Thursday, August 27, 2009

My first year in Rockport

.Abovee is a painting I did of Rockport a couple of years after the year I am writing about, but it seemed to fit. This painting was done from a historic photo, but a lot about Rockport hasn't changed much.

I worked out an arrangement with the art association that allowed me to work a few hours every morning and then at noon I would go and work in the shop. Rockport is a tourist town, but It also has been an art colony. It was traditional for the artists to own their own galleries and show only there own art. Rockport in those days had many small art galleries.This set up an unusual situation for the individual artist. In the rest of the world, a for a client to come into a gallery and find the artist themselves standing there, was disconcerting, it seemed odd and maybe unprofessional. But in Rockport, when they came in ,they were expecting that.

The two "glassblowers and I set about making the shop space fit our needs and getting our inventory together for a couple of weeks, and then we opened the shop for the Christmas shopping season. We had tiny twinkling Christmas lights which made all of the little glass animals sparkle. I painted nothing but 8 x 10s, one a day. The shop was tiny, and I had only half of it, so it was like doing a show in a piano crate, but it worked. Rockport at Christmas was magic. Most of the town was built in the federal style and was arrayed on ledges and hills around a protected harbor facing the ocean. Some of the buildings in the town, including the one across the street from our shop went back to the revolution.

When the big torch was running the shop was steamy hot, although it was cold outside. Our windows were always frosted and flocked with ornate crystals of ice. People swarmed in to see the glass rods stretched and twisted into little flower pots and lacy pianos and silly elongated dachshunds. It was all very lovely and in the evenings we were often open late . I sold some little paintings, and was beginning to know a few people about Bearskin Neck, the narrow spit of rock, sticking out into the ocean, upon which our shop was located.

We were really low tech. For instance, we did take MasterCard- Visa but that was in the days before the card readers. We had one of those sliding imprinters, that made a frottage of the customers card, but we had to call the card company every time and get an authorization code to write on the slip. We had a payphone in the shop, a legacy from a previous owner, and we would feed it a coin and call in the card numbers.

In the town square, about a hundred yards from our shop was an enormous illuminated Christmas tree, and the town decorated all of the light posts about town with little trees and wreaths covered in tiny lights.

Working at the art association introduced me to a lot of its members. There were still a lot of the oldest generation about then, and I knew many professional artists who are gone now. Many of them had studied painting in New York before the second world war and could reminisce about Raphael Soyer or George Bridgeman. They remembered Aldro Hibbard and Max Kuehne, they remembered when the town was mostly artists, shopkeepers and fisherman. Today it is a suburb of Boston. There were also a number of old retired illustrators and widows and children of well known artists . That whole world is gone now. Only one or two of those artists are still alive. If you had asked me who the Rockport artists were then, I could have read off a list of about fifty. Of that list, perhaps five are still alive today. Looking back, it was a pretty egalitarian place, and I had some good friends among those elderly members of the Rockport Art Association. Considering I had shoulder length hair and fixed my shoes with duct tape and wore my only sweater every day, they were relatively accepting as soon as they understood I wasn't dangerous.

One of my jobs was to carry jugs of water down to the sketch room in the basement of the farthest gallery. where in those days there was no running water. That brought me into contact with Martha Nickerson, whose bailiwick the sketchrooms were. At first she was upset that I might be taking over her job, but soon we got on well, and she pretended I was a grandson. That got me into the sketch groups so I could draw from the figure about eight to ten hours a week.

Though I still was very poor, I look back on this as a wonderful time in my life. It seems to always appear to me under glowing Christmas lights and populated with smiling faces of the artists all now passed away. The colonial architecture that formed the sets along the quiet streets in the blackness of a Massachusetts winter evening gave that time the feeling of a movie about the turn of the last century. Many movies have been shot in Rockport because it is so beautiful.

I was painting so hard and taking in all of the ideas that had defined Rockport painting for nearlt a century. I learned new things about color and I realizerd I knew next to nothing about design. It was exciting using all of those little paintings I made to learn about the Rockport style of painting. I was selling my paintings for eighty five to one hundred and twenty five dollars a piece.

One of the artists, not a famous one, but a kind one, Joe Rimini, came into my little gallery and sitting at my easel, gave me a lecture on color. He threw ideas at me like painting passages exactly the opposite of their intended color and throwing the real color down into that, he taught me about using formulas based on color wheels and weird broken color systems . Rockport painting has often had a lot of color.There were good old paintings in the town buildings and in the art association for me to study.

