Jerri Graham is a noted Westport photographer. She hasn’t felt the holiday spirit for a while. Recently, she was especially Grinchy. But, she writes …:
While around us the world spins, there are those going the extra mile to make the holidays a bit more magical. They decorate with a level of flair that should be appreciated.
Noya Jewelry Design (18 Riverside Avenue) has upped their game this year with a “Nutcracker”-inspired window display that spills over into the interior decor.
Owner Natalie Tortay started talking about decorating for Christmas back in September. I never suspected my Israeli Jewish landlord and mentor would be a Mrs. Claus in disguise.
But, she says, “I lived in Europe for many years. Christmas decorating is taken seriously. You don’t just string lights.”
I thought she was kidding about “doing it up” for Christmas, until she asked for the name of a set designer. I knew Alicia D’Anna builds exhibits for the Westport Museum for History & Culture, and has bad-ass ways with a table saw. She’s also worked for years on sets for Staples Players.
The women met, along with Alicia’s partner in design, Broadway’s Jordan Janota. Together hey flushed out Natalie’s vision.
From left: Jordan Janota, Natalie Tortay, Alicia D’Anna. (Photo/Jerri Graham)
I asked Natalie why she went through the expense of decorating her windows and store for the holidays, while we’re all experiencing trying times.
“It’s because we are in these times that I have to do it,” she said. “It makes me happy, it looks beautiful for people passing by, and it gives artists work. I’m happy.”
Alicia worked in her converted Westport workshop with Jordan. They brought to life the storyboard they’d presented just a week before. With techniques they’d used on the stage here and in New York, they carved out a bit of theatrics.
Jordan Janota, at work in Noya.(Photo/Jerri Graham)
“Natalie is giving the town joy! She isn’t just decorating her store for the holidays; she’s giving our community an experience,” Alicia said as she painted a foam scoop of ice cream bright pink.
The designers created quite a scene in 2 windows. Ballet slippers suggest an invisible foot dance beneath a tutu, surrounded by snow-covered trees and glittery packages.
One of Noya’s windows, with ballet shoes and a tutu. (Photo/Jerri Graham)
At night I’ve smiled as I see little girls with their faces pressed to the window. A jewelry designer turned her store into a studio, where artists created a set for minds to dance.
Though we live in dark times with the shine of the season dimmed, the windows of Noya offers a little glimmer of hope we can all use.
(Noya Jewelry Design is on the west bank of the Saugatuck River, just over the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge.)
A little girl looks in Noya’s window. (Photo/Kami Evans)
Jerri Graham is a 13-year resident of Westport. A talented photographer, she is currently working on a portrait series capturing the stories and lives of Westporters.
Today she reflects on the past week in Westport — and the world.
Last Sunday I attended a demonstration on Jesup Green to protest the horrific murder of George Floyd. A bipartisan effort by 2 local activists that was put together within 48 hours as the country watched in anger, the gathering was a way to say” enough is enough,” and that Westport stood in solidarity with the rest of the country against police brutality.
Jerri Graham, with her daughter.
I attended as a sad and frustrated black woman, mother, photographer, and a Westporter. Walking around with my camera I saw friends I’ve known for over a decade, out for the first time in months standing in heartfelt angst with neighbors of every age, race and religion.
Over 400 locals listened to the calm, sincere and honest voices of town leaders, including the chief of police standing with us in our tears over the death of a man none of us ever knew.
As we stood together as a town, I had an overwhelming sense of pride in my community I’ve rarely experienced in my life. I felt, through the bodies — though only a fraction of our population — an immense wave of understanding.
When we stood in silence for the half the amount of time George Floyd was pinned down, we all felt the horror. We all felt the shame. We all felt the anger.
Tears came between me and my camera as I took photos. After the silence ended, I walked around the green with my daughter seeing the eyes over masks we’d known since she was in kindergarten. We even had a chance to meet up with the other black families who also live in Westport who attended the demonstration. It was also a bittersweet meeting of some of Westports finest melanin, though I wish we’d met under different circumstances.
