wasn’t do anything and I said to him, “You aren’t creating! You are going to drive me crazy.”

Kris- I was always sketching. When we had the shop I was always doodling. But now that we are in semi-retirement, I tell people that we are living from my work. I am! Basically all my income is from it. It’s not a fantastic income, but it keeps the wolves from the door as they say.  I never thought I was good enough to make money, but people tell me I am all right at painting. I enjoy it anyway; it’s a great therapy. I just sit here pushing paint around. If it’s not right, I can paint over it.

 

WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO YOU?

Kris- Health and happiness, I guess.

Marilyn- That and family. Family is really important. The natural world is important to us. We couldn’t ever dwell in a city. This was such a big draw to be here in the natural world.

Kris- I’d like to live a long time as well! You know, I’m starting to think a lot. I’m going to be 70 next year. You start to think about all the things I’d like to do. I think about the things when I was 20, the things I should have done then. I think about it now, and there’s no time left! As far as travel is concerned, there’s plenty of time. I’d still like to paint a lot more.

Marilyn- My sister-in-law thought she had the flu, discovered it was pancreatic cancer and a month later she was dead. And she was the same age as Kris.  It’s just shocking. Even when you get older, you don’t think of yourself as mortal. And young people never think of themselves as mortal!

Kris- Things like that made me think about things a bit. And you hear of school friends dying and you think about how much you have left. Coming here, it was easier because there’s not much of my family left. Well, I have my brothers and sisters. My mother, she was the last one though wasn’t she? There’s nothing really there for me except brothers and sisters.

Marilyn- When we moved here, my aunt died. Of there eleven of my aunts and uncles, that left one uncle. Someone asked him what it felt like to be the last and he  laughed and said, “Well, I wish everyone would stop reminding me!”

 

WHAT ARE THE THINGS THAT YOU WISH MY GENERATION WOULD KNOW?

Marilyn- I don’t think you get anymore sensible than you are, really. I remember thinking people were old and wise, but I don’t think you are.

Kris- I wish I had been wiser when I was younger, because I look back and I see the things I should have been doing when I was young.

Marilyn- I think family and community. We lived in a small community in Scotland and Cape Elizabeth used to be a small community. We never had a family and never wanted a family, really. But I think family and community are getting lost. You have your grandmother over there, and your aunt over there, and you know your neighbors and that’s it. I think it’s a shame that people are losing community.

Kris- I traveled a lot when I was younger before I met Marilyn. I was a free spirit, that kind of thing. No ties, nothing like that. I think young people should travel a bit more, broaden their horizons. I learned a lot by traveling, just being on the streets. You know, little bits of languages. And it helped me later on when I had the store and it made me a bit wiser, although I’m still useless!

Marilyn- Traveling makes you more tolerant of other people’s cultures. You understand that people do think differently.

Kris- My environment growing up was that the man worked and the woman was the housewife and all that. I never had good fathers and step-fathers. Basically, what they did was go to the betting shops on the weekend  and bet on horses and go to the pub. I was in a coal mining area. People never thought any further than the pub and the bookies. And that wasn’t for me. So I took off when I was about 19. And I’m glad I did. When I go back, and some of the people are just the same. Doing the same thing 40, 50 years later.

Right: a photo of Kris and Marilyn’s shop in Scotland.

 

TELL ME ABOUT A LESSON YOU ARE LEARNING OR HAVE LEARNED RECENTLY.

Marilyn- We think we know it all! Both of us! And we frequently tell each other we know it all. I’ve learned to be adaptable, because the move was a big thing. We’d been in the same house in Scotland for 25 years and then moved here seven years ago, moving across the Atlantic. And it was tough, emotionally. You have to narrow your life down to what’s important to you.

Kris- I’d always wished I’d been better educated. I left school when I was 14. Only because my birthday was in the summer and age 15 was the school cut-off age. I started working on my 15th birthday. My first wage was less than ten dollars a week. We had something called eleven plus, and I think it was that when you were 11 you’d take a test to see if you could go to college. And we were just kids, just playing and fighting and so a lot of us flunked it. If you weren’t going to go to college, which was expensive and for eggheads, you worked in a coal mine. I worked in a tanning factory. It was a terrible place to work. There were all these pits filled with chemicals. And when you wanted to go home early on a Friday or something, you’d just jump in one of the pits and the stuff would harden on you. And you’d have to go home! It stank like hell. I worked down a coal mine, brick works, on the trawlers, at the paper mill. When I was a young lad, if you didn’t like a job you could just pack up and get another job. There were jobs for ten a penny! And they needed people.

Marilyn- I’m sorry for young people. There’s no security, and that must be quite hard for people, mentally.

 

YOU’VE BEEN TOGETHER SINCE ’76. WHAT HAS KEPT YOU TOGETHER?

Kris- Total compatibility.

Marilyn- I think it’s luck. I don’t think you can manufacture friendship. If we weren’t compatible, we could have split. Some people it takes them ten years, some times they never get there.

Kris- When were first met, we were friends and sometimes we went on trips without each other.

Marilyn- One day, we decided to get married, I can’t remember why! We lived together for about a year and a half and just decided to get married.

Kris- I never thought I would get married when I was a young guy. What changed? Probably her! There’s eleven years between us. I always say, if you haven’t had a good argument, you aren’t really together. Because you go through thick and thin. I’d never be without Marilyn. I could never be with another woman.

Marilyn- I think the big issues can split people up. Things like religion or whether you want kids. But we aren’t particularly religious and neither of us wanted kids, really.

Kris- We both came from big families. I was always the one who was babysitting because I was the oldest. I’ve never felt I wanted children.

Marilyn- I used to joke I moved to Scotland to get away from my family because there’s so many of them.  Everywhere you look, there’s a cousin.

Kris- Last year, Marilyn had a heart attack and I wasn’t too good. I was pretty bad because I was so worried. They were talking about open-heart surgery, and they put stints in. They didn’t think it would work, but it did!

 

WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF AN AVERAGE DAY?

Kris- I love the mornings! I don’t sleep well. I toss and turn and I turn over and think about ideas and projects, like how to make a corner on a piece of wood. And it all comes up in the morning, and I have to share it! I wake up and say to Marilyn, “What do you think of that and what if I did that…”

Marilyn- I’m a deep sleeper, I can fall asleep right when I shut my eyes and never want to wake up! And he’s going “Yak, yak, yak, yak.”

Kris- It wouldn’t be only one time when I’ve fallen asleep with my dinner in my lap!

Marilyn- I like the morning before we go to work at the lighthouse. I go out and feed my birds and have coffee or breakfast on the picnic table.

Kris- We can’t go anywhere unless Marilyn has fed the birds and her pet chipmunk!

 

 

 

 

 

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