Beginning in the summer of 1899, when the Cape Cod School of Art was founded, and continuing up to today, Provincetown has been one of the nation’s foremost artists’ colonies – a place where artists of all varieties could live, learn, and be inspired by each other and by their surroundings. Carrying on the tradition is one of Provincetown’s most honored arts institutions, The Fine Arts Work Center on Pearl Street. The FAWC has been around since 1968, making it the country’s oldest continuous artist colony.
For the entirety of the summer, The Fine Arts Work Center holds visual arts and creative writing workshops that are taught by some of the country’s most accomplished artists. And, lucky for us, the FAWC arranges for these artists and writers to give artist talks and readings to the general public. Last Monday’s lineup was irresistible: the poet Ralph Angel, the novelist Colum McCann, and the artist Peik Larsen were all scheduled to share glimpses of their most recent projects. I had been looking forward to going for weeks, yet, as I faced the hour and a half long drive from my home in Mashpee to Provincetown and then back again, my mind raced with any excuse available to cancel my much anticipated plans. Was an evening of highfalutin artsy entertainment enticing enough to justify spending over 3 hours in Cape Cod traffic? The answer, it turned out, was an emphatic yes.
Driving on Cape Cod during the summer months can turn even the most mild-tempered person into a teeth-clenching lunatic – and this lunacy can infect year-round residents and tourists alike. The locals grow embittered as congested streets transform even the tiniest routine errand into a mammoth undertaking, while visitors must suffer the unpleasantness of having a leisurely drive hurried or ruined by an aggressive local anxiously riding six inches from their back bumpers. I’ve been on both sides of this experience. Neither are pleasant, but such are the sacrifices we all must make to be in this spectacular place during its most busy time of year…or so I tell myself. And though there are plenty of downsides to getting around by car, there are always moments when it can be glorious. One of these moments occurred on my drive to Provincetown.
It happened while I was heading north down a little hill on Route 6 in Truro. After a long slog and a steady climb, I began my descent towards Provincetown and was rewarded with some of the most mesmerizing vistas Cape Cod has to offer. At the top of the hill, the tip of the peninsula revealed itself. The sea and sky melded into pure, wavering planes of reflection and light. Only the Pilgrim Monument, standing stoically on the horizon, seemed solid amidst so much surface glow. (The monument, modeled after an Italian bell tower in Sienna (why?) and erected in 1910, was built to commemorate the first New World landing of the Mayflower Pilgrims in November 1620. This rather meaningful moment in the country’s narrative was soon forgotten and replaced by the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth Rock, adding just one more example to the nation’s vast collection of historical misunderstandings.) As you drive, if you look to the left, you can see Cape Cod Bay and the tiny one room cabins that densely line Shore Drive. These cottages look like penguins: cute, tidy, proud. To the right is Pilgrim Lake framed by the rolling dunes that I used to fall, and jump, and run up and down as a child – before concerns about erosion made these gently undulating hills of fine sand something to be seen and not touched/joyfully trampled.
Last Monday, the setting sun made the bay looked as if it had been covered with luminous layers of gold leaf. The scene made me think of a poem about Provincetown by Michael Klein (a New York-based poet and memoirist who has taught at the FAWC since 1996):