Provincetown, as we keep telling people, is the oldest continuously operating art colony in North America. This is where plein-air painting really took off. This is where mudheads and white-line printing came to life. This is where people like Henry Hensche and Hans Hofmann and myriad others chose to live and work.
And it isn’t confined to the visual arts, either. Writers from the Greenwich Village North mob fairly took over the town, playwrights staging boundary-pushing works at the Lewis Wharf, Dos Passos and Mailer pounding out massive novels, Edna St. Vincent Millay in a garret with her poetry.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I picture what the town was like in those heady creative days, I always see it bathed in sunlight and warmth. There’s scarlet and pink and orange streaking a sunset sky while people sit on the beach in cotton frocks and shirtsleeves.
I don’t imagine it in winter.
Neither did they, of course. Many—if not most—of Provincetown’s early artists fled back whence they came when the nor’easters started pounding the coast. They went to sit in heated cafés and work in urban studios and returned to the Cape, true snowbirds, once the weather turned fine again and the people who could afford their art, their classes, their writing also started trickling back. Because that’s always the really tricky thing about art, isn’t it, the need to actually get paid? Creating is a passion, a necessity, and in some cases a luxury: it doesn’t always keep a roof over one’s head, as we in the next century clearly know as well.
Even then, some people stayed the course. Even then, not all of the artists abandoned the colony in winter. Then, as now, the diehards trudged in the snow past boarded-up shops and restaurants and shivered through the wind and slush and floods. They sat (as I am sitting now) hunched over small heaters, eking out the last bit of warmth, sleeping under piles of blankets and, no doubt, sneezing and coughing their way through the days and nights.
And, remind me: we do this… why?
That’s the thing about Ptown, of course: no one gets here by accident. No one stopped off here on the way somewhere else. Land’s End attracts people for all sorts of reasons—for healing, for solitude, out of fear, out of joy—and all of those reasons, and all of those people, are most apparent in the off-season. Including the artists.
I recently had a wonderful conversation with a musician who came from Paris and is finding creative ways to practice his art… and still make a living. He’s drawn to Provincetown, he says, partly because of the contrast of moving from summer to winter. “Then the long winter season comes,” he says. “It can be rough; this sense of isolation is even stronger and artists have to focus on themselves more than usual and I am convinced that great art can exude from that struggle.”
So what is an art colony like in winter? Does the cold influence what we do, and how we do it? The solitude, the short days and long nights, the sense sometimes of being alone—or close to alone—out in the middle of seemingly nowhere? Are we more creative when we have more time and less stimulation?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, but the concept fascinates me. Any resort town in the off-season is intriguing; and art colony in the off-season is even more compelling when you consider the close proximity of so much creativity in one place. It seems like it would be a time for collaboration, for the mulling over of thoughts, for ideas to germinate. What is the particular ethos of an art colony in winter?
If anyone can answer that, it should be us.