Laura Dean Bennett
The attractive millennial couple is dressed in what could have been modern attire – a hundred years ago.
Their lifestyle also reflects a bygone age.
The house features hand-crafted woodwork, the décor augmented with family heirlooms, hand-me-downs and vintage thrift store finds.
Meet Philippe Willis and Vivian Blackwood, who look as though they stepped out of the pages of Harper’s Weekly, one of the most popular magazines of the 19th century.
“I felt instantly at home here,” Blackwood said. “West Virginia is wild and untamed, and that’s the whole attraction for me.”
The couple collects curiosities, vintage pieces and found items from nature.
“Philippe is always coming home from the forest, bringing me some treasure,” Blackwood said. “And I love finding something old and forgotten and cleaning it up and giving it new life.
“We treasure old things. We like to take the shabby and make it look chic.
Blackwood is from Auckland, New Zealand.
She was a painter who’d been working as a public school art teacher in New York City and volunteering at the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art when she met Willis, a graphic designer and illustrator from northern Virginia.
They discovered they had a lot in common.
Both artists find their inspiration in flora, fauna, history and folklore.
They both enjoy outdoor adventures and both, as it turned out, yearned for a life in the country.
The decision to leave the city behind for a new way of life in the country took them to Virginia.
They moved into a cabin close to Shenandoah National Park and began exploring the outdoors in the Shenandoah Valley and the surrounding region.
Their outings included caving trips and road trips through Virginia and West Virginia. It didn’t take long for them to fall in love with this part of the world.
And, as is so often the case with many of our visitors, it wasn’t long before they decided to make Pocahontas County their home.
“Not only is this a wonderful place to create art, but it’s the perfect place to learn about herbal medicine, gardening, canning, growing our own food and foraging for wild food,” Blackwood said.
They bought a house near Huntersville in March 2021.
“I was doing illustration and design for companies from all over, but it wasn’t long after we moved here that I was working on projects for local organizations, too, such as the Yew Mountain Center on Droop Mountain, Shady Grove Botanicals in Mill Creek and On the Level Farm in Hillsboro,” Willis explained.
Many of his clients are farmers, herbalists and small hunting and fishing companies.
Willis designs logos and event posters for fairs and farmers markets. His illustrations can be purchased in print form and on T-shirts.
He explained that his inspiration comes from the natural world, history, hunting and Appalachian folklore.
Blackwood started her artistic career at an early age; she was painting and selling pet portraits as a teenager. And she is now a professional portrait artist.
“You could say I always had a bit of hustle,” she said with a chuckle.
“I’ve always had to think practically. I needed to pay for college, and then I had college loans to repay,” she explained.
Her love of history and figurative drawing and painting have both found expression here in Pocahontas County.
“Part of being an artist is really looking closely at things,” she said. “My life here is giving me the space to focus on what’s important and do good work.”
Her work includes commissioned portraits and giving old, sometimes damaged, family photographs new life as paintings.
Although they’re millennials, they are not totally tech-dependent.
“We came along just before everyone in the world went online. We were some of the last teenagers not to grow up with a cell phone,” Blackwood explained.
Maybe that’s why they feel it’s no bother living in a place where not everyone has cell service.
“I love that there’s no cell phone service at our house,” Willis beams.
They may not have cell phones, but thankfully, they have reliable Internet service, which has enabled their art-oriented careers to thrive.
“We’re grateful for it,” Willis said. “Our art careers depend on it. It means we can market our work to a world-wide audience.”
Whether Willis is indoors at his drawing board, working around the farm or honing his field skills, his faithful dog, Betty, is always at his side.
She’s a squirrel hunting dog – an old Appalachian breed perfectly suited for country life.
“I’m glad we chose Pocahontas County,” Willis said. “My main reason for wanting to move here was to learn more about hunting and trapping, and I haven’t been disappointed.”
Willis’ uncle’s family gave him his first introduction to hunting, an avocation which has provided the couple with a constant source of protein.
They are proud that this past year they bought no meat – only eating what Philippe hunted or trapped.
“Last year was the first year that we managed to eat only game meat – venison, squirrel, beaver and bear meat,” Willis said.
“Except for a few sausages,” Vivian interjected. “We did have to buy a few sausages,” she laughed.
Willis particularly enjoys hunting deer with his muzzleloader, and he’s developed an interest in antique guns.
As for fishing, Willis said he does enjoy it, but only occasionally.
“I don’t fish much,” he said.
