I recently visited my father’s art studio in Rockport. He had a show with a Cape Ann theme going up soon, and for some reason I asked him whether he’d ever painted Motif No. 1, the iconic red fishing shack on Bradley Wharf. I thought I knew the answer, that being no. But my dad said something totally unexpected: “Funny you ask,” he replied. “I painted it just last week.”
My dad, Oliver, is 81 and an abstract expressionist, I think. He’s an accidental Rockporter, an artist whom I describe as not one of those guys “who paints seagulls and piers.” He’d come to Rockport with hundreds of other New York artists in the late 1940s because it was cheap and beautiful. He didn’t intend to stay. He knocked out three watercolors a day. When he told me some 60 years later that he’d finally done the Motif, it occurred to me that I really didn’t know much about the place or why it has attracted legions of artists over the years–my stubbornly non-Motif-painting father now inexplicably among them.
The shack on the pier was called Motif No. 1 because Lester Hornby’s students repeatedly chose it as their object d’art. The building’s broader popularity–it’s been called the most painted building in America–can be traced to 1933, when artists and villagers created a detailed scale-model replica and drove it to the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair in Chicago, where it won first prize in the float competition.
The Blizzard of ’78 blew it into the harbor. I was in high school then, and I adored the idea of the elements smiting the place. The sea was real; the building, a feeble cliche with no authentic role other than to attract gawking visitors. The town fathers, being a bit more accountable, understood the Motif’s landmark importance and had it rebuilt in weeks.
Each summer, artists continue to come. But my father, well, he’d never had any use for the place. After all these years, was there something irresistible about the clean Cape light and the rustic tableau? Was it, as John Cooley wrote in his Rockport Sketch Book, that “no town is more paintable, none more stimulating to the creative instinct”?
I wanted to look at my dad’s painting, curious whether the mystery of why he’d stoically painted against the en plein air tide all these years might be revealed. Alas, it was gone–sold at a charity auction. “But why?” I pressed. “Why now?” The Motif is supposed to be one of the first paintings a Rockport artist does, not one of the last. My dad looked at me as though he didn’t understand the fuss. He’d found a postcard photo of it while going through some papers, and with the clarity, confidence, and freedom that comes from living in a place long enough, he’d simply said, “Why not?”
When You Go
Rockport Chamber of Commerce
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