That evening, my daughter and I recapped through tears the last few days. We, like most Americans had grown accustomed to reports of black children, women, and men murdered for existing by law enforcement. However, this time we both felt it was different. For the first time, our community was also disgusted and outraged. Over the years we had wept alone over Tamir, Trayvon, Michael, Eric, and Breonna. But this time, our grief was shared.
One scene from last Sunday’s protest …
During this period of time, the need to be vocal and loud against the injustices we see is important. We want to fix things that are broken. The racism that results in murder isn’t a hat someone pops on their heads, but are a result of generations never viewing blacks as equal. While I don’t have the answer to the ills of racism that has engulfed our country from its formation, I do know that once the marches have ended, the work for equality isn’t over and starts at home.
First, take a look at your own life and the relationships in it. Do you have black friends? It doesn’t have to be a bestie or someone you hang out with every week, but it is 2020. Broaden your horizons and circle by stepping outside of your comfort zone of who you know.
We are here in Westport. We don’t just work at the stores, and for you. Parents are currently scrambling for books on how to teach their children about racism, yet often they don’t have a diverse social circle themselves. When parents don’t, oftentimes their children won’t.
Now, don’t run out and try to befriend the first black person you see (I’m in hiding and there’s a service fee). It doesn’t work that way. But at least make an effort to establish real relationships with people who don’t look like you. It starts with a cup of coffee, a conversation, and connection. Understanding comes when we know one another as humans, not just sound bites on the evening news.
… and another. (Photos/Jerri Graham)
Second, put your money where your mouth is. No, I’m not talking about donations or setting up a fund for disadvantaged students. While I admire this level of helping others, what I want to see once the homemade signs have been recycled is monetary activism.
Vow to spend a portion of your income with black enterprises and black brands. While marching alongside us and for us can break the barriers, economic opportunity is the only way for us to be fully equal. Be an economic investor by looking at holiday and birthday gifts you plan to buy this year, and vowing that 20% or more will be from black-owned companies. It won’t be easy because they won’t always be the ones readily available, but it is a choice to spread the wealth around. Contributing to the building of a brand or business owned by a black person by consciously using your purchasing power is trickle around form of activism that kicks ass!
Do not let the fight against police brutality be where your activism to support black lives ends. Vow to carry a placard not just for a march, but one you hold within yourself through daily relationships, dollars, and choices.
Through the efforts of many people and organizations, breast cancer awareness is high. It affects 1 in 8 women, and kills more than 40,000 Americans each year.
But there’s less awareness that less than 10% of all money raised for breast cancer goes to research. And just pennies of that goes to Stage IV.
AWARE is raising awareness of the lack of funding allocated to metastatic breast cancer research. There is no better local organization to take on the task.
The acronym stands for Assisting Women with Actions, Resources and Education. Each year, members partner with a local non-profit. They volunteer with that group, organize an educational event and host a fundraiser.
In past years, AWARE CT has aided the International Institute of Connecticut (human trafficking), Mercy Learning Center (education), Female Soldiers: Forgotten Heroes (veterans) and Malta House (pregnant and new mothers).
Their current partner is the Cancer Couch Foundation. Since 2016, the group has raised over $3 million for Stage 4 breast cancer research.
AWARE’s commitment is total, and strong. The centerpiece is a series of portraits of Westporters, by talented photographer Jerri Graham. Each image includes text, with the subject describing how she or he has been affected by the disease.
The original idea was for each subject to also make a donation to the Cancer Couch, through AWARE. The portraits would be posted on social media, then shown at a fundraiser; afterward, each subject could take her or his photo home.
But AWARE did not stop there. For greater visibility — and awareness — they’ve gone door to door. Over 80 stores, restaurants, salons and medical offices agreed, quickly and enthusiastically, to show one or two portraits inside, or in their windows.
AWARE co-directors Amy Saperstein and Nicole Gerber, with a photo at Aux Delices’ Post Road East location.
AWARE then took photos of the merchants, chefs and doctors, and posted those online. It’s one more special way to raise awareness, of both Cancer Couch and the lack of metastatic breast cancer funding.
Winged Monkey — the first store to join the project, even before there was an image to display — offered to host a fundraiser there.
