Driving Back in Time

Cape Cod Life  /  August 2021 / ,

Writer: Chris White

In a society steeped in information and digital imagery, it can be easy to forget that humans coexisted for thousands of years before Nicéphore Niépce invented photography in 1826 or 1827. The earliest known written language is considered to be the Mesopotamian cuneiform script, invented in Sumer (modern day Iraq) c. 3200 BC, but the first recordings of human society are pictorial. In January, 2021, researchers published a story in Science Advances documenting what is believed to be the earliest known example of figurative art—a painting of a pig that archaeologists discovered in a cave on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia; they’ve dated it to at least 45,000 years old, according to Scientific American. However, it’s likely that the images are even older, and Scientific American explains: “We stress that this is only a minimum age,” says co-author Maxime Aubert, a professor of archeological science at Griffith University in Australia. “The rock art in this region could very well be 60,000 to 65,000 years old. We just need more samples.” A number of hypotheses have developed to explain why ancient peoples created illustrations on rock walls; these range from purely aesthetic—the making of art for beauty’s sake—to totemism, or leaving a visual signature or “tag.” Abbé Breuil and Henri Begouën believed the art was a form of magic, that the artists painted scenes of hunting as a form of prescience, or of predicting the future. Another idea is that tribal shamans painted while in the throes of hallucinatory trances. Regardless of intent, and irrespective of our modern inability to accurately channel or translate the paintings, the art provides glimpses of prehistoric societies and life, of the animals that people hunted and revered. While the particulars remain out of focus, a modern viewer can still experience these paintings and at the very least imagine some of the aspects of the ancient world. And although it’s likely that some of the world’s most ancient artists studied painting at the side of local masters, it’s also probable that most of the prehistoric painters were self-taught, illustrating for whatever reason their culture, their world. In other words, cave paintings are the first examples of folk art.

1937 Cord 1812 Phaeton Supercharged V8
at Brant Point, Nantucket, MA

Cape Cod abounds with folk art, such as that of Peter Hunt, the self-taught Provincetown painter who gained recognition in the 1940s and 1950s; his brightly-colored images on old furniture are his most iconic pieces. Folk artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon also painted furniture, “drawing on Swedish, Pennsylvania-German, and American folk traditions,” according to the Cahoon Museum, but are probably best known today for their scenes involving mermaids. The Cahoons would often take a notable location on the Cape and infuse it with fantastical elements, such as mermaids shucking oysters at a raw bar set up before the Cotuit Oyster Company. In doing so, the artists created playful scenes, but they also captured slices of history, providing “snapshots” of real places in real times. Folk artist Jim Parker Sr. takes a similar approach to his painting, and in fact, one of his most recent projects is very much in the tradition of the Cahoons; over the past couple of years, he has traveled the Cape and painted various landmarks, not with mermaids, but with antique cars in their foregrounds. In this endeavor, Parker has painstakingly researched his subjects, including the time period of the cars, to provide glimpses into Cape Cod life of, say, 1911 or 1932. And while the original motivation for creating folk art remains nebulous, Parker undertakes his painting with clear purpose; he feels a responsibility to depict history through his art not only to delight and entertain, but to preserve and to educate. Where there are often no photographic records, Parker has gone back in time to create visual documentation of different eras, both here on the Cape and at his other home in upstate New York.

Jim Parker Sr. worked with Sandwich’s Heritage Museums & Gardens to develop and create this collection of antique cars posing in iconic settings. According to its website, “Heritage Museums & Gardens features 41 outstanding examples of automobiles, from the 1899 Winton to our latest acquisition, a 1965 Ford Country Squire station wagon.” Parker recalls, “I asked the manager of the gift shop, Jennifer, ‘Why don’t we take each car and put it in front of an historical site?’ She was very helpful and gave me one of their books with all the cars; without her, I would never have taken on this project.” With the collection in hand, Parker then chose the vehicles’ settings. To determine sites, he says, “I made my own judgements, but in many cases, such as the Cotuit Fresh Market, they sell my notecards. If the settings weren’t historical, then I chose ones that are nautical.” Sometimes, of course, the locations were both, such as his painting of the 1937 Cord 1812 Phaeton Supercharged V8 at Brant Point, Nantucket, MA. This Gatsbyesque painting features a couple picnicking upon a yellow blanket laid out beside their yellow automobile with the lighthouse in the background and a two-masted schooner sailing past. Just past the rear of the car, another couple plays lawn tennis and two girls are dressed in sailor outfits. Every detail is as close to historically accurate as possible. Parker says, “I try to work with local historians, and I try to interview the oldest people in these towns to learn what the scenes would have looked like, down to the clothing and hats his subjects would have worn.” 

