You might say that, for Ann Henderson, art is life: warm colors, interesting textures, affirming tones. The parallels might appear metaphorical only, but they are more than that — they are a perfect fit for the 57-year-old.
An interior designer for all of her professional life, Henderson finds her work enriching. She views life much the same way; a patchwork of fabric swatches, if you will, that represent important benchmarks, such as growth, maturation, strength, appreciation and faith.
She speaks regularly of the “gifts” we all have in life, even if those gifts are not always discernible.
A room or a chair can be touched up or remade; an aged collectible can be restored and polished to look new. The human spirit, Henderson might argue, can benefit, too, from small and subtle enhancements and a little support. There are swatches to draw from for such occasions; she knows from experience.
She is, for starters, a small business owner in downtown Keene; a breast cancer survivor; an accomplished, ranked tennis player; a runner; a community leader and volunteer; and a divorced mother of four children, three of whom are grown and on their own, and another who is in college.
Her Main Street store, Ann Henderson Interiors, is neatly arranged and immediately inviting, a mix of old and new furniture and accessories. Subtle comforts of home abound — a pair of shoes against a chair, a colored glass vase, or an antique picture frame on a shelf.
It’s not pretentious, but it’s immaculate and easy to admire. Her showrooms, after all, are her calling card.
Writing recently in a magazine, she said her business, like others of its ilk, has benefited greatly of late from popular television shows and personalities that focus on design and home remodeling.
She has owned and operated her store for the past six years, first on West Street and now on Main Street, next to Miller Bros.-Newton, a men’s clothing shop. Before that, she worked as a consultant from her Keene home.
Over more than two decades, about 75 percent of her work, she noted, has been in the residential sector, balanced by “interesting opportunities” in small offices, restaurants, museum installations and retirement homes.
She is confident, she said, in her knowledge of the tools of her trade: furnishings, decorative objects, lighting and textiles. Her passion is undeniable; her eyes open wide when talk turns to art and to design, and her zeal is bound by a respect for the history and traditions of art.
“It’s very cultural,” Henderson said of art and architecture, “whether it’s a grand chalice for a king, or in African culture a pot that has great symbolism and meaning. England’s amazing; they have beautiful art for everything. That’s a part that has always fascinated me.”
Henderson, who earned an art history degree in college and a degree in interior design later on, described herself as being on a “constant quest for interior spaces that make us pause for a breath.”
That, she said, is where the client comes in. “For me, it’s what keeps it fresh: different people, different sensibilities, different budgets, different needs … and a lot of lifestyles.
“If I were a doctor, I’d enjoy healing people. I know that sounds corny, but I enjoy helping people, maybe a couple who can’t figure it out together, maybe a person who is having to downsize and doesn’t know how. I like helping people find those avenues.”
Her desire to help doesn’t stop in her showroom, or with finding the right accent lighting or piece of crown molding for a room restoration. Henderson is a community volunteer and an active board member for two area nonprofit agencies, MoCo Arts and the Elm City Rotary Club.
Today, she said, she is a woman who better understands life’s big picture, and whose compassion and regard for others has been strengthened by the challenges she has overcome.
She was just 36 years old when she learned she had breast cancer, and had four young children at the time. She acknowledged then feeling “filled with doubt and truly afraid,” at least initially. Seven years ago, she and her husband, Daniel, divorced. That’s not something any person prepares for or can react without emotion to, she said.
In time, she came to accept, life can be clarifying in strange, unexpected and testing ways. It doesn’t happen overnight; it doesn’t happen without the support of others, she said.
In her case, she said, the health issue was, given the range of scenarios, favorable. “My prognosis was so good, I knew what I had to do, I knew I’d be fine.” She said national campaigns to raise awareness and to raise funds to battle breast cancer have changed the playing field. “Lives are being saved, people aren’t scared to death. What you have is women embracing it the way women will, by joining arms with one another.
“I don’t get through what I did without the help of great people and friends, but this is your own journey, and I never believed that it was all supposed to be easy or always pretty. We all deal with hardships. Somehow you have to live your life looking forward, trudge through the emotional stuff and get to a better place. When you can do that, something happens within your spirit. I truly believe that’s what faith is.”
Henderson grew up in a “church-and-family-oriented lifestyle” in Laurinburg, N.C., near the South Carolina border, a rural community she likens in many ways to Keene. She said she still, from time to time, feels the draw of her southern roots. She lived an “idyllic childhood” with an older brother, Will, and mother, Maryann, and father, Floyd. Her mother was a homemaker; her father ran an automotive parts business started by her great-grandfather. Floyd McLean also served in the Air Force and was a pilot during the Korean War.
Henderson was active as a child; she remembers walking everywhere and playing outside until dark. If she got asked to play pickup football with the boys in the neighborhood, well, that was “the best.”
She attended boarding school starting in the 9th grade and enrolled at Hollins University in Virginia to study art history. Hollins was then and still is an all-women’s institution. By then, Henderson had been a ranked junior tennis player in high school and she earned a collegiate ranking, too.
Her first job out of college was with National Geographic magazine in Washington, D.C., where she sorted, cataloged and archived “suitcases full” of photographic slides. One summer there she had a romance with her future husband, a law student at William & Mary who was clerking in D.C. between his junior and senior year.
Meanwhile, Henderson was back in school part-time to complete her interior design degree. Events there were disrupted, however, when her father suffered a heart attack and died at age 50.
Henderson’s romance with Dan blossomed after her father’s death, and they later married, around Christmas. His job took them abroad, where they lived in Germany and in Holland, where their first two children were born. Dan worked as a legal counsel in matters of mergers and acquisitions, Henderson said, and the firm he worked for, The Netherlands, was the parent company of Peerless Insurance in Keene.
After a six-month stop in Atlanta, her family relocated to Keene. Dan later took a legal position with Markem Corp. in Keene, which he held until Markem was sold in 2007.
There’s a lot to like about Keene, said Henderson, who has lived here for 27 years. “It’s a place where you can call on people if you need to; it’s about friends and community.”
Henderson lives life with a briskness that is enviable, even for someone half her age.
“I have a lot of physical energy and a lot of mental energy; it’s why I exercise every day,” she said.
Next month she will run a half marathon in Santa Barbara, Calif., with a good friend, Maggie Ramos of Peterborough, who she’s training with. Henderson does recreational runs every Sunday morning with a group of friends who have been meeting weekly for several years. She does weight training, too, and were it not for all of the tennis she plays, she would probably be more involved in competitive running, she said.
But tennis is a sport in which she excels. She claims not to be a natural athlete, just a hard worker born with an “aggressive and tenacious” style. “I’m very competitive,” she said, “but for me that’s a positive word, because (competitiveness) comes from a great place within.”
She has parlayed that edge, and lots of hard work and training, into a tennis career that includes lofty United States Tennis Association rankings for her skill level and age group.
She and her partner, Michelle Immler of Brattleboro, a retired teacher, have won the top prize in two consecutive U.S. Senior Olympics, which are held biennially, and have already qualified for the 2015 competition next summer in St. Louis. Henderson also won bronze in singles each of the past two times at the tournament.
In April, Henderson’s mother passed away; she had been living in the region for the past eight years. Maryann was 80. Henderson went home to Laurinburg for her memorial service.
Her brother came from Chicago and there were several cousins. Laurinburg has changed in marked ways, not all for the better necessarily, but it was still home, Henderson said.
Still, “nothing can replace the treasure of relationships I have” in Keene, she said.
On the business side, “I still feel like I have a little bit to prove. I want it to be successful, and I want to continue to give back to the community in a way that has been established by so many other successful businesses in this region before me.”