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Provincetown art colony: Where light, water, and art meet

Provincetown, Massachusetts continues its seasonal tradition of vibrant colors and characters.

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As I walk to dinner, I spot a woman with an easel set up on the beach facing the harbor, painting, while a man in a battered hat sits next to her on a driftwood log. Their poses appear timeless, as if at any moment in the history of this art colony I could walk out onto the beach and come across a painter absorbed in work.

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After dinner, I stroll along Commercial Street and indulge in the popular Provincetown pastime of people-watching. I pass Town Hall, where ticketholders for the annual international film festival are waiting. The street, though busy, has not reached its crescendo of activity, because it's only 8 p.m. on a weeknight and the high season for tourists won't start until July 4.

My guesthouse is steps away from the town's bustle, but the minute I round the corner onto Winthrop Street and leave the main street behind everything becomes quiet. The rooftop deck of the guesthouse offers a 360-degree view of the town and the harbor. I picture myself as a captain's wife, waiting atop the widow's walk of a fine house, looking toward the sea. In the mid-1800s, Provincetown supported a profitable whaling industry.

The town has supported many industries over the centuries, legal and not, including piracy, bootlegging, fishing, whaling, and salt production. But the production of plays, novels, and paintings has been by far the most important factor in shaping the town.

When the bohemians of Greenwich Village began summering here to escape the heat of New York City in the early 20th century, they were drawn to the isolation and freedom they found here. Their presence, and that of those who followed, ensured a place for Provincetown in the history of American culture.

Eugene O'Neill (1888-1953) staged his first play, a one-act titled "Bound East for Cardiff," on the wharf here in 1916. Major 20th-century artists, such as Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline, joined legions of painters who summered here. Tennessee Williams (1911-83) wrote plays while staying with friends. Norman Mailer (1923-2007) produced 30 books during his 60 years visiting Provincetown. He moved here permanently in 1990, and his home is now the site of a writers' colony.

Over lobster rolls I sit down with Richard Olson, the town's unofficial historian, to hear stories about the literati. Mr. Olson describes O'Neill as a brooding presence, a man who kept largely to himself except when he was drinking. O'Neill lived for a time in a room above the noisy Atlantic House bar, and wrote in the town library or later in a house on the ocean. Although O'Neill's seaside retreat no longer stands, the Atlantic House, or A-House as it's known, is easily found on Masonic Place at the center of town.

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