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As a photographer, there are certain images I create that quickly lose their novelty. And there are others that surprise me by the way they continue to reveal something in time. Those photos are where I recognize what it is that I am trying to say through this medium. There is a simple photo I’ve kept on my phone for years that is like this. It’s a photo of my mom’s nightstand that I took quickly one morning as I rushed to find something to wear—

the light spilling in over a strewn, dusty pile of hair ties, small treasures, pens, jewelry; a small porcelain statue of Our Lady (my Grandmother’s) leaning into the light, like she’s watching over it all, framed by a small dried palm and surrounded by the shadow of a lamp.

What strikes me most is the piercing nature of the light into something totally mundane. This small moment broke through my rush, awakened my heart, and filled me with a love for my mom again. As I look at it now, I’m not sure if it was the light that allowed me to see the beauty of these things anew, or their beauty that allowed me to see the light… Either way, this photo is a gift.

Beauty was ours in all its brightness … Whole were we who celebrated that festival. (Phaedrus)

Photo credit: Mary Sarah Ivers

Last year I opened up a small brick and mortar shop, The Olive Branch, where I sell thoughtfully made goods for the home. The desire to start a shop was born from a love for beauty, one that I first realized through photography, that is, the practice of discovering a beauty within reality, discovering the sacred nature of each instant.

We are more than just a shop... Our hope is to share + inspire the Beauty found in daily life + in gathering; to serve to elevate the daily work that takes place in the home and help reveal the Beauty found in the ordinary. We believe that this is possible through our commitment to sourcing thoughtfully made, beautiful goods for the home, made by the people who surround us + sharing their stories. And with that, every good found at The Olive Branch might be a sign that we belong to each other. (Mission statement of The Olive Branch)

Much like my mom’s nightstand, my childhood home is filled with uniquely beautiful things, collected over the years, amongst everyday things. Everything has a place and a story, such as the pine needle baskets that used to be my Grandmother’s and which were crafted by different Native American communities in Arizona. For as long as I can remember, one has held a pile of rosaries in our living room. The hand-painted French placemats, adorned with whimsical animals, on which we have always eaten: my mom brought those home from a visit to Paris when she was just 21. They bring me as much joy now as they did when I was a little girl. The sacred art that graces each room: the large Peruvian image of the Madonna and Child in our entryway (also my Grandmother’s) unlike any I’ve ever seen, the Mexican folk painting of the Little Boy King beside our dining room table, the mosaic of Our Lady of Fatima that my mom made for me and which now sits on our kitchen shelf…

Photo credit: Mary Sarah Ivers

Each item in my shop is curated with the same intentionality that I learned at home. Each is handcrafted. There is a deep value in the connection between maker and recipient. The presence of something like the pine needle basket, for example, is striking because it is not a mere thing; it represents the history of a people, the work of one particular person’s hands, and the shared life of a people through their history of craft. Its functionality is also striking. It can serve as a catch-all, jewelry dish, centerpiece—the list could go on. I always enjoy hearing the particular way that a customer sees a need for one in their home.

Beautiful things are not unessential or unattainable, rather, they are things that engage our humanity.

The graced eye can glimpse beauty anywhere, for beauty does not reserve itself for special elite moments or instances; it does not wait for perfection but is present already secretly in everything. When we beautify our gaze, the grace of hidden beauty becomes our joy and our sanctuary. (John O’Donohue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace)

One of my favorite things in the shop is our collection of handmade dish brushes. Crafted according to a traditional Swedish technique by visually impaired craftsmen, each brush serves a particular need in the home. Made from wood and animal fibers, these brushes are a more sustainable and lasting alternative to plastic brushes. Most of my days are not spent reflecting on the nature of beauty, but rather, working away at quotidian tasks that often feel monotonous. I have found that something as simple as one of these brushes can break through that monotony and even illuminate it. My daily chore is thus met with something made by another person, something beautiful sitting on my counter that invites me to open myself to the possibility of discovering something in my humanity.

It is often while washing the dishes that I am most aware of the light as it streams in and reflects off the water; an intervention that always brings me peace.

