Archives for category: Cape Ann artists

motif-number-1This post is part of a continuing series about Cape Ann artists, their studios and work.

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.

Artist John D. Buckley

Artist John D. Buckley

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.

Art class, circa 1961, postcard courtesy of the  blog vintagerockport.com

Art class, circa 1961, postcard courtesy of the blog vintagerockport.com

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. 

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During a recent kitchen renovation of a 172 year-old structure that was a barn in its former life, an odiferous discovery was made. As the carpenters sawed through the joists and beams, a strong cow urine smell wafted up. The powerful aroma had been trapped inside the wood fibers all these years, just waiting to be released and remind us that cows once lived here.

In 1840, Ezra Eames built this barn to house the cows at the farm that marched up Pigeon Hill in Rockport, Massachusetts. An enormous hayloft on the top floor stored the hay for the bovines in the winter. The farm existed for a bit less than a century. At some point, the farm house, field worker house, apple pressing house and barn were all sold off separately.

Sometime in the late 1930s, Justine D. Ferris, a retired business woman and artist from Boston, came upon the barn and had the extraordinary vision to realize the barn could become her home and studio. She drew up the plans for the transformation herself. Justine had previously worked at both Harvard University and the Office of Public Welfare in Boston, but now was looking to immerse herself in art. In 1957, The Boston Globe featured an article about Justine and her remodel of the barn into artist studio and living spaces. From the dusty cow barn, she created a duplex, splitting the building in half, one side for her studio and living space and the other for rental.

The space Justine created for her studio is two stories with exposed beams throughout. She bumped out the existing space seven feet complete with gambrel roof lines. She also put in a huge northern facing skylight. Northern light for studio space is thought to be best as it casts no direct sun shadows. Unfortunately, old studio skylights are notoriously leaky and lose heat in the winter. The skylight was removed during a later owner’s renovation, leaving behind visible ghost marks on the wall where the skylight used to be. But despite the subsequent alterations, the studio’s character remains intact. The room is still flooded with light from both North, West and East.

Exposed beams from the 1840 post and beam construction were painted olive green at some point by a later owner. The paint has been recently stripped and the warm wood beams now catch your eye as they run through the white rough plaster walls. The dowels used to pin the barn together during its 1840 construction are still visible. The soaring two story interior remains dramatic, unlike many of the old cavernous studios in Rockport that have had second floors inserted after the buildings ceased to be used as studio spaces. The exterior stone curving staircase entrance that Justine had built for her clients’ visits still graces the northern side of the building. While Justine’s paintings are difficult to find, a good friend did recently find a portrait of an unknown woman signed by Justine D. Ferris.

Two fellow artists penned a two-part poem about Justine’s life entitled “A Medley of Melody to Justine Ferris,” dated September 16,1947. In the ode to Justine by fellow artist Ruth Berry, she references the studio and barn, “. . . The studio still a magnet is / That draws us all together / From days of yore to Rockport shore / In rainy and fair weather.” The other author of the poem Mariam Tibbetts speaks about Justine’s renovation of the barn: “Soon out of beam and loft and rubbish pile / The barn uprise into stately hall / With Lady Elm sweetly straight beckoning at the garden gate / And the star-set skylight welcoming all.” The elm is now long gone, probably a victim of Dutch Elm disease, but the beams and loft remain. Although the two-storied studio ceiling and living room do indeed rise upwards to eighteen feet, some poetic license was taken with the “stately hall” line.

This old barn near the bay has transitioned from bovine shelter to artist studio and now re-purposed home. This old artist-colony studio may yet have another budding artist in its future. Cows, probably not so.

Click on any photo to enlarge.

 

Portrait of a young girl.

Elana

For many children and teenagers growing up on Cape Ann, Art was not something that resided far away, in museums in Boston and New York. Great art was being made in studios down the street or across the cove. Many youths were asked to pose by the great artists that created their art in Rockport and Gloucester. Elana Brink, nee Pistenmaa, was such a teenager.

On a recent August afternoon, Elana generously shared her memories of when, at age 17, her portrait was drawn by Lilian Westcott Hale. Lilian Wescott Hale was thought to be one of the best portrait painters of her time. She met her husband Philip Leslie Hale while taking classes at the School of Fine Arts in Boston. He was her teacher and seventeen years her senior. While Philip studied under Monet at Giverny, Lilian was recognized as the better painter of the two. When viewers admired Philip’s paintings, as he peered over his glasses, his usual reply was, “Wait until you see Mrs. Hale’s paintings.” Lilian’s paintings can be seen at the Harvard University Art Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine.

Lilian sketching in 1902

Elana’s portrait was executed in the stone studio at Howlets, the Hale family summer studio in Folly Cove. She posed four mornings a week for a two week time span during August of 1959. This pencil sketch was one of the last works that Lilian produced before passing away in 1963. Elana did not see her portrait in progress during the sittings and when she finally did see it upon its completion, she felt as if she had been portrayed in such a saddened state that she told both Lilian and her daughter Nancy that she looked like “she should have tears running down my face.” Upon hearing this, Nancy replied, “Oh no darling, you look dramatic ! ”

Hale family studio

Elana’s family was no stranger to great artists. Elana’s father, when he was a teen, was immortalized as “The Diver” by the sculptor Walker Hancock.

Elana visited the studio again this month and graciously brought the portrait for Heather, one of the current owners of the studio, and myself to see. Nancy Hale was correct in her assessment of the portrait of Elana:  she does look dramatic in it, wonderfully so. It captures the beauty and slightly self-possessed air that only a 17 year old can carry off successfully. Elana had made the dress in which she posed. When sitting for the portrait, Elana recalled that Lilian, aged 78, kept asking Elana, aged 17, if she was tired and needed a rest from posing. Nancy Hale said of her mother during that time period, “In her early eighties, my mother produced some of her best portrait drawings, working as ever, with arms outstretched at full length without a tremor for hours, although by that time she could not hold a cup and saucer without rattling it.” Elana remembers both Lilian and her daughter Nancy as being “so elegant with their styled white hair.”

For Elana, growing up among artists was nothing remarkable. She remembers meeting “so many artists” and only later recognized that quite a few of them were famous. Elana and her father are part of a long legacy of artists drawing their inspiration from not only Cape Ann’s landscape, but from its people.

Elana and her portrait in the studio