The mythological creations of artist-author Chris Ann Derby

The Brownies who live in old Maine barns

Mon, 12/10/2018 - 1:00pm

    WALDOBORO — Mention the word brownie and people think you’re either referring to a junior division of the Girl Scouts or that baked, delicious treat. But actually, brownies are mythological creatures of Scottish and English folklore, industrious little hobgoblins with pointed ears who like to hide out in houses or barns and who only come out at night to assist with unfinished chores.

    Waldoboro crafter Chris Ann Derby has made a full time career of introducing brownies to Maine, not only in her enchanting color pencil illustrations, but also as plush dolls she sews by hand.

    “I have always been creative and loved to draw, but my high school guidance counselor discouraged me from taking art my senior year,” she said. “I probably would have minored in art in college, but resorted to only taking a single drawing class my senior year. The only two drawings I kept from that class were of old barns from my favorite book in the college library.”

    Instead, she went on to pursue a career in science, then as an educator.

    Derby said her inspiration for the brownies came from various threads in her life that all collided at once. Six years ago, another crafter in Waldoboro was handmaking brownie dolls. Finding them irresistible, Derby bought one and began photographing his adventures.

    “You have all of these myths in Scotland, but not in New England, so I started making up my own mythology of this Brownie in a New England barn,” she said.

    At the same time, her position at the local high school required her to accompany a student to an art class, much to Derby’s delight.

    “Ten years ago, when I turned 50, I decided that I wanted to be the next Grandma Moses,” she said, referring to the artist whose painting career began at the age of 78. She tried drawing a picture of her new brownie, and was surprised at how well it came out. The art teacher encouraged her to keep drawing them.

    “I started writing down my brownie’s adventures and creating illustrations to go with them,” she said.

    In 2012, a meeting with an editor at Down East Magazine encouraged her, but she hit a snag when asked if the brownies she was drawing were of her own design.

    “The lady who designed the brownie I’d bought told me I couldn’t use his image, because it was copyrighted,” she said. Then, Derby’s lifelong sewing talents came in. “I spent a year redesigning the pattern to make a brownie that looked entirely different,” she said. “Finding the best fabric and the strongest wires for the arms and legs was a real challenge.” She began making more varieties of brownie dolls, either boys or girls, with different skin tones and hair colors. “It takes me about two days to make a doll, and several more to design and sew the clothes,” she said. Prices range from $150 to $200, depending on the degree of detail in their outfits. “Two years ago I made a rock star brownie for a real rock star!” she said.

    In searching for a unique origin story for her brownie, her husband Jim, a house-and-barn restoration carpenter, suggested she make her creations into barn brownies.

    “There are many myths about barn brownies in Scotland, but none in New England,” said Derby. “So, I created my own legend of the New England barn brownie.” In writing her story, she created her own folklore: that if a barn falls into disrepair, the brownie must find a new place to live or will perish with the barn. Derby began photographing her newly-designed brownie in one of the barns her husband was working on, with the aim to use those photos for the illustrations with her book. But at a writer’s conference, an agent told her that publishers won’t touch children’s books with photographs, so she went home and began converting her photos to illustrations.

    Derby said she is backlogged with orders for the barn brownie dolls for now and is limiting her custom orders, because she is still actively working on her original goal of finishing her manuscript and illustrations for a series of children’s books about her New England barn brownie’s adventures. “I have an agent waiting to view my completed manuscript, so that is my first priority,” she said. Derby and her barn brownie will be presenting at the Rockland Public Library in January for story time, or you can email her at: for more information.

    Kay Stephens can be reached at