Beauty does not linger, it only visits. Yet beauty’s visitation affects and invites us into its rhythm, it calls us to feel, think and act beautifully in the world: to create and live a life that awakens the Beautiful. (Beauty: The Invisible Embrace)

Photo credit: Mary Sarah Ivers

Hand-thrown pottery is another emphasis in the shop. There is something so special about a meal shared and served on the work of another’s hands. Even my morning coffee can then be a reminder that my life is shared, given, intertwined with another. And a reminder of my own desire to create something. In an era of mass production and consumption, I feel a responsibility to support the work of artists. There is a clear need in our culture to rediscover our humanity and I think the return to craft can be a means to this. What you will find at the shop is a kind of antithesis to Amazon or Walmart. The cost of our plates will reflect the hours spent by the human hand in forming each edge. And there are probably not more than a dozen available at once. Much like with each clay plate, behind each good is a correspondence with a human face. There is a clear connectedness through this simple exchange of goods. The Olive Branch does not stock a lot of items, but what is there was chosen and made thoughtfully, serving both functionality and beauty.

Photo credit: Mary Sarah Ivers

Apart from the products themselves, the relationships I have formed with my customers have been a source of surprise and beauty. I will always be intrigued by countless comments in the vein of “Wow, it is so peaceful in here!” or “I could stay in here all day!” I have often had customers accept a cup of fresh coffee or tea and stay to sip it with me. This was not something I necessarily intended, but it has led me to consider how a space can have this inviting effect. When I think about my parents’ home, I have come to recognize that it offers this same invitation: to rest, to belong. One friend even described the feeling of being able to lay down his burdens at the door when he is there. The shop, in some ways, has proven to be a similar space: it has been so good to see that my simple attention to beautiful things has somehow created a space where people feel that they can rest. From that, customers have truly become friends. A few notable ones…

Donna would visit me often on her weekly walks with her baby granddaughter, Zoe, whom she insisted that I hold while she browsed. Over the course of the year, she shared about her work as a doula, the joys of her marriage, etc. When she discovered I had gotten engaged, her eyes filled with tears. I was so moved by the way she shared in my joy, someone whom I probably would have never met apart from the shop, and whose relation to me stemmed simply from a collection of beautiful things.

Ray was an older man who lived in the subsidized housing down the road. He helped out with street cleaning and events and would often check up on me. I came to know the darkness of his life and the lightness in his eyes. Shortly before I moved, he purchased his first and only thing from the shop: a small house plant with the cash he had saved that week. I was struck by the fact that this man, too, had a need for something beautiful.

Kenny and John lived just around the corner from the shop and would visit me often on their walks with their dog Oliver. I laughed so much with them. I wasn’t sure if they just liked me a lot or if they really did see something in the shop. But Kenny came in one day to tell me that he had listened to a podcast I had done about beauty and wonder. I wasn’t even sure how he had come across it, but he couldn’t believe how much he loved it. And that he started listening to the other episodes of the podcast (Awake to Wonder) because he thought it was so good. Again, I was moved by this man’s desire for beauty. We shared more than I had realized.

Miguel was a rough-looking, young homeless man who drifted into the shop one day. I was a bit uncomfortable as he picked up a book and attempted to read it out loud with other customers in the shop. It was the Little Book of Wisdom, filled with small excerpts from the various works of C.S. Lewis. For some reason I let go of the discomfort and decided to listen to him as he read through each page sounding like a second-grader. Finally, he stopped and said, “No one has ever listened to me.” I told him he should keep the book, but that made him uncomfortable, and he left abruptly. A few weeks later he came back and asked me if I remembered him. “Of course!” I said. He told me he’d been thinking about the book and was wondering if he could still keep it. I happily gave it to him and he hugged me. How wonderfully odd that the words of this great author have found their way into these hands.

I could go on and on. As I prepare to reopen the shop in our new home of St. Paul, Minnesota, amidst the chaos and preparations, these reflections have been an invitation for my heart to return to my core desire with The Olive Branch. Most simply, I want to live at the service of Beauty and to help others do the same.

Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. (Mary Jean Irion)

Mary Sarah Ivers is a photographer and proprietor of The Olive Branch.

Posted on November 20, 2023

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