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More space to smile

"Shocking Incident On Route 28, Cape Cod" RalphCahoon

Artwork courtesy of the Cahoon Museum of American Art

While the construction project was underway, the museum was temporarily located, rent free, in the Mashpee Commons shopping center. Because the museum was “coming home” to its original location this year, the organization’s leadership felt that the first exhibit in the new gallery should be special.

So was born “Coming Home Again: Works by Martha & Ralph Cahoon,” the grand-reopening exhibit that began in May and runs through June 26. The exhibit features more than 50 Cahoon pieces that have not been shown at the museum, including decorated furniture. More than one-third of the show consists of works from two private collections.  “The idea was not to show lesser-known work, but to show work that hadn’t been on exhibit at the museum previously,” says Nickerson, the exhibit’s guest curator. “The museum wanted fresh work for the brand-new gallery.”

Thanks largely to Payson’s influence in the 1950s the Cahoons’ commercial work became wildly popular among the Cape’s mid-century jet set. In addition to Payson, Jacqueline Kennedy purchased Cahoon work, as did actress Joan Fontaine and members of the DuPont and Mellon families. A very prominent fan of the Cahoons was pharmaceuticals heir Josiah K. Lilly III, whose family had long spent summers on the Cape.

During his life, Lilly bought more than 50 Cahoon paintings. Lilly was also the founder of Heritage Museums and Gardens in Sandwich, which exhibits his antique car collection. Two of Lilly’s better known antique cars, which are still on display at the museum, are featured in “Shocking Incident on Route 28, Cape Cod,” a fantastic vision from Ralph’s fertile mind.

“One of the really fun paintings that will be on display in the new exhibit is ‘Shocking Incident,’” says Nickerson. “It shows two of Lilly’s famous antique cars getting in an accident. One of the cars is loaded with mermaids, while the other is packed with sailors.”

According to Nickerson, the new exhibit includes several other standout paintings. Martha’s “Up in the Air” is one of her more lighthearted works; the piece features 19th-century people—and a mermaid (of course)—gathered at a cliff to gaze at kites as people in hot-air balloons float by. “I’ve always been a fan of the print,” says Nickerson. “I’m very excited to see the actual painting in person.”

Another eye-catching exhibit piece, this one by Ralph and inspired by Cape folklore, takes whimsy to a new level. “Hannah Screecham of Grand Island” depicts 17th-century witch Hannah Screecham, who was rumored to have helped pirate captains bury their treasure—at a cost. The tales vary, but go something like this: A pirate captain would bring his treasure, along with a green young mate who didn’t know Screecham, to the dunes of Grand Island in Osterville. In the moonlight, Hannah would watch as the captain and the young sailor dug a deep sandy hole in which to drop the treasure chest. Just as they were preparing to fill in the hole, Hannah would let out an unearthly scream and push the young sailor into the hole. She and the captain would then fill in the hole, ensuring that the treasure would have a ghostly guardian for eternity.

“One of the best things about folk art, especially that of the Cahoons, is that it’s very accessible for a wide range of people,” says Johnson. “You don’t need a Ph.D. in fine arts to understand it. It’s for ‘folk.’”

“While we’re proud of our past tradition of excellent exhibits and programming, we’re also at a new phase in our museum’s development,” adds Johnson. “We’re entering a period where there’s a lot of growth and exploration of our collection. We hope that our expanded space will lead to an expanded role as a regional arts center and destination spot on Cape Cod and beyond.”

Located at 4676 Falmouth Road (Route 28) in Cotuit, the Cahoon Museum of American Art is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays, 1-4 p.m. For more information, visit, or call 508-428-7581.

Joe O’Shea is a freelance writer from Bridgewater.

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