1915 Stutz Bearcat-4 Cyclinder T Head
at Loop Beach, Cotuit, MA

In some cases, Parker’s folk art conveys important historical information about both the antique car and its setting. One such example is The Cotuit Chemical Co. First Motorized Fire Truck on Cape Cod. Founded in 1912 to fight fires, the Cotuit Chemical Company predated the fire department in the village. Its first vehicle was a hand-drawn cart with two 35 gallon chemical tanks, but the automobile in Parker’s painting arrived four years later, when the company purchased a “1916 Ford Model T / American LaFrance Chemical Pumper” outfitted with two 25 gallon tanks, a ladder, and other tools, according the the Cape Cod Fire Department website. After the Cotuit Grocery Company building burned down in 1924, the village saw the need to expand its fire fighting capabilities, and in 1926 established the Cotuit Fire Department. The Cotuit Chemical Company donated its property, including the Model T, to the new fire district; the vehicle still runs today and is a common feature in the annual Fourth of July parade. Jim Parker’s painting illustrates the beginning of this story while also tying in the patriotic spirit of Independence Day. A small crowd of spectators, most holding flags, admire the new “motorized fire apparatus,” which sits on the dirt road before the Chemical Company. A little girl pulls a wagon on the opposite lawn, and the firemen, in their 1912 uniforms stand ceremonially at the ready. The painting captures the importance of this moment for the villagers while illustrating for the modern audience a piece of Cape Cod history.

In addition to his partnership with Heritage, Parker maintains 63 accounts with businesses on the Cape as well as seven museums and the gift shops of eight historical societies. “I also have 130 accounts in New York state,” he notes. “I use history to create paintings that museums and shops can use.” Parker has painted pirates and mermaids for the Whydah Pirate Museum, schooners for the Sandwich Glass Museum, a brigand for the Sippican Historical Society in Marion, Cotuit Skiffs for the Historical Society of Santuit and Cotuit, and catboats for the Osterville Historical Museum. Sometimes, just in the way that an artist paints a “living” dinosaur to place beside a skeleton or collection of fossils, Parker’s paintings accompany their original subjects. Thus, in Osterville, his painting of a catboat is has been displayed next to the remains of the actual old, broken-down vessel. “I’m creating something where kids can see the wreck but also an image of the way the catboat was in its prime,” he explains. 

Simplex Speedster at Bourne Windmill

Parker was a gunnery officer in the US Navy during the 2nd Suez War, in 1956, when he created his first commissioned painting. “We were sailing in the Persian Gulf,” he says. “And our captain was serving as a floating ambassador to leaders in such countries as Yemen, Bahrain, and Iraq. One of the cultural traditions in the area was to exchange gifts. My captain knew that I liked to paint, so he asked me to do paintings of our ship, which he then mounted on wooden plaques that he had built in our ship’s workshop. So my paintings of the ship ended up with royal families all over the Persian Gulf.” Towards the end of his service, Parker picked up an elephant tusk, upon which he taught himself the art of scrimshaw. This led to his opening of a shop in Boston’s Quincy Market called Scrimshanders, which he owned and operated from the late 1950s into the 1980s. Since closing the shop, Parker has focused more on painting, although he has also undertaken other artistic and craft projects including illustrating custom knife handles for the Utica-Duxbak Corporation in New York state. 

Currently, Jim Parker Sr. splits time between living in Sandwich for a month and residing in upstate New York for a month. He owns an organic farm that includes a maple syrup operation, three million honeybees and “the oldest cider mill in New York,” he says. Although he rents the entire operation out so that he can focus on his art. Although many of his prints appear on cards, he normally paints pieces measuring 16” x 20.” Then he says, “The printer can reduce them all the way down to one by one-and-a-half inches.” Although his Heritage automobile collection totals 26 pieces, he says, “I’ve probably done 80 paintings in the past three years.” Lately, he’s been working on a series in Kingston, another for the Mayflower in Plymouth and he’s beginning series about both the “Quaker presence on the Cape” and the Shakers of Western Massachusetts. “There are many historical things that could be forgotten,” explains Parker. “Every time you open your eyes, there’s another painting.”

First Motorized Fire Truck, on Cape Cod at The Cotuit Chemical Co., 
a 1916 Ford Model T/ American LaFrance Chemical Pumper.

Chris White is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.