Art Blossoms on Cape Cod

Buyers, sellers, and `lookers' flock during a short, intense summer season

At the back door of the Blue Heron Gallery, sculptress Del Filardi's eagle sits with wings outstretched and sharp beak open. Ms. Filardi hasn't had a chance to get her majestic cor-ten steel sculpture moved to the front door yet. She and her partner, Harriet Rubin, have been too busy opening up their gallery for the season, receiving the work of their crew of talented artists, planning openings for special shows, getting invitations and other printed materials done, and...and... The summer art season on Cod Cod - short, intense, and marvelously varied - is ready to burst out like a cherry tree in spring. From the Fourth of July until Labor Day, art is definitely de rigueur on ``the Cape.''

It's not enough to fish, shop, go to the beach, and eat fast food. One has to gallery hop to get a fuller flavor of this area, which is one of the art mecca's in the Northeast. Lookers, buyers, and producers alike come from far beyond the Cape Cod Canal to do their thing here.

``For one thing, the Cape is a fine place for people who are beginning to collect art,'' explains Bruce MacDonald, dean of the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, ``because it has newer artists as well as established artists.''

The paintings and the prints can't be contained in the galleries alone. There are too many artists and too much art for mere buildings to hold. The green lawns of churches and town centers are speckled with the works - usually displayed on simple chicken wire. The outdoor shows pull in thousands of visitors. And if it rains, you rush into the church hall, or under the tarps put out for such disturbances.

Why the Cape, I ask Del Filardi? ``Why!'' She's kindly amazed that one would have to ask. ``It's so beautiful here. And the light, the famous light. ... Steve, tell him about the light.'' One of her fairly recent finds, painter Steve Allrich, whose paintings exude light and color in a pure Impressionistic style, can only agree, while his paintings, still leaning here and there against the walls, clearly say ``See.''

Nationally known watercolorist Donald Voorheer, from New Jersey, has dropped in and adds another angle to Cape Cod light. It's marvelous - ``but get up early,'' he confides, ``because the light at sunrise is even warmer than at sunset.'' His works at the gallery show it.

It doesn't all have to be painting. Joyce Zavorskas shows me her room at Blue Heron, several walls of some of the most painterly prints one could imagine. Her rich use of monotype earned a major article about her in the March 1990 issue of The Artist's Magazine.

``The Cape offers a full range of prices and varieties of art,'' says Georgia Dearborn, an artist who owns the Dearborn Gallery in Harwich. She adds: ``The lawn-shows in particular offer potential bargains. There's a lot of talent here, some of it just getting to be known.''

Sammy Barber, a Hyannis artist and one of the Cape's most famous, started at the local level. It is the local guilds and associations that sponsor the outdoor shows - where the artists ``sit'' their own paintings, giving up valuable summer painting time in hopes of selling their work. Mrs. Dearborn has even helped other towns organize their own guilds.

For beginners and the more experienced, places like the Cape Cod Art Association in Barnstable and the Creative Art Center in Chatham serve as schools, galleries, and sponsors of competitions.

Alice Mongeau, who now sells her work from Maine to Florida, started exhibiting at lawn shows 10 years ago through the Harwich Guild - and she remembers Georgia's help. Now a member of the prestigious Copley Society in Boston, the oldest art guild in the United States, where she has won top prizes, Ms. Mongeau's career is typical of most artists who finally make a living from their art. In the early years, she cooked for families to earn her way.

In winters, she would camp out in the Florida Keys, ``and paint and paint until finally I had digested the area.'' She just recently bought a mobile home, which she will keep in Flordia, and she bought a small home on the Cape about eight years ago, where she has her studio. Even now, after 15 years in the art world, says Ms. Mongeau, ``I earn a teacher's salary.''

A writer for the magazine American Artist said in an issue last spring that, on the whole, painters and sculptors, as well as dancers, writers, and musicians, earn an average of under $7,000 a year from creative work. This means, of course, that thousands of talented people who aspire to a creative career end up being forced to have the famous - or perhaps infamous - ``second career,'' which usually crowds out consistent creative work.

James O'Neil simply refused to go the second-career route. After art school, he started his now successful art career with $1,500 in the bank.

``I lived for years on an average income of $3,000 to $4,000 a year,'' he said. ``If anything broke, I fixed it myself or did without.'' When he moved to the Cape, he lived ``in dumps during the summer, and took care of other people's homes in the winter.''

But O'Neil's talent and persistence finally pushed him a bit above the $4,000 a year level, especially one year. In 1987, he had back-to-back sellout shows in Cincinnati and on the Cape, the latter at Trees Place gallery in Orleans.

But such years are rare, he says, and he quickly bought land in northern Maine, where he and his wife, Lauren, have been building their own cottage. They plan an imminent escape to Maine, sending paintings back occasionally.

The seven artists interviewed for this article, however, all say that their survival depends on gallery owners who appreciate the value of their work and can encourage buyers to purchase it.

While a few Cape artists - or groups of them - have their own studios, it is not common.

The Cape has several hundred galleries, but economic recession here has made their lot harder than usual. Most of them close in the winter, like the Blue Heron, some never to open again. One of the most successful galleries is Trees Place. Its owner, Julian Baird, is not your typical gallery owner.

Boasting a Harvard University undergraduate degree, a scholarship to Oxford, and a PhD in English from Harvard, he is professor of humanities at Boston University, chairman of that department, and was a finalist one year for the national Danforth Prize for excellence of teaching at the university level.

He seems to be having more fun now than any professor ever had at a university, especially one known for its political battles - as Boston University is. He bought Trees Place in 1981. Dr. Baird, or Julian, as most now call him, exudes a hawk's eye for talented artists. He ``found,'' among others, Loretta Feeney, one of whose many customers hangs his Feeney painting beside his Pissarro.

Julian pays his artists within a week after a sale, which most galleries do not do. He will take a painting back if he hasn't already paid the artist. He will resell a painting at no charge after a few years if you get tired of it or change decor dramatically. He extends credit without cost and says he ``never sends bills and has never been stiffed.'' He likes his customers and loves his artists - as long as they are selling. If not, they get weeded out to make way for the most talented of the 200 to 300 that apply to his gallery each year.

Representational art is king on the Cape. Perhaps its most articulate on-Cape defender is Julian. Mostly, he says, when it comes to abstract works the public has been sold ``undisciplined and incomprehensible junk'' in the name of art. ``It takes an artist with the most unusual combination of technical training and discipline, in addition to significant insights into life'' to do successful abstract art, he says.

If that blunt assessment bothers you, plan a trip to New York's Soho district. But a warning - Julian says that center of abstract art is changing because the ``public is learning that the emperor doesn't have any clothes on.''

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