I’m a city girl. I just can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to live alone, for any period of time, in a rustic shack in the dunes of Provincetown. No one else is around for miles. There is no running water or electricity and you must bring everything you need to safely survive the stay. It gives me the shivers to think about my artist friend Joan Cobb Marsh, an oil painter, who lived alone in that barren environment for weeks while she freed herself of any outside influences so she could truly capture the ever changing colors of the sky, the drifting sand, the waves in the ocean and the endless movement of tumbleweed.
If you Google the area you will learn that at least 19 well- known painters and writers also secluded themselves in the dune shacks on the thousands of acres of sand dunes between Provincetown and Truro. Among those that are listed are Eugene O’Neill, EE Cummings, Harry Kemp, Norman Mailer, Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac.
I must have asked Joan a dozen times over our decade plus-year relationship if she was scared to be in the dunes alone. I don’t think she clearly understood the question, or the nervous nelly person asking it. She would always answer that living in the dunes cleared her mind and allowed her to truly get close to her work without any distractions.
“I loved it out there. It was very serene. You had to bring your own food and water. I left some of the water outside so the sun could warm it.” She showered outside in some sort of a mobile contraption that sounded too open air for me. “What if someone saw you,” I asked? Joan sighed, “No one was around and if they were, let them look.”
Joan was more focused on the fact that she was experiencing the life of many of her ancestors who came to PTown (the nickname) before any true modern day advantages ever took place. She wanted her art to reflect the history of an area of the world that she says is so special. One of Joan’s greatest possessions is a piece of a boat that sank centuries ago when folks first came to the Cape. It’s her connection to the past and reminds her of what life used to be like.
Joan and her husband Al have lived in Ptown full time for 27 years. Their Cape Cod styled house is directly on the bay. Yes, there have been times that the bay water has reached close to the back deck. Joan is totally calm about it. She is also relaxed about living through severe snow and rain storms without a generator. “Who wants to listen to that humming sound all the time. We have a kerosene lamp if we really need it. When the weather gets real bad we will turn off all the lights, sit on the porch and watch the magic show. We have seen colors that most have never witnessed. It makes me drop back into some other state. I don’t know. Maybe it’s like taking drugs. I’ve never done that, but I imagine that’s what it is like.”
After listening to Joan explain her feelings, I would almost like to join her and Al in this timeout period, especially with the state of the world right now.
Joan has been vacationing in Ptown for most of her life. Her parents and grandparents were Ptown pioneers with homes on Commercial Street, the main drag. Joan and Al met at Rochester Institute of Technology, both earned BFA’s.
Joan was a graphic supervisor for 15 years at the Department of Instructional Development, RIT and four years an adjunct professor at Department of Continuing Education. developed a college course, and taught advertising techniques to photo students. Her gallery representation includes:
-Ellen Harris Gallery, Ptown MA
-Kiley Court Gallery, Ptown, MA
-WilliamsMcCall Gallery, Miami Beach Fl.
Al also received his MFA at the University of Rochester, worked as a lab technician at the Atomic Energy project and was a science teacher in the Greece School District.
Joan and Al have adult children and grandchildren who live in various parts of the country. The offspring are also involved in the arts. Eliot and I own a number of works from granddaughter Claire, (University of Pennsylvania graduate) who has been living in Japan for the last few years.
Joan told me, in more than one conversation, that she and Al picked PTown to live in because they knew, in the off months (when there are few tourists), they could turn off all of the distractions that consume and aggravate most of us. They have their fair share of disturbances but they sure have more peace and time to pursue their personal interests. Life in the dunes was pretty similar. When Joan was not painting all day, she would sit outside her shack and just dream.
The following is a quote from Joan’s bio.
“There is no logical explanation of visual data. A person stops, looks… all is on the canvas and the viewer is now in the arena of new experiences. A painter’s mandate is a good-faith attempt to capture the fleeting visual beauty of our relationships with worldly stimuli. In a glimpse resides an eternity.”