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Island profile: Liss Larsen, nurturing the ties that bind

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Liss Larsen is never too far from water, although this spring much of it was frozen.
Liss Larsen is never too far from water, although this spring much of it was frozen.

Liss Larsen cherishes a memory from three decades ago, of a lazy afternoon when she and her mother, Nancy, played Scrabble on Crescent Beach near what used to be the Peconic Lodge. Liss, who was about 10 years old, put down “Europe,” and her mom was so proud of her fourth grader, that she waived the pesky rule forbidding proper nouns.

Years later, when Liss was pregnant, a childbirth instructor told Liss to think of her safest and most happy place. “And that’s where my brain went,” she said. “Where we’d sit in those old striped chairs and dig our toes in the sand.”

Liss grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, but she’s known Shelter Island all her life. The family ties go back to the 1930s, when 13 year-old great-aunt Jean came to the Island with her parents to visit a friend at Doctor Pettit Camps, which became the Peconic Lodge in 1964 and the Perlman Music Program in 2000.

The family has continued to make the Island their home, including her brother Peter and his family, her father, Dave, and until her death on Memorial Day weekend 2012 at age 66, Liss’s beloved mother, Nancy.

Liss described her mother’s personal rite of spring, which she observed every April on the first sunny day.

“She would drop everything, cancel all her appointments, drive out and sit in the sun for the day,” Liss said. “For one day of the spring she put herself first. She chose this as her place to retreat to. She just did it, not even knowing that she would die early.”

“She’s a big part of why I’m finally back here,” Liss added.

During summers spent on the Island as a youngster, Liss experienced the idyllic combination of independence and protection that so many Island children enjoy. “When I was 15, and my parents were both working, they would leave us out for the week,” she said. “We were allowed to be independent … in this amazingly safe environment. All the parents were watching. It’s a nice way to grow up.”

When Liss learned to sail as a child, she developed a relationship with wind and water that has stayed with her. “Everywhere you go here, there is water, there is that thing that feeds me,” she said. “The confluence of the water and the wind.”

She continues to sail competitively, and participated in the Whitebread Race in October 2014. “I don’t have my own [boat], but I’m a pretty reliable crew member.”

After graduating from Rosemont College, a small liberal arts school near Philadelphia, Liss worked for Robert Sonneman, well-known designer of the modern feather lamp, and then in design for Bally Switzerland.

She was a 24-year-old bride when she married at Union Chapel in the Grove in 1998. Liss and her husband lived in Massachusetts and had two children, Ollie and Ben.

About her marriage, which ended after a little more than 10 years, she said, “Two great kids and no regrets.”

The births of her boys were memorable. “The first one was long … and long … 28 hours of longness,” Liss said. “I was so obsessed with having a clean house that I wrapped a towel around myself like a Sumo and dusted the entire house after my water broke. My second was quick and efficient. I felt like I had run a marathon, I had that euphoria.”

During the 15 years Liss lived in Massachusetts, she did production and design of print materials at The Governor’s Academy, a boarding school, and as her boys were growing, grew her own successful design business.

“I worked naps and nights and I grew it into a full fledged 9 to 5 business,” Liss said. “The recession pretty much flattened it.”

She went to work two years ago at the Ross School in East Hampton, commuting six hours each way, twice a week from Massachusetts for months, until she and the boys moved to Sag Harbor.

Today, Liss is asistant director of communications at the Ross School, and plans to complete her return to the Island soon. Her mother’s influence continues in the artistic work that has become so important to her. “My mother always said, “You should take pictures and make cards,” Liss said. “When she passed away, the voice would not stop. So I made a website and I put some photos up, and I thought this might just be something that I’d like to do.”

Liss photographs familiar Shelter Island places and things, but at a scale and with a kind of monumentality that makes them new. Her series called “Rust” includes pictures of the Islander, an older North Ferry boat just before it was repainted; the rusty gunnels and the block letters of its name speak of strength and endurance.

“I’m looking for a specific quality of light and texture and it doesn’t always happen,” she said. “A lot of it is just waiting.”

Although Liss is young, she’s closely connected to Island history and recognizes the changes. “The vibe of the Island is preserved by the people who inhabit it,” she said. “It used to be a little mellower, there is a little more flash these days, but the beautiful spots are still beautiful.”

Some of Liss’s impressive photographic work is on display in Town Hall through the end of April. You can also view her photos, including the “Rust” photos, at shelterimage.com.