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Art in the time of COVID

Photography courtesy of the Eastham Painters Guild

The Eastham Painters Guild leverages the community, and each other, to continue to create art in a difficult time.

Art is an integral aspect of life in this unique region of the Cape and Islands. It is a natural extension of creative interpretation to take the inspiration of the Cape’s quintessential beauty—its quaint seasonal charm, lush landscape, breathtaking shoreline—and express the evocative emotions triggered by the vistas in a wide range of artistic outlets. One of the most powerful and fulfilling elements of creating art is the process of sharing it with others. Community engagement and discourse is at the core of artistic exploration, not only for the public, but as informative feedback for the creator as well. And, of course, with the knowledge swap, the support and mentoring that occurs within the network of like-minded artists, the value of a group dynamic cannot be adequately measured. The Eastham Painters Guild is among these groups. As one of the oldest artist organizations on the Cape, the Guild is committed to supporting local painters as a resource and social group and giving back to the larger Eastham Community. 

This year marks important milestones for both the Eastham Painters Guild and the town of Eastham. The Eastham Painters Guild is celebrating its 40th year of operation, a parallel to the town’s 400-year anniversary. In response, the Guild scheduled numerous community events under the theme “400 Years of Eastham.” The event was scheduled for the 2020 annual ArtWeek event and was to feature a variety of art-centered activities, including a themed exhibit showcasing its members’ artwork and a community mural that would recognize Eastham’s diverse history and future. Unfortunately, in the wake of COVID-19, those plans changed and the Eastham Painters Guild searched for new ways to operate. Jody Shyllberg, the Guild’s president, stressed the organization’s concern with inaction. “We really felt,” she says, “that if we didn’t do something for a whole year it would be detrimental to the group.” In light of safety restrictions, the Guild has devised creative yet practical solutions to continue operating, while prioritizing the community and the practice of its members in the face of adversity.

Founded in 1980, the Eastham Painters Guild is made up of a small group of painters, all of whom call Eastham home in some capacity. They are headquartered at the 1869 Schoolhouse Museum, but hold events for their members and the public across Eastham, the Cape, and greater Massachusetts. The Guild exhibits art created by its members as part of seasonal exhibits and year-round gallery shows, and interacts with Eastham’s community through initiatives like its partnership with the Cape Cod National Seashore and local fundraisers and events. 

Their event, “400 Years of Eastham,” was meant to do just that. The celebration, highlighted by an exhibit created and curated by the Guild’s members, sought to engage Eastham’s community in the town’s historical context, bringing awareness to its past and all the things that define it. The exhibit features art depicting iconic historical images like the Mayflower, as well as scenes from current day Eastham. Although the exhibition could not be shown in Eastham’s Public Library as planned, the Guild did not let their hard work go to waste. Instead of an in-person exhibit, they put the exhibit on their website (, the first online showing in the Guild’s history. “The new title of it is ‘Picture Perfect: 400 Years of Eastham,’” Guild vice president Robin Wessman says. “We’re going to leave it up for the time being since it is not a show that people can visit in person.” 

The exhibit was initially scheduled for the month of May, but is still available for viewing. The success of the exhibit was a pleasant surprise for the Guild, suggesting that an online option may be viable if they cannot hold their weekly art shows. “We had almost 1,500 visitors who looked at almost 17,000 pages,” Shyllberg confirms. “It was successful, certainly beyond what I thought it would be. We sold some paintings, and I’m glad that we were able to do that. Starting July 9th, we plan to hold our in-person tent shows weekly on Thursdays and Fridays. We’ll see how it goes and communicate changes on our website.” 

In addition to the extended online exhibit, the Guild is trying to reschedule and find new ways to hold other events that were previously planned for the “400 Years of Eastham” celebration. The Guild had prepared a number of engaging events for the painters and the community, including a mural, a live model session, and a children’s painting session, that are less flexible for an online experience. Wessman expresses his hope that these in-person exhibits could occur later in the year, but that it would depend entirely on future circumstances, including the public library’s restricted capacity, the models’ schedule, and the safety of both the public and the Guild’s artists. “We would like to reschedule things,” Wessman says. “Actually, the real celebration for the 400 years really takes place later in the year. I’m hoping that we’ll have enough information to say that we can get some of these activities scheduled and completed for the year’s end.”

Members Karen Kollar and Rebecca Gmucs plein air painting

The Eastham Painters Guild also provides, and is committed to continue to provide, a space for its members to connect and work with fellow artists, creating a safe and social space that facilitates community on a smaller scale. “We socialize year-round,” Shyllberg says. “We’re friends. It’s not strictly a place to show your art.” Members have continued to stay in touch and prioritize these connections and their impact throughout the “Stay-at-Home” and “Safer-at-Home” orders issued by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. “It’s been a challenging year for everybody,” Shyllberg shares, “but, we are trying to make adjustments and still be able to connect with people who follow us and get together to the extent that we can in this day and age.”   

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