By Phyl Newbeck
For The Essex Reporter
The cuteness factor overwhelms you when you sit down at the kitchen table to interview photographer/farmer John Churchman. A lovebird coos from its cage, three of his four dogs are curled up on throw rugs gnawing contentedly on bones, and he’s cradling and bottle-feeding a little lamb whose mother went dry prematurely. All that’s before going out to the greenhouse to meet Sweet Pea – an internet sensation who is about to become the star of a children’s book.
Churchman refers to his spread on Gray Way in Essex as a “picture farm.” He, his wife and daughter share the premises with the aforementioned dogs and lovebird, as well as three cats, one pony, nine Bronze Heritage turkeys, six Muscovy ducks, three geese and about 70 chickens. Of late, the stars of this menagerie have been Churchman’s 21 sheep and in particular, a one-year-old named Sweet Pea. Churchman first brought sheep to the property 10 years ago for help maintaining the pasture and for their wool but has since come to appreciate their photogenic qualities.
Sweet Pea’s mother Blossom has difficulty nursing so last year, Sweet Pea followed her sister Violet and two other lambs in a move from the barn to the greenhouse attached to Churchman’s house where they could stay warm and be bottle-fed. All the bottle lambs thrived under his care and became members of what he calls the knitting club. This spring, Sweet Pea developed an infection in her rear leg and needed immediate assistance from mobile veterinarian Alison Cornwall. She was brought back up to the greenhouse for her convalescence and Churchman chronicled her recovery on Facebook.
When he’s not farming, Churchman is a photographer by trade. He studied at the Art Students League in New York City and at Vassar College. For the last 10 years he has designed greeting cards and done work for organizations like the New England Culinary Institute and the Vermont Department of Tourism. At one point he had his own gallery in Stowe. Churchman has been posting photos of his animals on Facebook for years but the pictures of Sweet Pea, often seen with a wisp of hay in front of her face, really captured the attention of his followers.
Since sheep are social creatures, Churchman decided to bring the other three members of the knitting club to visit Sweet Pea in the greenhouse to celebrate her recovery, calling the event a SheepOver. The sheep ate party platters of greens, fruits and vegetables, wore colorful leis, and took turns “borrowing” Churchman’s hat, all of which was photographed for Sweet Pea’s Facebook followers.
“There was so much interest online because people loved Sweet Pea,” Churchman said. “People have said it was like a living book.”
This isn’t the first time admirers have suggested that Churchman write a book – in fact he has an unfinished prototype with moonrises and sunsets – but this time he decided to take the plunge. A Kickstarter campaign requesting funding in return for a copy of the book, fulfilled its original goal in less than 15 hours. Churchman has since broadened the campaign in the hope of adding additional pages and perhaps a fold-out section. Although the book will be geared for children, his goal is to create something adults can appreciate, as well.
Churchman has a background in painting and the photos for the book are done in what he describes as a painterly style, where he combines several images including some overlays of frost on his windows. He uses naturally occurring imagery to create a montage to help him tell the story. Having graduated from Vassar as an English major, he has no trouble adding words to the images. Churchman hopes to finish “Sweet Pea and Friends ~ the SheepOver” by early May. Since the SheepOver, he has held a number of photogenic ovine events including a Super Bowl party, a Valentine’s Day party, a birthday party and an Easter egg hunt.
“People feel there is a real-time quality to this,” said Churchman of his daily posting of photos. While Sweet Pea is the star, this year’s bottle lambs have also gotten their share of publicity and Churchman held an online competition to name the youngsters. In addition, his new Border Collie puppy, Maisie Grace has become a star in her own right.
“One of the good things about this,” Churchman said “is that I’m an artist, a photographer and a farmer and this allows me to bring all those passions together.” Churchman has always considered himself a story-teller so the book project allows him to diversify and showcase all his talents. “Sweet Pea has touched a chord in a lot of people,” he said. “Her story appeals to the children in all of us.”