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A half-century of canvases, characters, & color

The Falmouth Artists Guild celebrates 50 years in 2016

Falmouth Artists Guild celebrates 50

Photograph courtesy of Dave Williamson

Doing anything for 50 years will generate a good amount of stories, and The Falmouth Artists Guild certainly has its fair share. In 1975, for example, the Empress of Japan paid a visit to Cape Cod, and stopped in at the guild’s headquarters, then located on Main Street, while her husband toured the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Thirty years later, anyone who happened to be in the vicinity of Shore Street in Falmouth on March 14, 2005, might have witnessed a 12-foot, 1,500-pound metal sculpture “flying” over a local neighborhood. The “Man on Fire” sculpture, which now welcomes visitors with metal arms outstretched to the Falmouth Artists Guild’s home—the Falmouth Art Center—was donated to the organization by local residents. To complete the exchange, the massive creation had to be lifted about 50 feet in the air, by crane, to be removed from the gift-givers’ yard, over the roof of their two-story home, and onto a flatbed truck, which drove the piece the rest of the way to the site of the new art center on Gifford Street.

Another story involves Dan Hanagan, a longtime art teacher who once lived in an apartment above the guild’s headquarters when it was at 744 Main Street. At the time, Hanagan was the guild’s curator, and one evening upon returning home he found two large cabinets that almost gave him the scare of a lifetime. He didn’t open the boxes—and he’s glad of that. The next day he  learned the contents were human skeletons. Not to worry—Harvard University had gifted the bones to the guild for artistic purposes, but it still came as a surprise to Hanagan.

Since 1966, residents of Falmouth and surrounding communities have come together at the different locations the Falmouth Artists Guild has called home to celebrate a shared appreciation for art and community. This year, settled nicely in its new facility—the Falmouth Art Center—with classes, members, and receptions galore, the guild celebrates its 50th anniversary.

“It’s wonderful to be here to be an artist,” says Mimi Gregory, a guild member and acrylics painter. “We have been the best-kept secret in Falmouth for years.” In a recent interview at the art center, Gregory and a group of the guild’s past and present board members, teachers, and staff shared their thoughts and memories of the organization—and why they are so passionate about it.

“Culturally, Falmouth is coming into its own,” says Doris Epstein, “and we’re a big part of that.” Epstein—who describes herself as “the great-grandmother of the guild”—first joined in the late 1960s. She moved to the Cape permanently in the 1980s and served for a period as guild president.

Today, Epstein takes in one class a week and regularly participates with Monday Morning Painters, a group of about 25 artists who head out to Bourne Farm, Chapoquoit Beach, and other locales in summer for weekly en plein air sessions. Epstein, who completes two paintings a month and enjoys making colorful books for her grandchildren, says she has learned some technique over the years and won a few prizes, but that’s not all the guild has given her. “It isn’t the skill level,” she says. “It’s seeing people you’re getting to know. It really is a very important part of my life.”

The Falmouth Art Center offers a variety of courses in several mediums, from ceramics and mosaics to drawing, painting, photography, and weaving. Some of the courses are for novices, such as “Ready, Set, Knit! For Beginners,” while others are more advanced, including a workshop with Don Demers titled “The Ascending Landscape: How to Reach Your Next Level in Plein Air and Studio Painting.” The art center is open year-round, and classes are open to both members and nonmembers.

Visitors can browse the facility’s three galleries for free, and there’s always artwork on display and available for purchase. In addition, the center screens two art-related movies each month for the general public; recent titles have included The Monuments Men and a documentary on Norman Rockwell. The screenings are free, though donations are accepted.

“We’re a community art center,” says Carolyn Partan, a past president of the board of directors. “We take that seriously.”

Suzy Bergmann, executive director of the art center, agrees. To begin, she says regular activities for children include after-school and vacation week programs, as well as art camps during the summer. The center also collaborates with the Fairwinds Clubhouse, a Falmouth organization that offers support and opportunities for individuals with mental illness. Twice a month, Fairwinds members visit the center to participate in a clay class. The center has also hosted art exposure sessions for local Alzheimer’s patients.

