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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 (easthampaintersguild.com), 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.”   

“Fog Over the Marsh” by Pat Nickerson. Many of Nickerson’s works are featured in “Picture Perfect: 400 Years of Eastham,” the Guild’s first online exhibit.

The Guild usually has a schedule of get-togethers for its members like potluck suppers, off-Cape art museum excursions, breakfast meetings, and plein air painting events. However, these have become nearly impossible to hold as a result of the pandemic. Members are instead devising new ways to stay in touch and maintain the social connections during the shelter-in-place orders. Willow Shire, a long-time Eastham Painters Guild member, described the shift to primarily digital interaction. “We have a lot of Zoom meetings,” Shire says, “and the other thing that we’re talking about is painting together on Zoom.” The Guild has also opted for Zoom breakfasts in lieu of their normal morning meetings in an effort to stay connected and maintain a semblance of normalcy. “There is some shared painting and shared socializing thanks to Zoom, but it’s not the same,” she says.   

One in-person activity the Guild has done their best to continue is their plein air painting sessions. The practice occurs year-round, with the Guild traveling to different historical sites and parts of the Cape Cod National Seashore in order to paint together. These plein air sessions are generally open to the public and have become very popular with locals and vacationers. However, COVID-19 has changed the scope of what is possible. The Guild is now continuing this program and inviting other painters to paint in spaces where everyone can maintain a social distance. “We’re really trying to keep people together,” Shyllberg says. “Seeing people painting in the local landscape in the last few weeks has been really good. Everybody says exactly that afterwards. It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s been so good. This is the only thing that keeps me sane.’”

Despite this positive change, some aspects of the Guild’s normal agenda have been much harder to adapt—specifically, their college scholarship program. The Guild sells sets of notecards featuring work by the members across the Cape. The profits fund annual scholarships for students at Nauset Regional High School and Cape Cod Regional Technical High School pursuing art studies. Last year, the Guild gave scholarships to six deserving students.

Meg Schmidt and Karen Kollar along with members of The Guild regularly travel to locations along the National Seashore for (socially distant) plein air painting sessions, open to the public and other local painters.

Unfortunately even the sales and resulting fundraising of something as simple and benign as a set of notecards has suffered at the hands of the virus. Regular retailers have been challenged to open their businesses where the cards are available, and printing, which was conducted at Cape Cod Tech, was halted when the school closed in March. “I’m really worried,” Shire confesses. “We’re going to have to find another way to fund our scholarship program if we can’t sell cards.” As a result, the Guild is entertaining new ways to supplement the lull in card sales, including contributing 10 percent of their “400 Years of Eastham” exhibit sales to the scholarship program. “We’ll figure it out,” Shyllberg confirms. “We’re not going to stop [the program]; we’re just going to have to figure out how to make it work.”

Although COVID-19 has changed the way the Eastham Painters Guild is conducting its regular events and celebrations like “400 Years of Eastham” and its 40th anniversary, they are still making do and pushing forward, maintaining community connections, creating art, and encouraging others to do the same. “I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that after this is over, there’s going to be a flood of artwork from every artist on the Cape and beyond,” Shyllberg opines, “because I think that’s how artists cope with anxiety and the unknown.” While the future is not certain, the Eastham Painters Guild members still hope its scheduled events will occur, perhaps later than expected, and exhibits will be shared, in-person or online. “We’re just waiting this out,” Shire says. “This cannot go on forever.” 

Katie Anastas was a Cape Cod LIFE intern in 2019, and is now a freelance writer.



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