The Lovely World of Susan Branch
For more than 35 years, the author and artist has been celebrating her appreciation for home and gathered wisdom to share
In her illustrious career, author and artist Susan Branch has created a lovely, homespun world, filled with sweet watercolor images of family, friends, food, the seasons, her beloved cat, quilts, gardens and much more.
What you might be surprised to learn is that when Branch first arrived on Martha's Vineyard, just over 40 years ago, from her native California, she was fresh off an unanticipated divorce and trying to figure out exactly what she needed to do to build her own world.
"I came for three months and decided to stay. I bought a little one-bedroom Cape Cod house in the middle of the woods," says Branch, 75. "I figured it wouldn't cost anything to wallpaper it. I'd only need to find one roll of wallpaper."
What she found proved far more valuable. "The previous owner of the house had left a lot of books behind, and I found an old copy of "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations." I didn't know anyone in town, so I'd stay at home and read it," Branch says.
"I was looking for a book that would tell me how to make a life."
For a displaced homemaker, alone and looking for guidance, the wisdom within those pages captivated her, and soon other books containing quotations from famous thinkers like Mark Twain, Socrates and Kahlil Gibran became her constant companions.
"I was looking for a book that would tell me how to make a life. All the things that had been plastered on me in my marriage no longer existed," she explains.
What remained, though, was her love for everything related to home. The oldest of eight children, Branch not only tended to them in the ways a big sister would, but she also loved to cook and sew. Throughout her life, these were the activities that always brought her joy.
Embracing Home Life
"As a young woman, I remember making a banana cream pie and bringing it into a party – my self-esteem got a boost from all the oohs and aahs," she says with a laugh, adding that she also thrived on throwing dinner parties as a newlywed, and continues to love to host groups of friends, large and small, for teas, brunches and seasonal events. Hospitality is part of Branch's DNA.
As is being an artist, but that didn't fully come to fruition until she was in her 30s when she started painting. Her first project was a box of recipe cards, designed and handwritten in what has now become her inimitable style, for a friend who was getting married.
"Jane loved them and said to me, 'you should write a cookbook,'" Branch says. "At that point in my life, I had no career plans. I hemmed and hawed like you do when you don't think you can do anything."
A cookbook she could do, but in her own way. "I had an IBM Selectric and I started typing out the words, but I wanted to put watermelons between the lines, which didn't work," she says. That's why she began writing everything by hand.
"Writing by hand is like the hand to the heart," she adds. "Putting pen to paper is your first art." (Branch started doing just that at a young age, claiming she's kept diaries for years.)
Building a Community of Kindred Spirits
Her first cookbook, "Heart of the Home, Notes from a Vineyard Kitchen," was published in 1986 — since then, she's released more than thirty books, including seasonal and holiday titles, gift books, specialty cookbooks, calendars, note cards, coffee and tea mugs, scrapbooking accessories and other gift items, all featuring the unmistakable Susan Branch look. She's also written a three-part illustrated memoir: "The Fairy Tale Girl," "Isle of Dreams," and "A Fine Romance."
"What we all have in common is home."
By encouraging people to bring beauty into their homes – in ways as simple as a pot of tea on the stove or a freshly ironed set of sheets – Branch not only began to build her life, but to build a community of fans and friends. She has 30.6K followers on Instagram, 15.3K followers on Twitter, 80K followers on the Friends of Susan Branch Facebook page and an extensive website with stories from the present and past (read about how she and a friend met the Beatles after their first Hollywood Bowl concert here), photos, recipes, products, events and more.
"What all of us want, no matter how old we are, is connection. And what we all have in common is home," she says of her community of "kindred spirits."
Branch vividly recalls the first fan letter she ever received, and the act of reading it, in her car, during a snowstorm – and crying. From there, letters began arriving as furiously as snowflakes, and of the writers, she says, "If these people could only read each other's letters, they'd know how many wonderful people are in this world."
One letter writer, from England, became Branch's pen pal in 1992 and the two have become fast friends. "She's 20 years younger than I am. We discovered that both of us once wrote a letter to Queen Elizabeth, and we both received a reply from the same lady-in-waiting – that's how long she had been with the Queen," Branch says.
A lover of the English countryside, Branch and her husband Joe Hall, whom she met in 1987 and married in 2012, have traveled to England three times – on the Queen Mary. (They're also fans of cross-country car and train travel due to Branch's dislike of flying.)
On each of those trips, they've gathered with some of Branch's British fans for picnics. "In May, 2018, my pen pal invited me to a picnic in Beatrix Potter's Garden (at Hill Top in Sawrey, England) and we let people know about it and told them it was a BYO picnic," she said. "There were 200 people who showed up."
Branch never has forgotten the impact of inspirational quotes on her daily life and in 2022, she released her latest book, "Distilled Genius: A Collection of Life-Changing Quotations." It's divided into several categories; here are some examples:
"And as you get older, you really start learning what you like."
Quiet: "Listen to the silence - it has so much to say" — Rumi
Friendship: "Constant use had not run ragged the fabric of their friendship." — Dorothy Parker
Creativity: "Imagination is the main weapon in the war against reality." — C.S. Lewis
Courage & Faith: "Security is a superstition. It does not exact in nature. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all." — Helen Keller
Life, Work & Passion: "Do your best but after that embrace the words Good Enough." — Susan Branch
Yes, there are some quotes from the author herself, as well as blank (but illustrated) pages for readers to jot down their own favorite quotes.
"Gaining wisdom is such a great part of aging," says Branch. "When you're in your thirties, you're trying to make all sorts of discoveries about yourself. When I first came out here, and lived in my first house, I kind of grew up. And as you get older, you really start learning what you like."
What Branch likes is simple pleasures such as polishing wooden spoons, or washing and ironing dresser scarves. "Everything I have is second hand, or from an antique store," she says. "Washing, starching and ironing linens by hand makes you feel like you've accomplished something."
She and Hall live in a house that was built in 1849, with a garden and six weeping cherry trees in the backyard. They are starting to think about how to modify the place which has been the center of life and creativity for them for so many years.
"We have stairs at every doorway, so we think about things like that," Branch says. "Not to mention, we have a lot of stuff."
For now, there's a sequel to "Distilled Genius" in the works, a just-completed 2024 calendar and many more creative projects ahead.
To quote Susan Branch herself: "When the world seems to be falling apart around you, create something, put a flower in a vase, bake a pie, draw a picture, knit socks."