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“The way it used to was”

Courtesy of Napi’s Restaurant

Napi collected artwork that told the story of Provincetown by artists preserving local history, industry, and the natural landscape. The former fishing village on the Outer Cape is known as an art haven and a place that welcomes writers, sailors, fisherman, whalers, Catholic Portuguese immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community. After Charles Webster Hawthorne opened the Cape Cod School of Art in 1899, Provincetown became the most famous art colony in the United States. Artists would come from New York in the summer to prove themselves, to learn from their peers and to capture the rich landscape, returning to New York again in the fall. In particular, it is credited as the place the color white-line woodblock print was perfected. Artists in Napi’s collection like Lazlo de Nagy and Ada Gilmore, worked in this technically radical style of printing woodblocks in color separated by white lines. 

Each art acquisition reminded him of a place, a feeling or moment of time from his childhood. On how Napi selected works of art, Evaul explains, “He loved to look at paintings. What would hook him in was the subject, which would be Provincetown, a place he knew as a child or he knew that tells a story. He focused his collection on anything that showcased industry, history, culture, people, and the landscape of Provincetown.” Napi often collected pieces of the same vantage point by different artists, helping record the ever-changing landscape of the area. 

In order to further bolster the arts, Napi opened an art gallery with Bill Evaul as its curator and director, originally in an old bike shop across the street, and later in the upstairs of the restaurant. He named the gallery “Eye of Horus,” which is also the logo for Napi’s Restaurant, after the Egyptian god in the form of a falcon. This reference is a nod to his time in Egypt as a teenager. His stepfather worked during WWII as a newsreel photographer, filming the events of the war. Eye of Horus showed artwork by local artists and hosted a number of historic exhibitions by acclaimed artists inspired by Provincetown, including John Whorf, Charles Hawthorne, Milton Avery and Frans Kline. While the upstairs gallery space now functions as an event space, the idea of a restaurant as a gallery continues today. 

On display in the restaurant are humorous stoneware sculptures by Al Davis. These sculptures are often an inside joke between the artist and Napi. The air ducts in the restaurant are cleverly painted by Jackson Lambert with an eskimo scene. A brick mural titled, “Brick Breakthrough” by Conrad Malicoat transforms a wall near the bar downstairs.  Diners can spot white-line woodcut prints by Bill Evaul, works by award-winning cartoonist Howie Schneider, luminous watercolors by John Whorf, plein air paintings by Sal Del Deo and seascape paintings by George Yater and Frank Milby. 

More pieces from Napi’s collection are currently on display at PAAM in “Director’s Choice: In Memoriam: Napi Van Dereck,” a selection of art from the collection of Napi and Helen Van Dereck curated by Christine McCarthy. McCarthy calls Napi, “a champion of making sure this colony maintained its legacy, and this collection is part of the legacy.” Napi collected intuitively, zeroing in on underrepresented artists and in particular women artists, ranging from the beginnings of the art colony to mid-century to living artists today. Showcasing the strength of the arts in Provincetown, the exhibition includes white-line woodcut prints by Blanche Lazzell, impressionist landscape paintings by Gerrit Beneker, watercolors by George Yater, and many more. Currently reservation only due to COVID-19, this exhibition featuring over 40 pieces from the collection will be open until September 13, 2020, telling the story of Provincetown, and the man who loved it. 

Napi will be remembered as a man with a falcon-eye for discovering art, and a taste for Provincetown life. His famous saying, “the way it used to was,” referring to the way Provincetown used to be, takes on additional meaning this year as his restaurant and art collection now preserve the history of Napi himself.

Charlotte Russell is an art writer and an art consultant who summers in Osterville with her husband, daughter and son.

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