It was one o’clock on an autumn afternoon in Cape Cod when I approached Provincetown, Massachusetts. The brown sand dunes with scattered tufts of green grass stood out against the grey clouds. The dunes rose like waves swelling during a nor’easter. Little snakes of sand slithered across Route 6. On a brighter, warmer, day you would probably find someone out there with their easel, capturing the natural beauty of the landscape.
The scenic coastlines and beautiful lighthouses overlooking both the ocean and the town contribute to how this small enclave on the Cape became the oldest continuous art colony in America. (In 1916 the Boston Globe christened Ptown the largest in the world.) For the past one hundred years, Provincetown has survived as a colony of the arts and a haven for self-expression.
I took a left to head into town and away from the dunes. The Surfside Hotel was a ten-minute drive down the road from the tsunamis of sand, right on the shoreline.
It was a short, maybe ten minute, walk down Commercial Street from my hotel to the Wired Puppy café. I ordered a triple latte and a banana muffin. The cashier handed me my muffin, and I watched the barista measure the espresso beans, grind them, steam the milk, and make my drink.
Over at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum, coffee in hand, I went to meet Executive Director Christina McCarthy. She wore a periwinkle cable-knit sweater and a warm smile. She introduced herself as “Chris” and told me follow her, but the coffee would have to stay behind.
After two big gulps I tossed the cup in the trash and followed McCarthy into the gallery for a guided tour of the beautiful works of art created in Provincetown and the impact of the artists on the history of this town. Chris informed me that earlier artisans of Provincetown set up art schools and contributed to other small businesses and attractions; many of them even donated their art to the town for free to keep art alive in the community. She was excited to tell me that the Association has continued to help showcase local artists and support the culture by hosting showings, events, and offering classes.
My Uncle Jerome is an artist in the colony. He’s a painter who works at the Fine Arts Work Center and holds a membership to a one-hundred-year-old society of Ptown artists. On Commercial Street he was dressed for the cold fall weather, bundled up in a warm jacket and knit beanie. His long hair, now grey and peppered, was tied in a pony tail behind him; his lips parted in a smile underneath his goatee. “Come on,” he said after we embraced, “I’ll take you to the Fine Arts Work Center and we can see if anyone is there.”
The Fine Arts Work Center, at 24 Pearl Street, offers fellowships where writers and artists live in studio apartments attached to the center and create. While poking around I bumped into Lydia Hicks, a former fellow and now Visual Arts Coordinator at FAWC, who showed me her piece called “A Shark Song.” The piece, on display at the FAWC’s Hudson D. Walker Gallery, is a video collage of sharks being caught and mutilated and African Americans being harassed and beaten. The video is narrated by Hicks reading a poem that compares the demonization of sharks as man-eaters to the dehumanization and fear of African Americans. I watched the small video screen and held the headphones tight to my ears, listening intently to every powerful word.
The poem still reverberating in my ears, Uncle Jerome shepherded me to the Town Hall. “They have some really sweet paintings in here, man. You gotta see them. They were all painted by some of the best artists in Provincetown history and donated back to the town.”
My excitement was stomped out like a cigarette butt when we walked up to the doors and found them locked. We turned away from the Town Hall and started down the road again until we ran into Stephen, a friend of Uncle Jerome that works for the Provincetown Library. Uncle Jerome and I explained the nature of my visit and how bummed we were by the roadblocks we met at the Town Hall. “Oh, you have to see the art,” he said, “I’m sure we can sneak in there.”
Stephen noticed the side door slightly propped open by a wedge, waltzed right in, and gave a guided tour of beautiful paintings done of the Cape Cod town and its people. There were paintings by Charles Hawthorne (who helped to establish the PAAM) and Ross Moffett, two huge names in the local art-lore.
“This place has nothing on the Library’s collection,” Stephen said, a smile on his face.
The library housed more Moffetts, Hawthornes, and even a giant replica of an old ship from the early 1900s. Stephen has an excellent eye, he picked some of the art from the town’s collection to go into the library and was also asked by the New Britain Museum of American Art to help select pieces for the “Tides of Provincetown” show in 2011.
