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A complementary couple: The distinct styles of folk artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon

A complementary couple: the distinct styles of folk artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon, November/December 2017 Cape Cod LIFE |

This Ralph Cahoon painting of a Cape bank scene used local women (left to right) Ruth Ann Andrus, Joyce Howell, Mary LeClair, Judy Shortsleeve and Mary Jo Seguin as models. Collection of Mary LeClair

The Cahoons’ home and studio was built in the late 18th century by Ebenezer Crocker, whose family constructed seven houses in the surrounding area, once known as Crocker’s Corner.

Martha was born in Boston and grew up in Harwich, where she worked as an apprentice to her father, Axel Farham, a Swedish furniture decorator. Furniture decorating was an unusual trade for a woman in the early 19th century, but that did not hinder Martha. She met Ralph, who grew up in Chatham, at a dance in Chatham in 1930, and the pair married two years later. The couple moved to the Crocker house in 1945.

“They had been living in Osterville and bought this house to live in and work in,” Johnson explains, noting, “They had respect for the historic integrity of the structure and allowed it to remain in its original condition.” The house was restored and converted into a museum in the 1980s, and in 2014, it underwent a two-year renovation and expansion that added 3,600 square feet but preserved the building’s historic character.

For years, the Cahoons lived and worked in the Crocker house, eventually shifting their focus from furniture decorating to painting. As seen in the iconic photo on display in the museum of Ralph and Martha seated on opposite sides of the wooden table in their studio, they painted on Masonite—never canvas—because of its similar texture to the wooden furniture they were accustomed to working with. Ralph and Martha painted countless works, many of which were commissioned by local customers.

Ralph’s style is often considered more distinctive than Martha’s, largely due to his iconic mermaids. It was in the Crocker house that Ralph began to focus on the mermaids that became a trademark of his work, according to Johnson.

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