Every so often I try to slip away with Chris or a girlfriend to see a place we haven’t been before. Often these are historical houses or museum exhibits or occasional hikes in unfamiliar, but well-marked terrain.
Though I’ve lived on the North Shore for … I think it’s about 19 years now … there are plenty of places … some secret and some quite public … that I’m just now discovering. Along the way, I learn more about history — and if I’m lucky — I’m exposed to interesting personalities or enlightening art collections or inspiring artifacts or fascinating ecosystems.
This week, our brief escape included a visit to a few of the galleries at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester. It’s a cultural treasure which I hadn’t yet visited. By the way, if you visit, check out the passes at your local public library, and bring quarters to pay for parking meters. And drop by the Pleasant Street Tea Company for any sort of caffeine.
Wandering the bright rooms of the Cape Ann Museum, I admired the work of modern artists, an entire room dedicated to the 19th century painter Fitz Henry Lane (revered for his maritime works), the creations of artists from Folly Cove, educational exhibits about granite quarrying and local history, sculptures and so many other fine and decorative arts.
One exhibit was focused on works portraying Dogtown by artist and poet Marsden Hartley (1877-1943). He documented, in words and modernist images, this landscape. It is an expanse of land, thousands of acres, abandoned decades ago by any residents, which has returned to its wild state, though the remains of old homesteads are still visible, situated in the heart of Cape Ann. As highlighted in the Boston Globe‘s review of this exhibit, Hartley said of Dogtown, that it was “… almost hostile to the common eye … like a cross between Easter Island and Stonehenge — essentially druidic in appearance.”
I cannot always say that I understand or connect with every artist whose work I studied there. Some speak to me. Others remain mute or unreadable. I cannot even say that the words of the artist match their visual work, or that both move me equally.
Yet part of the experience is simply to be willing to explore. To sample new ways of seeing the world. Or to appreciate old ways of seeing the world, forms of vision and expression that were fresh and unconventional at the time of their emergence. Many genres of art that seem classical now, were revolutionary in their time. Not so long ago.
I try to follow where the artist goes. Or to take my own journey, inspired by the starting point of the artist’s observation or visual statement.
As I’ve mentioned, I’m a word person. And so, I was delighted to learn more about Marsden Hartley. His words are spiritual. He even named one painting of granite boulders a Doxology. To him, Dogtown was a sacred place that revealed something immutable, more enduring than its fleeting human inhabitants, though we left our traces for him to include in his works.
On the eve of Independence Day, I appreciate that my mind was liberated for a few hours by the reflections and brush strokes of different creative individuals, across several centuries. And that I walked away with a new viewpoint about the North Shore, which I have called my home for almost two decades, the longest I have ever lived anywhere in my life (as of yet).
Our artists are free to make statements about culture, history, religion, politics or the environment. They can romanticize it or exaggerate and distort it. They can say whatever they want. And we can agree or dissent, remain unmoved or become impassioned by their work.
We are free. To express what we feel and how we think. To debate. To converse. To provoke. To inspire. To remain the same. To be changed.
Such freedom of mind and voice is a great reason to celebrate the 4th of July: the birth and development of our nation. To exercise our independence by setting the mind and imagination free – to rest and to grow – this week.
The words I brought home aren’t new, except to me. They aren’t a revelation to anyone familiar with Hartley’s work. But they offered me a fresh persepctive. A gift. A way of seeing a place that I love, with new eyes, in a different voice, and from an expanded heart. Even though they were written decades ago, they speak across the boundary between two centuries, and many generations.
Below, just imagine a white flash of seabird on wing, newly launched, stitching the connection between land and sky, stone and branch, earth and heaven.
Return of the Native
Rock, juniper, and wind,
And a sea gull sitting still –
All these of one mind.
He who finds will
To come home
Will surely find old faith
Made new again,
And lavish welcome.
Old things breaketh
New, when heart and soul
Lose no whit of old refrain;
It is a smiling festival
When rock, juniper, and wind
Are of one mind;
A sea gull signs the bond
Makes what was broken, whole.
By Marsden Hartley