Joyride joined quickly too. Owners Amy Hochhauser and Rhodie Lorenz are all in. Instructor Mackenzie Pretty led a “Spinraiser” at the studio. She wove breast cancer statistics and information about Cancer Couch between songs — and gave shout-outs to AWARE members who were in the room, on bikes.
All 4 women posed for photos. Pretty’s mother — herself a breast cancer survivor — had her portrait taken too.
Other avid supporters: 2nd Selectwoman Jen Tooker, and Westport Farmers’ Market director Lori Cochran-Dougall.
2nd Selectwoman Jen Tooker
When they began, AWARE co-directors Amy Saperstein and Nicole Gerber hoped 25 people would want their portraits taken. Well over 80 responded.
The photos are stunning. Jerri Graham — a very talented Westport portrait artist — captures subjects’ faces and feelings beautifully.
Coupled with each person’s words — about breast cancer’s impact on themselves, loved ones and/or friends — the effect is powerful and immediate.
It’s also, Gerber says, “a call to action.”
Just before Christmas, AWARE’s project took on a life — and death — of its own.
Four years ago, Rebecca Timlin-Scalera of Fairfield was diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. It was re-diagnosed later to Stage IIIc, but she did not want to leave Stage IV women behind.
Timlin-Scalera started Cancer Couch, dedicated to Stage IV research. She was looking forward to having her photo taken, for AWARE.
It never happened. Just before Christmas, she died.
The Cancer Couch founder’s death stunned AWARE. In her honor, they’ve set a fundraising goal of $50,000. An anonymous donor pledged to match it.
Timlin-Scalera was not the only person unable to be photographed. A woman planned to pose with her husband. Cancer treatment interfered. Her 8- and 6-year-old daughters will take her place.
That’s one of many inspiring stories. Wilson Herrera — the Staples High School custodian/ college student who was profiled on “06880” last fall — and his brother William, a Bedford Middle School custodian — wanted to be photographed. Their mother battled breast cancer twice (and now has ovarian cancer).
Wilson and William Herrera
The sons gave her their photo in December, as a Christmas gift.
But the photo displays in stores, restaurants and medical offices are not the end of AWARE’s involvement with Cancer Couch. They’ll be displayed in another important venue: a fundraiser on Saturday, March 7 (6 to 8 p.m., POPT’ART Gallery, 1 Main Street).
As with everything AWARE does, this is a team effort. Lori Winthrop Dockser — who lost her mother to breast cancer at a young age, and has also been diagnosed with the disease — is donating all the catering staff.
Jesup Hall owner Bill Taibe — another portrait subject — offers free cocktails on the day of the fundraiser, at his restaurant.
The fundraiser will include light bites and wine.
And — most importantly — an AWAREness that the fight against Stage IV breast cancer needs all of us.
The other day, Jerri Graham posted a heartfelt message on Facebook’s “Westport Front Porch” page.
“WFP” is a popular online community. But Jerri’s words deserve to reach far more people than those who are members of that group. I asked if I could repost her comments. Jerri graciously said yes.
This just came in the mail:
When I opened the envelope, tears flowed. My daughter will graduate from high school!
While it’s not a big deal for some, it means so much more to me.
We live in a town where we aren’t the norm. We are a minority on top of a minority on top of a minority. I’m a black woman raising a biracial daughter on an at-times stretched income of one.
I haven’t any family in sight. It has been just Cat and me for over a decade.
She’s been this solid child with a heart that is loving and giving. She’s never once complained when she’s had to go without.
Each week since she’s started working — whether at Sugar & Olives, the Y, babysitting or now at Westport Pizzeria — she gives me her pay. She knows that each dollar she gives makes up where her other parent failed her.
She’s been a great passenger in my sidecar during our life here in Westport.
I came to this town to one day have this invitation in my hand. To raise a child in a clean environment, and where education matters.
I saw it in the faces of the kids around her who gobbled up chapter books, and inspired her to do the same.
I felt it in the parents who sat next to me year after year at school events when we didn’t always want to be there, but always were.
While I was forced to do it on my own, I do know that raising and educating my daughter here — where at least she had a good education, and friends — made it a lot easier.
I’m so proud of who she is, and who she will become. I’m thrilled that she knows herself well enough to forge her own path, regardless of what everyone else around her does.
