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May 25, 2020
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Fused-glass artist Jeni Gray-Roberts is returning as defending champion to the Huckleberry Finn Recyclable Raft Race on Saturday, May 18. The free event is sponsored by the Chester Land Trust. Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier

Fused-glass artist Jeni Gray-Roberts is returning as defending champion to the Huckleberry Finn Recyclable Raft Race on Saturday, May 18. The free event is sponsored by the Chester Land Trust. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)

Jeni Gray-Roberts: A Raft of Fun

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Huck Finn and his runaway companion Jim floating down the Mississippi River on a raft is one of classic scenes of American literature. Local residents will have a chance to replay that scene for themselves, at least after a fashion, on Saturday, May 18 at the Huckleberry Finn Recyclable Raft Race sponsored by the Chester Land Trust.

Instead of the Mississippi River, the waterway will be Pattaconk Brook and rather than a full-size raft made of wood, the rafts in question will be tiny, made entirely from recyclable materials.

“About the size you would float a GI Joe on,” says Jeni Gray-Roberts, whose raft won the adult division of the raft race last year.

In addition, both her children, son Churchill and daughter Skye, and her husband Jerry Roberts entered the competition. Churchill also won his division.

The event is free and open to all ages. All participants are encouraged to wear costumes inspired by the characters of Finn’s creator, author Mark Twain, for the parade that follows the races. The land trust provides the materials to construct the raft, though Jeni says she brought some recyclables from home. Still, she says, one of the vital components of her raft was a material that quite literally, could be said to hold the country together: duct tape.

In the end, she says her boat bore an uncanny resemblance to a famous Star Wars spaceship.

“It looked like the Millennium Falcon with a sail,” Jenny says.

Construction of the rafts will begin at 9:30 a.m. at the Carini Preserve on Water Street in Chester. The race itself, all 25-yards of it, was “surprisingly exciting,” according to Jenny.

“At the start, some boats were way ahead but then others begin to catch up,” she says.

Jeni, who lives in Deep River, has her own fused-glass studio, RiverFire Glass, where she creates both jewelry and home décor items like trays, bowls, and plates out of multi-colored glass pieces that she melds into unique creations in her kiln.

She didn’t start out as an artist. At Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Jeni had planned to major in English literature, a decision with which her father disagreed.

“He told me that English literature equals unemployed,” she says.

Her father agreed to a journalism major. After graduation, she got a job as a weekend newscaster at a small radio station in Washington, New Jersey. On a recent afternoon, she repeated the call letters and program introduction for a visitor.

“I just can’t forget them,” she says.

Still, she had her sights set on New York City. She first got a job at a sportswear manufacturing firm, then switched to advertising, before working for an entrepreneur who was starting an art gallery and event space in a Manhattan brownstone. The business was glitz; it was glamourous—but before too long, it was also insolvent. Through someone she had met at the gallery, she got a job at a merchant bank that dealt with biotech companies.

“I had no banking; I had no biotech,” she admits, but she survived.

Next came a move to Texas, where Jeni enrolled in an art program at Sam Houston State University, studying jewelry making, design, welding, and metal milling as well as art history. After finishing, however, she returned to New York City, and again found herself working in banking with a biotech firm. This time she stayed nine years.

“My boss told me he would have given me a watch if I stayed 10,” she adds.

Her father’s death prompted her to reevaluate her situation.

“I was 34; I was done wasting time,” she recalls.

On a computer dating site, she read Jerry’s profile.

“He was everything I was looking for,” she says.

They were married in 2004. Jeni had also gone back to art, this time taking classes at The Art Students League of New York. Out of curiosity, she took a class in fused glass. She loved the process.

“It was tactile. I knew this was what I was meant to do,” she says.

The couple moved to Connecticut where Jerry, now an author, served as head of the Connecticut River Museum from 2006 to 2013. Jeni had planned to stay at home with young children and perhaps open at glass studio. A mammogram disrupted that plan. It revealed some irregularities that led to a diagnosis breast cancer. Though she had not lived in this area very long, she was amazed at the care and concern her neighbors showed.

She recalls one day she was in the parking lot at the CDE Nursery in Deep River, “just sort of staring into space.” Suddenly there was a knock on her car window.

“A woman came up and handed me a bunch of flowers,” she says. “She told me she had heard about my difficulties.”

Now after a double mastectomy, reconstructive surgery, and chemotherapy, Jeni is cancer free. The experience made her reassess her life once again.

“I thought I didn’t know how much time I had left, but I didn’t want to spend another hour in a cubicle,” she says. “What I had done with joy and pride was glass and I knew I had to get back to it.”

She now has a studio Jerry built in the garage, unheated but with a beautiful view of the Connecticut River. Working with small pieces of glass, Jeni says cuts are inevitable. She has to reset the finger profile to unlock her cell phone with some regularity because of them. And there are other cautions for those with tiny cuts on fingers.

“You learn not to slice lemons,” she says.

The family plans to enter the recycled raft race again this year, but will have to build new rafts. Last year’s rafts? They did just what a Recycled Raft race suggests. They recycled them.

Huckleberry Finn Recycled Raft Race

The Chester Land Trust hosts the Huckleberry Finn Recycled Raft Race on Saturday, May 18 at 9:30 a.m. at the Carini Preserve on Water Street, Chester. Participation is free; all materials are provided. Participants are encouraged to come dressed as a Mark twain character.

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