I didn't have money to frame all of my art so I hit upon the idea of painting on the round, flat stones from the waters edge behind my shop, where the tide lapped at the back of the building. I painted all of these rocks with dumb subjects like lighthouses and lobsterboats, surf scenes and pictures of motif number one, the old fish shack in Rockport Harbor, that is the symbol of the town. As silly as the subjects were, the color theory applied to those rocks was wild. I ran endless variations on color schemes and formulas. I tried out odd groupings of pigments and restricted palettes. I did a lot of those rocks.When I say painted rocks, it probably conjures up an image of something a whole lot less cool than these. I built a glass shelf in a gilded nook to display them. They looked very grand indeed in that presentation. I sprayed them with Krylon so they had a gloss like a wet pool ball. I sold dozens of them for ten, twelve, fifteen dollars, It paid for my groceries.

I knew an antique dealer up the street who had a a shop in a great location he called the Musee. He saw my painted rocks and asked if he could have a few for his shop on consignment. They often looked antique, like something Victorian. I had forgotten he had them when one weekend the phone rang and it was Jack, from the Musee, who said. "I have someone here who wants to buy this rock, what should I charge them?" I told him "Jack, just about anything you get for a rock you're ahead!"


Philip Koch said...

Great post. It's funny but I've never been to Rockport, having always assumed it is just another overdeveloped tourist town. But the affectionate reminiscence Stape draws for us here makes me want make the trip. Certainly the coast just north of Boston served as the source for some mighty fine paintings in American art history.

Funny too how different the paths we all take are. I had a child when I was still in graduate school, and boy does that make one cautious about the sometimes unsteady employment Stape describes. But I was fortunate to get a position teaching painting at a good university right after my MFA program in 1972 and took it. Still teaching, now on the east coast. But I have kept my nose to the grind stone and done a whale of a lot of painting over the years. And any painter can and should take real pride in that.

It's just fascinating to me to read about someone else's journey, in some ways similar and in others so different than mine. said...

Hi Stapleton,
That painting of the Rockport Winter Roofs really moves me visually and emotionally. I've always admired it on your site. Rockport was a magical place for me when I was a child. It's the first place I saw living artists.What a revelation! Up to then the only art I had been shown was at the then free MFA.

Mary Bullock said...

Stape - I just got back from a trip up the coast of Maine - went to Rockland - saw the exhibit by Jamie Wyeth "Seven Deadly Sins" that absolutely BLEW MY MIND!! - saw the house where "Christinas's World" was painted - went to Baily Island (I think you said that you painted there), walked out on the mile long breakwater in Rockland Harbor (have you painted there?) - went to Pemaquid Point. Had a BLAST and am ready to paint - so much to paint up here.

Stapleton Kearns said...

We have all taken different roads. I don't think I could have done the academic route. I do enjoy teaching workshops but I want to limit the amount of teaching I do to a certain percentage. It is all irrelevant for me anyway because I am not an art school graduate. I couldn't get a job teaching at the local junior college.
Given the current economy, I think you made a sound decision.

Stapleton Kearns said...

When I had my galleries there, I heard similar things a lot. For many years Boston and New England went to Rockport to meet the artists. There is still a little of that left but it is a lot smaller than it was.

Jan Blencowe said...

I find myself wishing I had a time machine to visit Rockport 20,30,or 40 years ago! Your descriptions make it sound so much more quaint than it is today! And a bit more "real" in the sense of it being an artist colony.

It's still a fun town to visit,but very tourist-y. I was in a gallery there for a few years which unfortunately is now closed.

The back of windows of the gallery overlooked Motif no.1 Everytime I went up there I always felt as if I were treading on scared art history ground.

Oh, and the best lobster omlette I ever had was at The Greenery restaurant.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I do know that area, although that is at the southern end of my usual Maine painting circuit.I have painted Bailys island. I have passe the lighthouse on the breakwater in Rockland many times when on the ferry to Vinalhaven, but I haver never painted out there.
For you readers from Sweden and Singapore,Lancastershire and Australia we are talking about the Penobscot Bay area of the coast of Maine. It is an art historically rich area and has many great places to paint. It is a great place to take your easel,from Rockland to Bar Harbor

Stapleton Kearns said...

It was very tourtisty then, thats why the artists were there. Those tourists came and bought art.But the art colonys all over America are either reduced in size or turned into commercial wonderlands with lots of galleries but none run by artists. That was always what made Rockport unique.