Oh, the simple power of a card in the mail.
Congratulations, Staples High School Class of 2019!
And congratulations to two wonderful women: Jerri and Cat Graham!
Last Saturday was a big day for Erica Titlebaum — though she did not know it.
Jacob Elson was going to ask her to marry him.
He’d worked hard to create a special setting, at Sherwood Island State Park. The weather was glorious.
Jacob had planned everything out — including the photographer. He asked his father to hide nearby. But it was tough to coordinate that part.
At 5 p.m. — half an hour before Erica’s mom Michelle was going to show up — she had a flash of inspiration: Call Jerri Graham.
Michelle had met the talented photographer — just once. She knew her mostly through Facebook. But she called, and asked if Jerri could run over to Sherwood Island and get some photos of her daughter being proposed to.
By 5:20 Jerri was hiding in the bushes — and taking amazing shots.
Jacob Elson and Erica Titlebaum, moments after their engagement. (Photo/Jerri Graham Photography)
“What a community!” Michelle says. “I had no relationship with Jerri. I just knew she takes great pictures. But she ran out of her house to help me, at the very last minute.”
Yet Jerri is not our only Unsung Hero.
From Sherwood Island, Michelle headed to Layla’s Falafel. She’d ordered food for people coming back to her house to celebrate.
As she paid, she mentioned happily that her daughter had just gotten engaged.
The man behind the counter told her to wait. Despite a line of customers he turned around, filled many more containers with food, and sent Michelle on her way.
With a hug.
“Despite everything we hear, Westport still has a small-town feel,” Michelle says. “I love it here!”
Much as many of us mock Facebook — even as we check it many times a day — it’s a great place for interesting info. There’s a lot more there than cat photos, or rants and raves about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The other day, Jerri Graham posted these beautiful thoughts:
When we first moved to Westport from Taiwan, we lived in a little cottage on the corner of Main Street and Wild Rose. One bedroom separated by a curtain, a bathroom that had more mold than tiles, and a dusty loft that I fashioned into a bedroom for my then 6-year old. She was young and small enough that I could pass off living in a storage area as cool.
We lived there for almost 4 years. It wasn’t perfect, totally overpriced, and falling apart in so many places, but it was home and part of the tradeoff of living in a town like Westport.
I wonder who purchased the big house and the little cottage where we once lived. Bob, the aging ladies’ man of a hair stylist, occupied the main house on the property. With a silver ponytail that smelled of his scented oil, he always embraced me warmly.
He moved when they sold the house a year or so ago. I’ve seen him occasionally, and am so grateful for his time in my life.
Jerri Graham’s cottage, on Main Street at Wild Rose Road.
In this cottage my world came together and fell apart a dozen or so times. In the little kitchen, I baked my first muffins after waking up at 3 a.m. with a desire to start a business.
I tested my first granola bar recipes here, figuring out ratios and baking until I went to my real job in the morning (kale granola is not a good idea, especially when it burns in the oven of a small kitchen).
I cried a lot in this cottage. For example, when I realized I hadn’t chosen the ideal spouse, feared being homeless, and longed to escape all of the pain in my life. In the driveway, I found out my childhood best friend had killed himself. I sat kicking gravel for an hour after trying to wrap my head around it all.
There were slumber parties where 7-year olds managed to laugh, play, and have fun. There was an annual ball drop from the loft/bedroom on New Year’s Eve. There were neighbors on this street I still know and speak with regularly who will always be a part of my life in Westport.
Every day I drive or walk by this little bit of my history. I’m excited and hopeful for whoever moves into this property that they’ll have nothing but happiness there.
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In 2008, Jerri Graham was not happy with snack bars. The ones on the market lacked the taste, texture and ingredients she wanted to eat — or feed her family.
So the Westport woman created her own. Her “Nothin’ But” bars were a hit, at local cafes, farmers’ markets and gyms. Yet as a solo entrepreneur, she could not take advantage of their surging popularity.
Around that time, Steve Laitmon tried a bar at Doc’s — the old Saugatuck coffee shop. Impressed he stepped into the parking lot, found Graham’s number and called her.
