Person of the Week
Mark Kimball Moulton: Embracing New Challenges
From his tiny house in Clinton, Mark Kimball Moulton lives a very large life. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
For those inclined to believe in reincarnation, Mark Kimball Moulton seems to have lived many lives in one.
He’s a horticulturist who’s managed estates. He’s owned businesses and worked as a bartender. He’s a published children’s book author and photographer. He has crossed the country once in each direction with only a backpack full of belongings.
And around two years ago, in his mid-60s, he decided to try his hand at painting.
Mark had been writing children’s picture books for years, working with several different illustrators.
“Believe me, I could never match what they do,” he says. “People say, ‘Why don’t you [illustrate] your own children’s book now?’ Absolutely not. But that being said, they did inspire me to look into art.
“But actually, the biggest thing that inspired me [was] a movie called Maudie,” he continues.
The 2016 film, which is based on a true story, stars Sally Hawkins as Maud Dowley, a disabled woman in Nova Scotia who, after suffering much hardship, teaches herself to paint. She covers the walls of her tiny house with her paintings.
“Now that whole house is a museum in Canada, somewhere you can actually go and see her work,” Mark says. “So I watch that movie, crying my eyes out, of course. And I said, ‘Well, you know, why not give it a whirl?’ See if I can do something not as good as hers, but at least to represent what I’m feeling about the world.”
Teaching himself to paint has been “a little bit difficult because I don’t know even what kind of brushes to use or paints,” he says. “But you just play and see what you like.”
He prefers working on a gesso board, a pre-treated wood panel.
“I love working in this tiny detail,” he says. “I like small, always have—more control over it.
“There’s so many different kinds of paints and the qualities are different and the textures are different,” he continues. “And higher price paint doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a better paint...I like a product called Liquitex. It’s a medium-bodied paint, not too thick. And I almost use it like a watercolor. A lot of times I’ll water it down and blend the paints with it. I found it a lot easier rather than laying on a lot of paint.”
One of his favorite artists is George Henry Durrie (1820–1863), who was born in Hartford, lived in New Haven, and was also self-taught. Some of Durrie’s winter scenes were reproduced as lithographs by Currier & Ives.
“I bought some books on his work just because they take you to a different place,” Mark says. Viewing Durrie’s work in a museum, “I’ll just stare and look at how [he] blended the colors and the light and shadow.”
Mark grew up in a farm in Danbury, surrounded by the farms of family members and family friends.
“It was an idyllic childhood,” he says. “My grandparents...made everything. Jellies, jams. We ate everything off the farm. We didn’t have any animals; it was all vegetable farming at that time. That’s where we worked...picking apples and picking corn and strawberries and we brought them to a farm stand...where they sold their produce.
“That also led to [my] imagination because I worked—we all did—alone a lot of the time,” he continues. “So you had to think and pretend...I remember thinking lilies were little fairies. My favorite thing when I was a kid was to play in the old pig wallow, which is this, maybe four foot by three foot cemented pond.”
There were no longer pigs on the farm; the pig wallow would fill with water, where Mark would find mosquito larvae and frogs.
“[T]hat’s what I can attribute my imagination to,” he says.
When it came time to go to college, Mark went to UConn, and debated whether to study drama or horticulture.
He thought, “I really want to go into drama because that’ll be a lot of fun,” he remembers. “But so many people don’t make it...And I’m actually kind of a shy person, believe it or not.
“So I went into horticulture because it was in my family,” he continues. “My uncle had a garden center at the time that I managed. And I thought, At least I can grow my own food.”
Right out of college, Mark managed to get a government job as a caretaker at Glacier National Park in Montana.
“Lake McDonald has cabins, a big inn, [and] had a little garage service center...where you can get gas, not much more than that,” he remembers. “It was like a little compound. So I took care of the lawns and the gardens and the flowers.”
While in Montana, he ended up working as bartender for the film crew of Heaven’s Gate.
“It was one of the biggest flops in history,” he says.
The director, Michael Cimino, had just come off the success of directing The Deer Hunter.
“If I’m not mistaken, it was like $33 million to make this movie at the time, which was astronomical. No one had ever done it. And [Cimino] was so full of himself. But Kris Kristofferson was the lead, Jeff Bridges” also starred, he says. It was “just a lot of fun. We had a blast.”
Eventually, he returned to Connecticut, taking jobs in restaurants and working his way up to management. From there, he ended up owning three country-style markets, in Riverton, Avon, and Kent. While shopping for goods at a market, he came across an artist, Karen Hillard Crouch, who was selling calendars and cards with reproductions of her work. Mark bought items from her and they became friends.
One day, Hillard Crouch called him and said she’d been asked to write and illustrate a children’s book. She was comfortable illustrating it but asked Mark to write it.
“So I wrote it, sent it out overnight and it was accepted immediately, which is unheard of in the publishing world and it wouldn’t happen again for a million years,” he says. “I was just there at the right place at the right time.”
The book was called A Snowman Named Just Bob, based on one of Karen’s postcards. Mark and Karen went on to work on 12 books together, including The Very Best Pumpkin and Reindeer Christmas, which are available through Simon & Schuster. He also collaborated with Susan Winget and other artists through the publisher, LANG, that originally contacted Karen.
“I have a tiny house,” Marks says. “A little over 800 square feet.”
He can plug the vacuum in one socket and reach the entire house.
“We have a vegetable garden and a flower garden for pollinators,” he says.
He and his partner live close to Grove Beach, near the Clinton line.
“I’m kind of an escapist. [I like] living in the past,” he continues. “I could probably go back to 1820 [or] 1830 and live that life because it made sense.
“I really think that’s what’s wrong with people nowadays...We don’t have enough to do. Years ago, you worked on the land. You grew your own food and you took care of your animals. It all made sense and you were active, physically and mentally,” he says. “You didn’t have to go to the gym because you were out there, tilling up your land.”
Modern life “doesn’t make sense to me,” he says. “If there is reincarnation, I want to go backwards, not forwards.”
It’s likely for this reason that when Mark decided to write a novel, he set it in the 16th century.
“I went to Ireland 10, 15 years ago now...I fell in love with it,” he says. “And I learned about a woman pirate from the 1500s. Her name was Grace O’Malley.”
Grace O’Mally is known by many monikers, including the Pirate Queen of Connacht.
“What I wanted to do was to write a novel about women’s empowerment at that time—it was definitely a male-run society—and why this woman...who was born into this powerful family, very wealthy, why she would become a pirate,” Marks says. “So I used...her history, it’s well written about, and then in my own fantasy, kind of figured out what happened in her life to drive her to piracy.”
Mark is nearly finished with the book. He is currently looking for a publisher.