Ruth Tewksbury never stopped believing in the magic of Christmas.
For decades she shared her love of the holidays from her studio in Maine where she created scores of clay Nativity scene figures for her family and for customers. She passed away in 1991 at the age of 69, but her art lives on thanks to her granddaughter and great-granddaughter who are carrying on the family nativity tradition, with their own somewhat whimsical spin.
“Everything is possible [and] that is what is so wonderful and overwhelming,” said Dawn Little, Tewksbury’s granddaughter, who works with her own daughter Sarah Scamperle. “I love the idea of giving the [Nativity scene] a feeling that the figures come from all over [and] I love the idea some of our pieces are so unlikely, like the unicorn from last year.”
A family tradition is born
Ruth Tewksbury moved to Maine with her husband Blaine Tewksbury in the early 1970s, according to Little.
“She had retired from the medical profession and they bought a farm in Arundel,” Little said. “She was always very artistic and she loved the pageantry of Christmas, having been raised Catholic, so she started making clay Nativity scenes and selling them locally in a shop in Kennebunkport.”
Little, 54, spent her teenage years living with her grandparents and a large, extended family.
“Grandma was a such a character, she was feisty, artistic and just a passionate person about life,” Little said. “They moved to Maine in the 70s and went back to the land renovating this old farmhouse and grandpa was an organic gardener.”
Christmas, Little said, was always happily chaotic with no family drama or turmoil.
“It was a family of love and happiness with so many people around and a 24-pound turkey,” she said of those past holidays. “The songbooks would come out, we’d put on plays, make costumes and do reenactments of the Nativity and grandma was in the center of it all.”
Little apprenticed with her grandmother and when the family learned Tewksbury was ill, Little said she and her mother Marie Cole — Tewksbury’s daughter — made the decision to continue making the figures.
Little has lost count of how many figures the family has created and made over the years, but she did say one collector told her she had 180 pieces in her Tewksbury Nativity Scene.
It’s a village
There are farmers, a beekeeper, a woman holding a clutch of chicks, merchants, soldiers, children playing and animals from every corner of the globe — camels, sheep, donkeys, oxen, tigers, skunks, rabbits, hedgehogs, dogs, cats and that unicorn.
“It’s really become a big village and not just a manger,” Little said. “We look at things like a bazaar and try to expand our thoughts on what was happening in the world back then, who was in power and where were they in all of this.”
Little said they offer a basic set that includes a manger, the holy family and an angel. From there, people can buy individual pieces to add on.
“For me it’s really all about the art,” Scamperle said. “I identify as a Buddhist so the [Catholicism] does not speak to me but I love making the figures and mom has passed the baton to me of making the animals and I love the process of it.”
That process begins with a 50-pound block of clay.
Little and Scamperle run the clay through a machine that turns it into long tubes which are then sliced into what Little describes as “thick pennies.”
Mother and daughter know exactly how many of those “pennies” it takes to make each figure, which they sculpt by hand, one at a time so no one is exactly like another, just like snowflakes, Little said.
“Some of the people heads take one slice,” Little said. “The most insane was the woman with the chicks in her apron — I made 1,440 chicks and painted two eyes and a beak on each one [and] there were 16 chicks in each slice of clay.”
Individual prices start at around $10 for the smaller pieces like a duck and run to $154 for a large figure like a camel. The basic manger set sells for $154.
Each individual figure is handmade, glazed and fired in a kiln, a process that, while time consuming — it can take up to six weeks to fill an order — Little said allows for a personal touch.
“I really like the idea of being small and being personal,” Little said. “We have conversations with people and can ask them things like what color of blanket would they like on this camel, or last year a woman sent me a photo of her daughter in her First Communion dress and we ‘dressed’ a figure in it for her.”
The only way to acquire a Tewksbury Nativity figure is directly from Little, who has a PDF catalog she is happy to share.
Pieces worth collecting
The figures have become sought-after collectables by about 800 people around the country, according to Little’s count.
Among those collecting the Tewksbury figures are James and Emilia Govan who have amassed more than 500 creches from 100 countries over 40 years.
A 120-piece Tewksbury Nativity scene currently on display at the Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago as part of its holiday display, “Art and Faith of the Creche: The Collection of James and Emilia Govan.”
The Tewksbury figures are also included in James Govan’s book, “The Art of the Creche,” Little said.
Given her grandmother’s love of art, Christmas and family, Little is confident she’d be overjoyed to be part of the Chicago exhibit.
The tradition lives on
Continuing the line of Nativity figures, Little said, is a way to maintain a connection with her grandmother.
“My mom was her first daughter, I am the first daughter and now my first daughter is making them,” Little said. “We are first daughters working together and I love that connection.”
Up in the family’s home studio is the basic Nativity scene Tewksbury gave Little.
“Grandma made sure we each had one,” Little said. “It sits up in my studio and is my inspiration.”
As this year’s production winds down — Little said they currently have only the manger set and a few king figures on hand — Little and Scamperle are looking forward to the coming year and deciding what new figures to add.
“It’s going to keep being whimsical,” Little said. “What we do is a lot of joy and celebration.”
To receive a catalog of the Tewksbury Nativity figures, contact Dawn Little at Sugarmaple111@hotmail.com or call 207-702-9294
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