artifact

At The Norman Mailer Writers Colony, we did an exercise based on historical artifacts from the Provincetown Museum. Since the Mailer website isn’t posting them, here’s mine. I used a painting by Charles Hawthorne, The Crew of the Philomena Manta. Usually it hangs in the P-town Town Hall, but Town Hall is being renovated and so the painting is on display at the museum.

This is an imagined day….

Charles Webster Hawthorne began a chilly day in 1915 by painting. It brought him to a place where he could not only see, but feel his subjects, which was the best and perhaps the worst thing about it. The Portuguese fishermen who were the heart of the painting titled The Crew of the Philomena Manta were tough, hard-working men and their lives were harsh. More than once, Charles felt himself taking on their burdens simply by studying their sunburned faces and the way they carried their bodies, exhausted after long hours hauling in the catch. He’d only been able to persuade one working fisherman to pose, the rest were townspeople. So before him stood the young man in his work clothes, patient from tedious hours at sea. Charles felt starts were the most important part and he wanted to fill in the details of the focal point before inviting the other models in to pose.

He’d set up an easel at his studio above Days’ Lumberyard, built the year before in 1914. Only two years ago, he’d been made a full member of the French Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts and his career was thriving. His fees from teaching and brisk sales of his work easily covered the fifty dollar a year rental. He picked up the paintbrush and moved in front of the painting, looking forward to working with one of his favorite friends, color. As he told his students, “Painting is just getting one spot of color in relation to another spot…. Let color make form, do not make form and color it.” He remembered the first time he had a tube of oil in his hand, feeling the weight, then the gloop of rich ochre as it dropped onto his brand new palette, a globule of golden magic. The smell and feel suffused his memories. Oils opened up a new world of playing with saturation, hue, and brightness. They gave him a connection, however tenuous at the beginning, to the great painters of the past. As he worked, the sounds of the lumberyard and the smell of freshly cut wood faded in his awareness.

Years of painting outdoors had taught him to work quickly and efficiently. He used oils thickly on his palette, less so on canvas; he had a sensual appreciation for the ‘fat’ oil right out of the tube. He mastered the basic ‘fat over lean’ technique to prevent cracking during his first years in New York. After spending the whole of 1898 in Holland, he adopted Franz Hals’ tonal sense, rich despite a simple palette of cadmium red medium, raw sienna deep, and ivory black. Even more intriguing had been Hals’ brushwork, a study in brevity and perfect for his style, particularly when Charles loosened up his technique in his landscape work. Charles had started teaching his students a more structured approach to Monet’s style of impressionism in order to differentiate between color and tone and also to successfully re-create the illusion of light.

As he painted the fisherman, he thought about the young man’s life at sea. Charles’ father was a sea captain, though Charles hadn’t grown up at the ocean’s edge, but in Richmond, Maine, a town of just over twenty four hundred people on the banks of the Kennebec River. Charles felt at home with the sea captains and their crews in the busy fishing village of Provincetown after his travels to New York, Paris and Holland. It was a place that brought together elements of his past in a setting of spectacular light and landscape. In the wake of the fishing and whaling industry, the railroad brought in wealthy tourists, intellectuals and artists. He’d never been a New York insider and at age 43 he no longer speculated whether Robert Henri (“hen rye”) was the one who kept him out of The Eight, the 1908 landmark show at New York’s Macbeth Gallery that would have launched his career in dramatic fashion. As likely, it was Charles’ disinclination for self-promotion. Because he was reserved in these matters, he concluded his success would come outside of New York. He’d enjoyed his time as William Merritt Chase’s assistant before heading to Holland and he’d learned a lot from him.  They’d shared a love of oils and Chase introduced him to plein air painting. He had a good life in Provincetown and emulating Chase’s teaching style had proven very successful. He did not inherit Chase’s mantle directly, nor was he as gregarious as his mentor, but starting The Cap Cod School of Art was the next best thing. And it had grown. There was a steady stream of artists and a thriving colony. He enjoyed his students and they showed an enthusiasm that he found gratifying. What he was teaching them as much as craft was a belief in art itself. If any of them arrived in Provincetown expecting a finishing school, they were quickly disabused of that notion. Charles had them go back to the fundamentals and insisted on respect for the working men and women in town. He was known as a painter’s painter.