An attorney who also owns the Calendar Group — a Westport-based staffing firm for high net worth individuals and families — Laitmon asked where Nothin’ But was sold besides Doc’s. She was in the farmers’ market, a couple of gyms and cafes, and Arogya.
Jerri Graham and Steve Laitmon.
Laitmon went door-to-door — literally — expanding the market. His 1st target: the Hamptons. He was successful — and so were Graham’s bars.
A few years later, Nothin’ But is now sold in a couple of thousand outlets. Costco and Whole Foods carry them, in 3 regions each. Hudson News sells them nationally. In March, they’ll be at 7/Eleven.
Last year, the company grew by 300%. Sales are in the low 7 figures.
Laitmon did it by old-fashioned pavement pounding. He also brought in a vice president of sales, a sales assistant and an operations guy. That’s it, though. Nothin’ But is nothin’ but them.
Success comes from the product itself, Laitmon says. “We’re taste-driven, with clean ingredients. Nothing artificial. No garbage.”
Right now there are 4 granola bar flavors, and 4 types of cookies. The Nothin’ But brand has plenty of potential, Laitmon notes. But they’re solidifying their current offerings, before expanding.
Speaking of expansion: Nothin’ But’s offices just moved from Westport to Stratford. The company needed a loading dock — and that’s hard to find here.
Doc’s — where Laitmon made that 1st phone call to Graham — is no longer around. But Nothin’ But bars are.
Thanks to that Westport connection, they’re more popular than ever. And all over the country.
Most people don’t make a connection between poison ivy and muffins.
Then again, most people are not Jerri Graham.
She and her daughter had recently moved to Westport from Taiwan. Jeri got a job at Greenwood Press — and a bad case of poison ivy.
Prednisone “made me crazy,” she recalls. She started baking muffins — lots of them. Soon her creations — including a delicious “Westport Morning Muffin” with flax seed, whole wheat flour, fruits and vegetables — were being sold at Doc’s.
Jeri envisioned a muffin delivery service that would “revolutionize breakfast around the world.”
Then she ate a supermarket granola bar. It was nothing but oats, and a few “well-calculated” pieces of nuts and dried fruit.
That was Jerri’s aha! moment.
“I’d been duped,” she recalls. “There was no flavor.”
Jerri Graham at Christie's Farmer's Market. (Photo by Lynn U. Miller)
Oats, she says, “are a blank canvas. You can add anything to them” — nuts, seeds, fruits, spices. There is no limit to creativity.
“If you pair almonds with cherries, that’s different than if you use cashews or pecans,” she says. “My brain is constantly spinning with possibilities.”
She started making the kind of bars she wanted, for herself and her daughter.
She shared them. Today she makes 62 varieties of snack bars. And counting.
Jerri says the reaction to her bars has been “incredibly positive. People are excited by all the different tastes and textures. They’re tired of being tricked.”
Nothin’ But — as in “nothin’ but the best real snacks available” — are baked in a Post Road caterer’s kitchen. They’re sold at Doc’s, Double L Market, Arogya, Cocoa Michelle, and 2 farmer’s markets (Thursdays at the Imperial Avenue lot, Sundays at Christie’s).
They’re also available at the Norwalk-Rowayton, Brickwalk and Greenfield Hill farmer’s markets.
Soon you can buy them at Yura in New York City, and Golden Pear in the Hamptons.
But not at Stop & Shop.
“Everyone’s trying to be the next Bear Naked,” she says, of the Fairfield County granola mega-succes story.
“I don’t want to follow that path. We’d go to Dean & Deluca-type stores — if we ever did those at all.”
Jerri’s mission is to “change snacking. America does not need to run on Dunkin’.
“Convenience stores sell snack bars, but they’re right next to cigarettes and Oreos. That’s not the impact I want. Almonds are better for you than butter cream.”
For now, Jerri’s goal is to “stay focused.” The 1-woman operation is ready to hire people.
Meanwhile, she’s working on a blueberry-based “brain bar.” A percentage of sales will go to Alzheimer’s research.
“If you don’t have a reason for what you’re doing, there’s no reason to do it,” she says.
And then she’s off to the kitchen, to make the donuts snack bars.
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