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

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

Carolyn Bubel/The Christian Science Monitor
Steven Taylor (l.) and Sean Boyce paint on the streets of Provincetown, Mass. This small town on the tip of Cape Cod is home to a wide range of artists including painters, potters, photographers, and writers.

Summer art colonies are permissive places where artists can let down their hair, paint or write with less worry about critics, and socialize with like-minded people. Such colonies can often be insular places, but not Provincetown, Mass, at the far tip of Cape Cod.

I've come on a two-day exploration of the town and its fabled arts colony past. With the definitive book "Provincetown as a Stage," by Leona Rust Egan, tucked under my arm, I arrive at the Provincetown ferry dock on a windy, choppy morning in mid-June. I survey the waterfront, trying to imagine how Eugene O'Neill might have seen it on his first visit in 1916, the summer that proved a turning point in his playwriting career. Perhaps, as I did, he found the Pilgrim Monument an odd landmark, with its grandiose Italianate tower rising above gabled Victorian homes and Greek Revival buildings.

Locals describe the town, without too much exaggeration, as "three miles long and two streets wide." Cars are unnecessary because most of the 60 galleries, 170 restaurants and cafes, and dozens of inns, bed and breakfasts, and hotels are within walking distance.

I notice tidy pocket gardens with huge roses in bloom, some the diameter of salad plates. The much-celebrated summer light that first brought painter and teacher Charles Hawthorne here in the 1890s must also be good for flowers. Hawthorne and his students came here to paint the ever-changing landscape en plein air, as the French Impressionists were doing. The interplay of light where water meets sky inspired Hawthorne and still inspires artists today.

The particular brilliance of the light is a frequent topic. Contemporary artist John Dowd paints images of the town's architecture in an atmospheric style that calls to mind American realist painter Edward Hopper. I ask him if he will ever run out of buildings to paint. "I can look at the same building five times a day, the light is never the same," he says.

Painter and teacher Selina Trieff came to Provincetown in the 1950s when she was a 20-year-old student following Hans Hofmann (1880-1966), a hugely influential teacher considered the dean of abstract expressionism in America. She quotes Hofmann as saying, "the light of the lower Cape was the nearest thing to that of the Riviera."

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.

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.

Decades later, Williams watched the comings and goings from his perch at the A-House bar, where it's said he wrote parts of "The Glass Menagerie." Olson chuckles when he says the barstools are famous today because of the Pulitzer Prize winners (O'Neill won four and Williams two) who have fallen off them.

A big part of Provincetown's attraction comes from the tolerant attitude of its residents, a legacy from the days of sailors and rum-runners. "The Wild West of the East," Mailer dubbed it. The peninsula's remoteness and the difficulty getting here added to its mystique. "Land's end is where marginalized people wind up," says Olson. A similar pattern developed in Key West at the tip of Florida, and the two towns share in common a large and active gay community.

An artistic camaraderie prevailed almost from the beginning. "There was no hierarchy," says Stephen Borkowski, the town's art commissioner. And artists found the casual atmosphere – away from the spotlight of New York – conducive to taking risks in their work.

"A magical confluence" is how Vivian Bullaudy, director of exhibitions at the Hollis Taggart Galleries in New York, describes the vibrant Provincetown arts colony in a phone conversation. That confluence is being celebrated in an exhibition at the New Britain (Connecticut) Museum of American Art, "The Tides of Provincetown: Pivotal Years in America's Oldest Continuous Art Colony (1899-2011)." She considers the exhibition, which will travel, a watershed moment in the colony's evolution. Underappreciated artists may gain more notice from scholars and collectors alike, potentially helping to create a more competitive market for Provincetown art.

This would be good news for younger artists who find the town an expensive place to live. The cheap rents and quaint seediness that attracted earlier generations have largely gone, replaced by three-star inns and shops selling high-end home décor. A certain gentrification has occurred in Provincetown, as more people with money seek to live here. "Artists now have three jobs. It's expensive to have a studio here," says Christine McCarthy, executive director of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

The community prides itself on efforts to keep the town affordable. Several nonprofit groups, including the Fine Arts Work Center, offer fellowships. Established artists often help younger ones by offering critiques. And townsfolk have been known to open their homes to artist friends for extended stays. Mr. Borkowski hosts a friend, whom he calls his "artist in residence" for 10-day stints. "He knows he's always welcome," says Borkowski, "After the visit, he leaves me a portrait."

Today, the town also plays host to battalions of summer tourists, gallerygoers, sun worshipers, bicyclists, and real estate agents. Provincetown also serves as gateway to the 500-mile-long Cape Cod National Seashore, which is celebrating its 50th year as a park.

The dunes were formed as a result of early settlers cutting down the trees; with nothing to hold the sandy soil in place, the land was shaped and eroded by each passing storm. When the dunes became part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, access was carefully restricted to minimize further damage. To see them, I must either hike in via one of the park's approved trails or be driven in by a guide from Art's Dune Tours, which has been licensed for this purpose by the National Park Service.

Riding shotgun, I bounce along next to the guide, who pilots our Chevy Suburban (with under-inflated tires to improve traction) along the steep ridges and deep crevasses of the dunes. In the back seat, a family from New Jersey clutches the door frame as we lurch along. I marvel at the steep, Sahara-like mounds and the sense of the sky going on forever. Like a mirage, a dune shack appears on the horizon. Because the park was created by eminent domain, some of the original owners are allowed to lease their shacks from the government. The Park Service has also restored several shacks for use by writers and artists who are granted one-week stays by lottery.

The dunes are truly a landscape apart. I'm beginning to sense the genius of the place that has eluded me in the crowded streets of town. I can see why a writer like O'Neill would venture out here away from humanity to commune with the sea. As I look out over the moonscape of sand, I think of Provincetown's many facets. The natural beauty that drew writers to solitude also has a flip side in the social aspects found in town. In a few short blocks you can rub shoulders with fellow beings, grab a good meal, see a movie, or hear a concert. But at the end of the day, you can walk away from everything and find a profound and utter stillness.

The next day, as I board the ferry back to Boston, I realize several things. First, that two days are not enough to take in everything Provincetown has to offer. Second, that I am more relaxed now than when I arrived. And third, that the afternoon sun has shifted, bathing the harbor in a remarkable, pure light. As the ferry pulls away, I watch the scene for as long as I can, thinking maybe I should put my name in for a week at one of those dune shacks.

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