“I have an old timer friend from Virginia who is teaching me about fly fishing. He’s taken me fishing for blue gills, which is just about the most relaxing way to spend a summer afternoon.
“But I use most of my time in the summer to work on art and illustration, so that when winter comes, I can focus on squirrel hunting and trapping.”
He’s also been trying his hand at beaver trapping with some success.
“I’m still a novice, with a lot to learn.”
Every animal that Willis harvests is put to good use, from the meat to the fur and everything in between.
As time goes by, they are finding more and more uses for the “everything in between.”
“Bear fat is good for so much; it comes in handy for lots of things around the house,” Vivian said.
“We cook with it and we use it to polish our boots.
“I even use it as a conditioner on my hair,” she laughed.
Willis is fortunate to be able to learn a lot of helpful skills from his mother.
“She’s an herbalist and a gardener who makes herbal medicines and balms,” he explained.
“She’s teaching me about foraging for food and medicine and a lot about gardening.
This is their second year of gardening. Their first year was very encouraging.
This year – not so much.
“Our first year of gardening, Philippe grew Cherokee White Eagle dent corn.” Blackwood said. “It’s an old variety and rare these days.”
“It was so beautiful- with blue and white kernels. We ate some and dried the rest. It makes excellent cornbread,” she added.
It also makes a lovely addition to the autumnal arrangement sitting in the middle of their kitchen table, a recent find from The Cackling Hens shop in Marlinton.
As any experienced gardener will tell you, gardening is hard work. And while it can be one of the most fulfilling pursuits, it can also be quite frustrating.
This year their corn crop failed.
But, as she points out with pride, Blackwood’s herb garden has done very well, and she’s taking steps to ensure its survival during the winter months ahead.
To ensure their own survival, the couple relies on an old wood stove.
“We heat the house with the wood stove during the winter, and I absolutely love it,” Blackwood insists. “It’s one of the best things about winter.”
She and Willis credit their Pocahontas friends and neighbors with helping them with advice about all of the skills they want to acquire.
“Everyone here has been so generous and supportive,” Blackwood said.
She is looking forward to continuing her painting and to doing some art education, maybe in the public school system.
Willis is expanding his illustration and design business.
The couple is planning a 2024 wedding, and although they don’t yet have a precise date or place in mind for the ceremony, there are no worries about an engagement ring – it literally came to them out of the blue.
Blackwood extended her left hand, proudly displaying the garnet set in an elegantly simple gold band.
“Some caving friends had told us about the Sinks of Gandy. We were exploring the cave when Philippe looked down and noticed something on the ground,” Blackwood recalled.
He said, ‘What’s this?’ and picked up this beautiful ring,” Blackwood said.
“I always said when the time came, I wouldn’t want a diamond ring, I’d want something more unique. And there it was, so perfect for me.”
The couple was invited to participate in Hunters-ville Traditions Day this past fall.
Blackwood demonstrated portrait painting, and Willis discussed trapping and displayed some of his furs.
“It was a real privilege for us to take part in that special community event,” Blackwood recalled.
Willis and Blackwood hosted two students from Denmark for Thanksgiving, treating them to a meal neither will likely ever forget.
It was truly an old-fashioned Appalachian-style feast.
Raccoon sliders and bear chili.
A neighbor told Willis about cooking raccoon.
“It needs to be cooked for hours, boiled three times, draining the water each time,” he said.
“We made raccoon sliders, tucking the meat into homemade, Danish-style muffins which our guests had brought,” he continued.
“We served the sliders with homemade barbecue sauce, homemade fermented pickles and a side of bear chili.”
And, of course, the meal was complemented with homemade wine.
“I believe it was Mark Twain who, when asked what he missed most while traveling abroad, said that he most missed raccoon meat,” Willis joked.
“We didn’t find out until after Thanksgiving that raccoon was long a traditional part of many rural Thanksgiving feasts.
“In 1926 President Calvin Coolidge ‘pardoned’ a raccoon destined for Thanksgiving dinner at the White House,” Blackwood added.
“We were historically accurate and didn’t even know it,” she laughed.
“We want to be part of the community and are learning whatever we can from our friends and neighbors.”
With everything else they are learning about homesteading, just about the only skill they haven’t yet taken on is canning, but don’t worry, the couple assured me that’s definitely next on the list.
Philippe Willis can be reached at ournuminous nature.bigcartel.com and Vivian Blackwood may be contacted at www.vivian blackwood.com/commissions