During the year the center also hosts a number of events, including the annual ARTrageous fundraiser. This year’s event—to be held Friday, July 8, from 6-9 p.m.—will be part of the guild’s 50th anniversary celebration and the annual auction will include artwork and prizes such as trips and cottage stays. Another tradition is the art center’s Holiday Market, a juried art sale fundraiser that runs from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

Hanagan, who first arrived in 1983, says the guild (and the art center) is like a family. A longtime art teacher, Hanagan is currently leading a class of students through “Palette Knife and More,” a course that covers oil, acrylic, and pastels. He has also taught drawing and other courses over the years, and has had the opportunity to work with many prominent artists. “I think it’s amazing how welcoming we are,” he says, adding that newcomers are always warmly received.

Quitting on an assignment, though, is not advisable in one of Hanagan’s courses, and whining is not accepted. Also, the instructor does not particularly like the color brown, so those who would paint a log cabin—or a chocolate cake for that matter—might have to get creative.

The history of the Falmouth Artists Guild dates back to the 1950s, when Angelo Cangiamilla, a local architect and artist, hosted a group of painters at his home in Falmouth Heights. Over the years, this merry band of artists grew to 80 members, and in 1966, they leased an 18th-century building on Main Street that was originally built as a tavern and had served for decades as a home for the poor and infirm. The guild incorporated that year, the members repaired and renovated the building, and the arts organization called the location home for the next three decades.

Falmouth Artists Guild, Cape Cod Art Annual 2016

By 1999, the historic building required substantive repairs, and the guild had vacated the structure; in the next few years it would set up shop in Falmouth’s recreation center, then at a storefront in the mall, and then in the prone-to-flooding basement of another local building.

Tired of moving in and out of temporary homes, the guild’s leaders began to consider buying or building their own facility. Local architect and urban planner Ralph Partan and a housing committee created by the guild searched around Falmouth for potential properties. Helping the cause, the guild received two anonymous donations totaling $800,000, and in 2004 Chris Wise, a developer from Chatham, donated land in Falmouth at the corner of Gifford and Dillingham for the guild to use. During the next four years, the guild requested grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund and other private foundations, and held various fundraisers with the goal of building a brand new arts center, mortgage-free.

Construction of the center got underway in 2008, and within a year the first stage of the project—including the main gallery, a classroom, offices, and a kitchen—was completed. The building was designed so that it could be expanded, and the build-out would be completed in stages; the building’s lower and upper levels would be finished later, when additional funds were raised.

In January of 2014, the lower level was finished with a classroom for printmaking and weaving, a ceramics studio, and a kiln room. In January of this year, the second floor, featuring a large classroom, weaving studio, and a conference room, was completed.

“It’s a wonderful location and it’s big enough,” says Carolyn Partan, Ralph’s wife. “It let us have a fresh start.” Partan says she initially got involved in the guild’s fundraising effort because she wanted to see the work of her husband—who died in 2005—completed. Achieving that goal, she says, involved a great deal of “incredible” and “serendipitous” acts of generosity from many in the community. Among these were numerous grants issued over a 12-year period by The Francoise Hermann Foundation. Today, the art center’s main gallery is named for Hermann.

Partan says it’s amazing the guild survived through those challenging times. One thing she’s particularly proud of is that the guild does not have a mortgage. “No one,” she adds with a laugh, “would give us one.” Once she became involved, Partan says she learned how great the center was, signed up for a few classes, and has since participated in woodcarving and jewelry making classes.

“It was hard raising the money,” adds Ruth Leech, “but we did it.” Leech, who enjoys painting portraits of many of her artist friends, joined the guild about 20 years ago and served on the board of directors during the fundraising years.

Since the move to the new art center, Bergmann says she has noticed that a lot of former members are coming back, attending classes, and rejoining the guild. In the past few years, the membership has grown in size from about 200—when the new art center opened its doors—to 650. “They come in here and their eyes just bulge,” Bergmann says. “They’re so thrilled for the organization.” The members hail mostly from Upper Cape communities, but the center’s juried shows draw entrants from all over Southeastern New England.

Bergmann says the center always has something fun going on, from regular lectures and demonstrations, to monthly opening receptions on Fridays, with wine and refreshments. Partan says the simple goal is that art should be celebrated and enjoyed.

Hanagan, who is currently teaching four classes, enjoys working with his various students, and seeing them get into the creative mode. “It is,” he says, “exciting to see.”

The Falmouth Art Center is located at 137 Gifford Street in Falmouth. For more information, visit falmouthart.org, or call 508-540-3304.

Matthew Gill is the editor of Cape Cod LIFE magazine.



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