Inspired by nature and food, a Northern Michigan artist shares her heart and art—and roasted chestnuts—at Three Pines Studio in the tiny community of Cross Village near Harbor Springs.
Featured in the November 2020 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe.
It’s hard to believe I could get lost in the bitsy hamlet of Cross Village at the northernmost end of Michigan’s iconic Tunnel of Trees. But when I got to the notorious Legs Inn, I knew I had to pull over and consult my cantankerous GPS. Yes. I missed my turn and bypassed my destination: Three Pines Studio and Gallery. It’s the place with the giant sign that shouts “THREE PINES STUDIO” in front of the gorgeous cedar-shake building with the massive wrap-around front porch perfect for roasting chestnuts on a blustery day.
If you’re in the vicinity of Three Pines Studio in November and December, you simply can’t ignore the allure of aromatic chestnuts roasting over that open fire. Once inside and ready to wander the studio and artisanal showcase, you’ll most likely be greeted nonchalantly by Carina, the springer spaniel who sniffs you with feigned interest before giving you the brushoff and heading for the great outdoors. Don’t worry. Her best friend, Joann Condino, more than makes up for Carina’s aloofness.
Joann, a first-generation Italian-American, founded Three Pines Studio in 2000 with her late husband, Gene Reck. And she has a heart as big as her personality. You’ll know Joann when you see her. Her flowing, long white-gray hair is thick and curly and wild in a fabulous way that reminds me of luxuriously soft clouds of sheep’s wool—only fluffier and longer. (How’s that for a crazy mixed metaphor?)
In fact, Joann has lived a mixed metaphor—and mixed media— kind of life, heavily influenced by her roots in Detroit where her parents ran an Italian bar/restaurant. That’s where it all started: her story-telling abilities, her love of food, her compassion for community and the arts and her peppery-blunt vocabulary.
Spend some time at Three Pines, and you’ll quickly notice that Joann is always on the move, answering customer questions, showing off Christmas stockings made from leftover scraps of hand-stamped linen and popping into her workspace where she has a collection of more than 450 woodblocks stored in cabinets.
“I fell in love with my first block when I was 15 at Pier 1 in Detroit,” Joann says. “The store imported indigenous work and had barrels filled with woodblocks from India. I picked one up and could see the artist’s mark chiseled into it. It was $6. That started my addiction.”
Joann uses those hand-carved woodblocks to stamp linens for napkins, table runners, towels, bread bags and aprons. Most of her block collection is inspired by nature and food, including the American chestnut, featured on many of her linens. She acquired her chestnut woodblocks from Italian woodcarver Filippo Romagnoli, whom she discovered through a mutual friend. The carver, who lives outside of Florence, Italy, is known for the engraved stamps he carves to emboss fresh pasta.
Naturally, when Joann learned of Filippo, they connected and began collaborating on woodblocks for Joann to use in her work. “I asked him if he ever carved blocks for fabric,” Joann says. “I wanted an olive leaf, so he carved it for me.” And then she sent him a sketch of American chestnut leaves and soon he carved those for her, too. “Before I met him, I always used Indian and Pakistani woodblocks.”
Her storytelling is interrupted by an urgent phone call. The call is indicative of Joann’s determination to give back to the community—and to solving immediate problems. She is coordinating a hasty fundraiser to help someone in the community who is about to be evicted because rent money became impossible when medical bills took priority. Within 24 hours, Joann had collected the $1,800 needed to prevent the eviction.
Joann and Gene immersed themselves in Cross Village when they moved here in 1998. Gene served 12 years as township supervisor and 18 years as a first responder for Cross Village. Joann remembers the time Gene built a fence behind the studio to babysit three buffalo when the owner had to travel out of state.
Before the couple moved north, Gene and Joann worked at Wayne State University: Gene was a chemistry professor and Joann was marketing director. They were smitten with the northern tip of the lower peninsula after vacationing at Wilderness State Park, about 30 minutes north of Cross Village. When they moved to Cross Village, they weren’t quite sure how they would fit into the community of about 200 residents. Joann’s passion for the arts led the way.
Although her day job was in marketing, art had always been a big part of her life. “When I told my parents I wanted to study art, they said: ‘You can’t eat art,’” Joann recalls. So she took the practical route while keeping her artistic passion alive on the side.
“My mother actually started my addiction to the arts,” Joann says. “She introduced me to colored waters when I was young. She made them from vegetables. Magenta colors came from her beets. Yellow came from onion skin. Green from cooking greens.”
She used the colored waters to paint on pinewood left from boxes of grapes shipped to her parent’s restaurant. “Painting on that raw wood taught me how to handle color because of how the raw wood soaks up the paint. Painting on silk with dyes acts the same way,” Joann says.
Eventually, she began experimenting with the woodblocks she collected, using colors she creates and mixes in her studio to stamp patterns on linen. She hired a local woman to hem linen for tea towels.
When COVID-19 began, Joann and her team created masks from her linens. And, instead of offering classes at the studio, she came up with a safe solution for creating art she calls “workshops in a box” for kids and adults. Her holiday kits include: a magical winter fairy house with an original fairy or gnome by Kim Cerrudo, holiday bracelets and locally spun and dyed yarn projects.
Joann applies brilliant colors of dye by hand to yarn, which is spun in East Jordan. The wool for the yarn originates at farms near Harbor Springs, shorn from rare, longwool sheep. Joann’s colors, like many of her artistic creations, are inspired by nature, including her summer flower gardens, the vivid blues of Lake Michigan and the skies above. Her colors include “sunflower,” “poppy,” “lake,” “turbulence” and “autumn reflections.”