The tide was getting lower as we continued down Commercial Street, starving like seagulls on the wharf. We stopped off at the Lobster Pot where Anthony Bourdain would enjoy clam chowder during his time in Ptown in the eighties. We sat upstairs in the loft with a view of the ocean and watched the storm begin to swell over the horizon. Beer in hand, I ordered a cup of the clam chowder and a lobster salad roll. Even though I grew up on the East Coast and spent summers on the Cape I had never tried lobster and only tried clam chowder a handful of times– I was a bit nervous.
The cup of chowder came out first. It was a creamy bowl of deliciousness that blew my mind. The clams, potatoes, and savory flavors danced on my taste buds as I slurped the soup down as fast as I could. I wasn’t surprised to learn that this particular recipe earned the Lobster Pot the Cape Cod “best of” award since 2001 and won Grand Prize at the Cape Cod Chowder Festival four times and the Boston Chowder Festival three. I felt privileged I got to try at least one cup of this delicious dish.
On the other hand, Lobster meat is an undiscovered territory. I took a sip of my Sam Adams and prepared myself for the unknown. I bit into the roll, expecting the worst, and was delightfully surprised. The fresh, sweet, cold lobster meat coated in a mayonnaise sauce fell apart with ease between my teeth combined with the toasted hoagie roll, the explosion of flavors of scallions, and the satisfying crunch of celery that accompanied it were like nothing I had ever tasted; my life was forever changed.
When our stomachs were full we left the Lobster Pot and my uncle took me to a dive bar on Commercial Street called the Old Colony Tap to watch the third game of the World Series.
Lynyrd Skynyrd played over the juke box while regulars sat in their seats screaming at the game. Nautical compasses, ropes, pullies, and nets hung from the roof and walls along with the one TV in the whole joint. The Pabst Blue Ribbon flowed like water as we watched the Boston Red Sox face the Los Angeles Dodgers. The game went into overtime after nine low scoring innings. I grabbed one more beer and walked back to my hotel for the night after the tenth inning. My uncle stayed up waiting until the eighteenth ended with a loss for the Red Sox.
The next day I met Uncle Jerome at the Squealing Pig Pub on Commercial Street for lunch. The storm we saw swelling yesterday was now hurling rain as I walked down the road to the pub. The wind blew my hat from my head and I had to chase it down. While perusing the menu, we sipped our Bloody Marys. My uncle ordered a dozen oysters and insisted that I try some of them, another seafood first for me.
The oysters were shucked at the bar. The small oyster knife punctured the oyster’s protective shell, and the man shucking them separated the two sides and placed the half with the oyster flesh on a dish with ice, cocktail sauce, and lemons. My uncle instructed me to take the lemon, squeeze it onto the oyster, add a dab of the cocktail sauce, and slurp it down. The tartness of the lemons contrasted perfectly with the spicy combination of the Worcestershire and horseradish in the cocktail sauce, and although the oyster itself looked like an amorphous blob of slime it was quite tender, slightly chewy, and delectable. We shared the oysters and sipped our Bloody Marys until our food came. The burger was cooked to a perfect medium well, and the egg was runny enough to have a little yoke but not runny enough to make a mess. I left another Provincetown restaurant with my stomach full and my seafood horizons widened.
Uncle Jerome suggested we head over to the clubhouse his society of artists own, play some pool, and wait out the storm. We shot some eight-ball as we shot the shit. Sharing a beer and a smoke, we witnessed the thrashing arms of Poseidon wreaking havoc on the shoreline. The wind blew so hard a dinghy lost its mooring and thrashed in the violent waves, inevitably torn to pieces between the wooden support beams under the piers. I looked around the clubhouse filled with wall to wall clutter of different paintings, posters, and doodles drawn directly on the wall. I looked out on the dark skies and rising waves and pondered how it would have made for a beautiful painting of a true Nor’easter.
The next morning Provincetown was in my rearview mirror as I made my way around the bend. The Pilgrim Monument Tower stood tall against the skyline, inviting visitors to climb the top of the 252-foot tower and look out over the small colorful beachside colony and its majestic scenery. I drove past the dunes again, dark brown and oddly shaped with green tufts puffing out from the top like giant Chia Pets towering over the road. I took one last glance toward the ocean and drove on down Route 6 through Truro, Mass., back toward Central Connecticut. As the distance between Ptown and I grew, the sand shook free from my car and the smell of salt and seafood cleared. Soon the familiar view of the industrial towers of New Britain rose against the blue sky in the foreground, like a cityscape that Ana Schmidt would paint.
Headline photo courtesy of Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.