When Cape Ann was a budding art colony attracting artists from near and far, the buildings that became art studios were as varied as the artists themselves. Barns, fishing shacks, and storage sheds were pressed into use as studios.
Even the most iconic building in Rockport, Motif #1, was once a studio for a painter. Built as a fish shack in about 1884 (records are a bit fuzzy on the actual date), cod, pollock, hake, mackerel, herring and lobster made their way through its portals on their way to market. For a time, the small gabled second floor was used as an office to pay the fisherman. Unfortunately, large-scale commercial fishing in Rockport began a slow death in the late 1920s. The depression finished it off.
As the fish industry faded and Rockport’s reputation as an art colony grew, Motif #1’s function changed. The fish shack was leased to artist John Buckley in 1931 and then purchased by him in 1933. Buckley had come to Rockport a decade earlier. After being wounded in World War I and being recommended for a Medal of Honor, Buckley attended the Massachusetts Normal School of Art (now known as Massachusetts College of Art and Design) under an early precursor to the GI bill. In his school summer vacation in 1920, he came to Rockport as part of the first classes of summer students to study under Aldro Hibbard. He became a full time resident of Rockport after graduation and marriage. Buckley dove into community affairs in the town, becoming the elected secretary of the Rockport Art Association, performing in fund raisers as an actor for both the March of Dimes and the Rockport Art Association, and opening an artists supply store on Dock Square. Prior to acquiring Motif #1, Buckley did most of his painting and teaching outside. After purchasing the iconic building he made some-oh-so modern improvements like installing a toilet, a kerosene stove, and a window in the dormer to let in the Northern light. From the wharfage fees for the tip of Bradley Wharf (often waived in exchange for fish), Buckley was able to put dinner on his family’s dinner table through the Depression.
By 1945, Buckley had put Motif #1 up for sale. During the 1930s, he had taken on a position as a middle school art teacher in Natick, Massachusetts and was in Rockport only on weekends. The red fishing shack had become a financial lodestone. In the town meeting of March 6, 1945, the town residents voted to purchase it as a war memorial, the only way the selectman and the town attorney could see their way to purchasing it. A series of convoluted financial snafus involving taxes and the needed state legislature approval for purchasing delayed the purchase for almost a year. The sentiment at town meeting was that the building should be used for fishing purposes. Three lobstermen then leased the shack from the town. The townspeople had their way.
The story of Motif #1 reflects the history of Rockport as both a fishing village and a mecca for artists. For only 14 years during the height of the art colony era, the shack which has been painted in countless styles, was used as an artist’s studio. Since then, it it has been used on and off for activities related to fishing, or as it is currently being used, for the gathering of friends of Captain Billy Lee, the current lessee, to talk about fishing.
For more on the history of Motif #1, check out L.M. Vincent’s In Search of Motif No. 1. Vintagerockport.com also has a great assortment of photographs and stories about Rockport’s past.