Although both Gene and Joann retired when they moved Up North, they immediately found a little studio in Cross Village where they could putter in peace. Gene pursued his own artistic vision and made the leap from chemist to self-taught ceramic artist. Later, the two built Three Pines Studio and Gallery as a showcase for their work as well as that of other area artists, all of whom live north of the 45th parallel. There are no exceptions to the 45th parallel rule. “I’m a real bitch about that,” Joann says. “I have a standard. Local people should be supported.”
Joann’s artistry extends to the kitchen, too. Oh, how she cooks! As her studio grew, Joann called upon her marketing background and her love of food to host an open house featuring specialties from her Italian heritage and her love of chestnuts.
“Growing up in an ethnic home—in your mother’s kitchen—you have to watch. By 16 you’re expected to cook, and for me, miraculously, it worked,” Joann says. “I observed and now I have her recipes. I learned by smell and how it looks and its perfume.
“I always wanted to roast chestnuts, and it wasn’t because of the Nat King Cole song,” she says. “I am first-generation Italian-American. Chestnuts are part of our food tradition. The smell of them roasting brings back memories of my family. Chestnuts were always winter treats. When I was an undergrad at Wayne State University, there were Greek men with carts on a corner roasting chestnuts. They put those hot little nuggets in a paper cone and we all walked around campus chomping on them. To me, it was perfume and sweetness.”
That’s why she and Gene planted four chestnut trees in front of their studio. And that’s why, when Jack Frost comes nipping at your nose about this time of year, you’ll find Joann outside roasting chestnuts to share along with a buffet of Italian treats. It’s a tradition from the heart that she started 19 years ago in the little village at the tippy-top of the mitten.
Prior to publication, we were sorry to learn of the death of Gene Reck on Sept. 22. He was much loved in the community and will be dearly missed.
Jeanne Ambrose is an editor, writer and former Michigander who travels Up North as often as she can. // Photographer Jesse Green shoots commercial, wedding and lifestyle photography from Detroit and Leelanau County. jessedavidgreen.com
Celebrate the Holiday Season in Cross Village
Three Pines Studio helps Cross Village kick off the Christmas season every year on the day after Thanksgiving by hosting an open house from 11 a.m.-7 p.m. and a tree lighting at 5:30 p.m. In addition to freshly roasted chestnuts at the studio, there are treats such as traditional Italian holiday antipasti, cookies and other desserts throughout the day. Other holiday events take place throughout the village that day too, including Clydesdale wagon rides around the village and cookie decorating with Santa’s elves at Cross Village General Store. For more details about the wintery celebration, go to the Three Pines Studio website or Facebook page.
Note: This year’s celebration will be different due to COVID-19. If you are attending the holiday event, please wear masks and be sure to follow social distancing etiquette. During the tree lighting, there is enough area to socially distance more than 6 feet, or stay in your car as they pull the switch. Call ahead or check online for details.
Chestnut Roasting 101
The key to roasting chestnuts, according to Joann, is to cut a slit in the nuts to let steam escape. “Otherwise they can explode,” she says. After washing the chestnuts, place them flat side down and use a paring knife to carefully cut an “x” in each shell. Toss them in a pan over an open fire or put them in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast about 15 to 20 minutes over the fire or in a 400°F oven, until the shells curl. Peel as soon as the chestnuts are cool enough to handle. The more they cool, the more difficult they are to peel.
3 Holiday Recipes from Three Pines Studio
Recipe: Figs Stuffed with Almond and Ginger
Plan to make these in advance so the flavors have time to meld.
- 1 pound large, soft dried figs (about 20)
- 20 whole blanched almonds, toasted
- 10 pieces crystallized ginger
- 10 bay leaves
Preheat oven to 350°F. With scissors, cut the stem off each fig. With a knife, make a deep slit in each fig where the stem was and stuff with a whole almond. Cut each piece of ginger into two strips. Stuff one strip into each fig and pinch edges together. Place figs in a single layer on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes until figs are hot and shiny, turning once. Transfer figs to a rack; cool completely. In a 1-quart glass jar, or other container that can be tightly sealed, layer the figs with bay leaves. Store in a cool place for at least one week, but no more than three weeks. Makes 20 figs.
Recipe: Glazed Red Pepper/Fennel Almonds
For her holiday party, Joann usually triples this recipe. The almonds may be made up to one week in advance. Cool and store immediately in a plastic bag or sealed container. Humidity may make the almonds sticky.
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup whole almonds
- 1 tablespoon water
Directions: Preheat oven 325°F. Line a heavy baking sheet with foil; spray with nonstick spray. Combine sugar, fennel seeds, crushed red pepper and salt in a medium bowl. Stir in almonds and water. Spread mixture on prepared baking sheet in single layer. Bake about 22 minutes, or until sugar melts and almonds are deep golden brown and glazed, stirring often. Separate almonds with fork; cool completely. Makes 1 cup, about 6 appetizer servings.
When Joann makes these for a special occasion, she uses scissors to trim away any rough edges from the cooked pizzelles. And for non-anise lovers, she often uses Fiori di Sicilia, a combination of lemon and vanilla, from King Arthur Flour.
- 6 large eggs
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons vanilla
- 1 teaspoon anise extract (or extract of your choice, such as Fiori di Sicilia or lemon extract)
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 cup unsalted butter, melted
- 4 tablespoons anise seeds (eliminate if not using anise extract)
Directions: In a large bowl, stir together eggs, sugar, salt, vanilla and choice of extract until combined. Whisk together flour and baking powder, then add to bowl, mixing until smooth. Add melted butter, stirring until well combined. Batter will be pillowy thick and smooth. Follow the manufacturer’s directions to preheat and grease pizzelle iron, and cook pizzelles until golden brown. (It usually takes 45 seconds to 2 minutes.) Use a fork to remove the pizzelle from the iron; cool on a rack. Makes 6-9 dozen pizzelles, depending on the size of your pizzelle iron.