He adjusted the brush in his hand and touched it to a spot of cranberry color he’d mixed on his palette to achieve the ruddiness on the fisherman’s ears and nose. Charles had painted the imprimatura, the transparent color which would eventually allow light to reflect through the paint layers. He’d built up some color, but the young Portuguese fisherman remained unfinished. He stood as the central figure of the composition in his fishing clothes, felt lined rubber jacket and boots, with a flannel lined oilskin hat in one hand. His other hand would hold one side of a full bucket of fish when the painting was finished. He stood straight and there was something in his eyes that Charles recognized, a young man’s desire to see the world. He wondered as he worked on his features, how long his subject would stay in Provincetown.

When they finally took a break, the young Portuguese looked relieved and Charles realized much more time had passed than he thought. He clapped the stoic young man on the shoulder and invited him to lunch. A briny gust greeted them as they stepped outside. The fisherman looked out to the horizon and saw his future, including his escape route. Charles looked out to the light he loved on the foamy whitecaps dancing across the cerulean blue of Providence Harbor.

norman mailer writers colony

In April I received an email: “…you have been awarded a scholarship to the Historical Narrative workshop led by faculty member Charles Strozier which begins on Sunday, June 27 and ends on Saturday, July 3.”  Out of the workshops offered, this was the best choice for a ridiculously full schedule this summer and it was a great experience. Saturday, I flew to Boston and spent the night at the Seaport Hotel right across the street from the ferry I took the next morning (after a lobster roll dinner of course). We arrived at MacMillan Wharf in P’town. It was crowded and a band was playing in the gazebo. New England! Fortunately we stayed the much quieter East End near the Mailer home. NMWC provided a great apt. Neighbors included Mary Oliver and Michael Cunningham. Literary!

Ours was one of the busiest workshops they’ve had, so be aware – results may vary.  Charles Strozier (Chuck) is enthusiastic, energetic and we had a full week. Eight of us met Monday morning at the Mailer home. There are pics of the house on the website. Just know that you cannot beat the view from the porch. After introductions, Chuck had invited Mike Lennon, Mailer’s biographer, joined us and gave us a tour of the home, including Mailer’s study followed by a talk and Q&A.  To say he knows his subject is an understatement, so there was no question unanswered. During the rest of the week we discussed each others pieces as well as three books: The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel, the Novel as History, Washington’s Crossing (Pivotal Moments in American History)and the first hundred pages or so of Chuck’s upcoming book on 9/11 (heartbreaking, excellent and should be out for the 10th anniversary next year). On Tuesday we were joined by Steve Bukowski who briefed us on Provincetown History and gave us an orientation to the digital archives as well as some local stories (so many resources!) and Wednesday took a tour led by Laurel Guadazno of the P’town Museum. We each wrote a piece based on an artifact at the Provincetown Museum, which had some cool stuff. I chose a painting by Charles Hawthorne of Portuguese fishermen in the area. Spent Wednesday afternoon and eve writing mine. Thursday we discussed the rest of the workshop submissions and final two books. That night on the way back from dinner, John Waters passed me on his bike. I was tempted to turn around. I didn’t. Friday we met Lawrence Schiller. He produced and directed The Executioner’s Song (among his many other accomplishments) and is one of the driving forces behind the Colony. As with the others who knew Mailer, Schiller also had great stories.

Mailer will likely be remembered for his non-fiction rather than his fiction. He’s not taught in English departments. To a large degree, feminists have seen to that – kind of ironic considering his literary aspirations that women would affect the womanizer’s place in literary history. My conclusion after hearing the stories, reading some of his work, etc. is that he couldn’t imagine the other. One of the knocks on him is that he only wrote about himself. Truman Capote and Gore Vidal nailed him for ripping off other writers. Still, the man didn’t lack for ego and he had a ferocious work ethic. 40 books and 50,000 letters in some 50 years is no small thing and he worked right up to the end, taking books to the hospital with him just in case things improved.

We all went out for drinks and lobster the last night after Chuck and his wife threw us a cocktail party. I won’t tell you that there wasn’t nearly as much drinking as it sounds. No, just imagine that we upheld the hard-drinking image of the writer and engaged in fisticuffs late in the evening.

If you want to know more about Mailer, read his widow’s memoir, A Ticket to the Circus and watch for Lennon’s 900 page biography. Even after death, Mailer continues to generate controversy. However, love him or hate him, the Colony was great. Our group was talented, respectful and fun, it’s always interesting and inspiring to be in the living/working space of an author, and P-town is not only a spectacular setting, but full of history. You have to pay your way to get there and most meals when you’re there, but I recommend the experience to writers.

Finally, no trip to P-town is complete without mentioning Ellie, the enthusiastic singer ‘living the dream’ (his/her words) usually in front of Town Hall