In yesterday’s post on the blog American Folk Art @ Cooperstown, Paul D’Ambrosio wrote about a bas relief carving in the collection of the Fenimore Museum. It was one of a series concerning Sullivan’s Diner in Horseheads, NY and was carved by renowned folk artist Mary Michael Shelley, who works just up the road in Ithaca. The piece shown here is different from the carving in the Fenimore Collection but both feature the diner’s intimate interior with counter that runs the length of the small trailer with round stools.
I was really interested in this blog post for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve always been interested in bas relief carvings and, as I wrote her before, started carving in the years before I became a painter. Much of my painting is done very much like a carving , in the way I see and render the elements. The second, and more important, reason was that Sullivan’s Diner has always been in my sight in some way for my entire life. Built in the 1940’s in New Jersey, it spent its early years as Vic’s Diner on Elmira’s eastside, from where my family hails. I have distinct memories of its appearance on the corner near St. Joe’s Hospital as a child, even a memory where I was sent sprawling on the sidewalk in front of it on my bicycle.
In 1974, it was moved up the road to Horseheads where Art and Fran Sullivan renamed it and ran it. Art was a railroad fanatic of the highest order and had an actual engine and an attached car behind the diner’s new location on Old Ithaca Road. Fran ran the restaurant , doling out generous portions of eggs and bacon for many years from the grill behind the counter of this small trailer diner. This was not one of the larger streamlined beauties you see along the turnpikes of Jersey. It was cramped inside with a few booths on one side of the aisle and the counter on the other. The woodwork and feel was more 1930’s even though it was built in the 40’s. Living in Horseheads, I ate many breakfasts there over the years and always felt like I was walking into Fran’s home kitchen when I walked through those doors, which seemed to transform you back to a much earlier time when you passed through the doors.
The food was okay, simple but satisfying. The coffee watery but tasty. But the attraction was the sense of community that the place fostered. Walking in through the old door you felt like you were entering Fran’s personal kitchen and she treated you as though you were a guest in her home. Even though I was only a sporadic visitor she always made me feel as though I were one of her regulars, making me feel as comfortable as the regulars who laughed and joked at the counter each morning.
I haven’t been there often since Fran retired but the place was reopened under new management and seems to be flourishing. But I do have fond memories of that place and am gratified that Sullivan’s Diner will forever be immortalized in the collections of at least two museums. The piece at the bottom is the one from the Fenimore Museum and another is in the National Museum of Women and the Arts in Washington, DC.
Thanks for the fine work, Mary Shelley, and thanks, Paul, for pointing it out.