PORTSMOUTH, N.H. (AP) — In the spirit of the 19th century Little Harbor artist colony, photographer Susan Bank and her neurologist husband "Willi" have transformed their 1861 home and Little Harbor property into an art-filled and flotsam-covered explosion of competing eye candy.
It's the barn one notices first.
At the end of an unpaved driveway, shielded from public view by a grove of trees, the weathered red barn is decorated with shoes, hubcaps, a pair of Mercedes grills, rusted gears, buoys, an old stop sign, a skull-and-crossbones flag and an old oar. Fishing net and rope were shaped and hammered onto barnboard by Willi, into the form of a mermaid, with a snorkeling fin for a tail and a pair of orange maritime floats for bosoms.
On the grounds where they've lived since 1972, there's a pet cemetery, a face on the side of a tree and driftwood sculptures. Six shoes are mounted onto a sheet of rusted metal the couple calls "the six tenors," given their likeness to a row of singing men.
"We love that," Susan said. "It was made by one of our tenants."
Propped among granite glacial boulders is a vintage child's rocking horse. Nearby, there's an outdoor shower, with a sheet of fabric printed with animal heads wearing pink glasses, to block views from the nearby street.
"Because it's lovely," Willi explained as the reason for adding an al fresco bathing feature.
Susan said she found the shower head at a barn sale for $5 and is prone to picking castaways wherever they catch her eye. Inside their home, built for Gen. Richard Waldron as a honeymoon cottage, found objects are elevated to high-art status.
A rusted eel spear, a pair of old boxing gloves and paintings by their daughter Greta flank the antique-brick kitchen hearth. There are decoys, a vintage leather fireman's helmet and a table made from an old wood washing machine. Handmade paper mache masks, from a bygone Portsmouth Halloween Parade, peer down from a high shelf. A Russell Cheney painting of the Portsmouth waterfront hangs among others made by family members.
On the porch, overlooking Sagamore Creek, the roof is supported with original "ship's knees" braces, under which Susan practices yoga.
Susan was born in 1938 at Cottage Hospital in Portsmouth and her husband is celebrating his 85th birthday this weekend. She grew up in New Castle, "that was my village," when she was Susan Sweetster, a family name linked to the local Coolidges.
A 1956 graduate of Portsmouth High School, Susan took up photography at age 60 and has since won multiple awards for her books of haunting black-and-and-white images from 25 trips to Cuba, each weeks at a time.
"I lived in the countryside with the tobacco farmers," she said. "The people were wonderful and accessible."
Her first photo book in 2008, "Cuba:Camp Adentro," was hailed by the late photography legend Robert Frank as "extraordinary, full of life." She shoots with a Leica M6 camera and black-and-white film, her books printed on lush German paper.
"I got a digital Fuji X100 and I can't figure the damn thing out," she said. "I haven't got the hang of it yet."
Her second book, "Piercing the Darkness," also features images from Cuba, she knows the names of the people pictured on the pages and still communicates with some of them. One of her landlords was a gravedigger, she said, and he introduced her to many locals.
Bank said she took many photos in Cuban bars and could have done a series on a Cuban hairdresser who had the largest Santa Barbara in Havana in his salon. Her image of a boy bicycling through line-drying laundry, she said, "is really a metaphor for transition."
Bank said she regrets not making a photo collection of her suitcases en route to Cuba those 25 times. She'd stuff them with fancy mustard, salamis, aspirin and Parmesan cheese, all gifts for the locals.
"And what was their favorite gift?" her husband prompted. "The blue pills."
"Viagra," Susan affirmed, was another gift she delivered from the states.
Her husband said when he joined her on some Cuban trips, he was struck by how people would flock to her.
Her book "Salisbury Beach" is a collection of images of teenagers under seaside piers, in a pool hall and entwined on a dock next to a hardpack of cigarettes.
"I worked there for quite a while," she said. "I got to know the locals very well and I loved the teenagers. I'm not threatening. I'm short, I have gray hair and I don't have a lot of equipment."
She said she's never been inspired to do a photo series of Portsmouth, though did spend a great deal of time taking pictures at the commercial fish pier.
Willi Bank is a Holocaust survivor, worked as a neurologist and was a ship doctor on a boat during the "Perfect Storm" of 1991. He's credited with adding the flair to the family barn, where he has an oil painting studio and paints local landscapes, including the nearby Wentworth Coolidge Mansion. He hand built a pram and keeps a sloop in Little Harbor.
The couple's twin sons, David and Willi, age 55, have strong local maritime ties. David built a Strawbery Banke dory, ran the Strawbery Banke boat shop and was the first captain of the local gundalow, his parents said. Willi captained the Massachusetts Maritime Academy ship "Ranger" and an American flag he made from string lights, for a boat parade, now hangs on the side of his parent's Little Harbor barn.
Their daughter Greta teaches art at the Maine College of Art.
"They all like to be here," Susan said. "It's a gathering place for my family."
Information from: Portsmouth Herald, http://www.seacoastonline.com