LOCKPORT - Ellen Martin grew up in Lockport, but she left her hometown looking for something bigger and better.
She discovered that bigger and better isn't where you go, but what you do when you get there.
Martin, 58, retired as a litigation attorney in Baltimore and moved back to her hometown seven years ago to care for her mother.
After years working in a job that made few people happy, including herself, she set about making others happy. And in the process she has been making herself happy.
"I'm a big cheerleader for Lockport. I think you appreciate something more if you've been away," said Martin.
She said rather than wait for things to change, she tries to do something about it. She said her attitude is now to look for the positive, rather than the negative.
The word "sweet" was in the title of several businesses she started, including Sweet Sixteen Cafe, which she operated with her mother, Jenny Martin, from 2009 to 2014, and Sweet Ride Rentals, a bike rental and smoothie bar she ran from 2011 to 2014.
She also started some "sweet events" such as the Sweet Roll, a slow roll bike ride; Sweet Word, a giant Scrabble-like game; Sweet Art Alive, which features live actors posing as famous paintings; Sweet Travel, which put a giant map of the U.S. on a section of the road; Sweet Harmony, which put painted pianos outside throughout Lockport; and Sweet Idea, a giant chalkboard where tourists and locals could write out their bucket list.
Some of the other programs she has led since she moved back to Lockport include the Yarn Bomb, which wrapped trees with yarn; tourism brochures; Rock the Locks, which put painted rocking chairs throughout the city; Moai Not, an art installation of papier-mache Easter Island heads; an outdoor quilting bee; Poetry Matters, which put a restorative sonnet on a section of Canal Street; Light Up Union Station; and bus stop art installation.
She also coordinated an April is the Kindness Month campaign and was a co-coordinator of Lockport Blue, a recent law enforcement appreciation campaign.
She is also on the boards of Meals on Wheels, the Dale Association and Dale Properties, Lockside Art Center, the Historic Palace Theatre, the Mural on Main Street and the Kenan Center.
All her work has not gone unnoticed. She received a city proclamation for service in 2013, the YWCA Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2013, the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal's Distinguished Citizen of the Year award in 2014 and the DeSales Distinguished Alumni award in 2015.
Martin is graduate of DeSales High School, a magna cum laude graduate from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, and George Washington University Law School alumna. She expects to receive a master's degree in museum studies from SUNY at Buffalo State in 2017. Martin lived in Boston and Baltimore before moving back to Lockport.
She is one of six children, three boys and three girls, which she said they called the real life Brady Bunch. Her father, the late James Martin, was a radiologist.
How has it been coming back to Lockport and living with your mom?
The idea of being with my mom was like - yahoo, but I'm not married and I don't have kids, so living an adult life when you live with your mother... My mom is my friend. I adore her, but she's still my mom. But it's turned out to be the happiest time of my life.
Would you ever describe yourself as a Pollyanna - always seeing the positive in everything?
No. I'm not a Pollyanna, but I think I have evolved. Trust me, I can complain with the best of them. But I have tried to become more positive.
You haven't been back too long, seven years, but you have done a lot.
It's been fun. Sweet Sixteen Cafe and Sweet Ride, a little bike shop. Sweet Sixteen was on Main Street, my brother Jack Martin owns the building. It was his idea to have a little bakery. It was open for three years.
Was that an experiment or just a way to fill time?
I think it was in part a way for my mother and I to have a project together. And I needed to have an excuse for being here, besides just saying I needed to be here for my mom. That didn't sound like enough - but it is. I think it helped both of us and it definitely got me more involved in the city. My new circle of friends all came from Sweet Sixteen.
It looks like people are turning to you to get some of their ideas off the ground.
I definitely was not a leader in the mural project. I offered to help. And I offered to help (Mary Brennan-Taylor) in the Lockport Blue project. She's someone I really admire. When I did April is the Kindest Month, Megan Menges, a teacher in the Lockport Schools, took the lead at the high school. The success of that campaign and Lockport Blue was with the Lockport schools. Michelle Bradley, the superintendent, and the teachers have worked kindness and gratitude for law enforcement into the curriculum. I'm a big supporter of DeSales, too.
Where did April is the Kindest Month come from?
I just made it up. Before I was just doing art programs. It comes from a T.S. Eliot poem, "April is the Cruelest Month." I always thought that was odd. It's kind of hard to argue with being kind. It's hard to be critical of being mindful about being kind. I need the message as much as anyone. I may have been particularly snarky on a day and thought I need to be kinder.
You have done a lot of art campaigns. Were you a repressed artist when you were a lawyer?
I don't have any talent. I'm a wannabe. I took art lessons as a kid. I love it.
I usually have a weekend where I brainstorm for what's next. I know I don't like to do anything twice - except for the chalk walk. We've done that for four years. I only do things that make me happy now and I'm looking for a way to make that into a movement. Happiness shouldn't come at the expense of someone else. A lot of it is attitude.
You are here to take care of your mom, but is Lockport your future?
I don't see myself being here without her, but I would always want to spend part of my year here. I anticipate living in multiple places, but who knows? My mother encouraged us to go out and see the world. She and I have traveled to Europe four or five times. But right now my future is here. I am going to finish up my master's in May. I love museums and I am doing an event on public art. I think public art is a real thing.
Story topics: Niagara Weekend