Jerry Portnoy

Jerry Portnoy strikes a pose for the artists.

These artists, and their muses, are not your average art group

This wasn’t a typical gig for Jerry Portnoy.

The blues great, an East Dennis resident who’s played harmonica for Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton and Cyndi Lauper, appreciated the intimacy of the venue: the studio of noted Eastham painter Paul Schulenburg. (“This is just like playing for a bunch of friends in your living room,” he said.) On a refreshingly mild night this past April, Portnoy didn’t just perform for Schulenburg and a crowd of 20 or so other local artists… He was also their model for the evening—their muse.

With their easels in position and canvases primed, the artists—all painters, except sculptor Hiram Ball—had an ease about them as they diligently captured the scene that was unfolding: Portnoy, accompanied by guitarist and singer “Brother Phil,” delivering a selection of lively, bluesy tunes, which garnered toe-tapping, applause and cheers from the artists. At the start of what was to be a three-hour session, Portnoy told the group, “This is all very loose—just like your brushstrokes should be.”

Through his weekly figure painting sessions, like the one with Portnoy, Schulenburg has created a unique society of sorts for artists from across the Cape, a place where they can both practice their craft and mingle with their peers. Typically held on Wednesday nights throughout most the year in Schulenburg’s Eastham studio, the figure painting sessions consist of a group of about 20 established and emerging artists—all personally selected by Schulenburg—and feature a guest model. Local musicians like Kami Lyle, Sarah Swain and Tianna Esperanza, a belly dancer, a female fisherman from Chatham, and a woman who dons early 1900s garb have been among the models.

“Sometimes people get together for figure painting just for anatomy and the practice of painting the body, but it’s fun to have these personalities,” says Schulenburg, who started the figure painting group 12 years ago when he moved to Eastham. He says he intended on using his studio, a converted three-car garage, for such a gathering, after having attended other figure painting sessions around the Cape. “I’d think, why aren’t they playing music? Maybe there’s no talking,” so he says he decided to host his own session. “I wanted to make it more of a fun time—have a party,” he explains. The group started as just a few artists, hiring a model and painting together, and eventually it turned into 7, then 8, then 10, then 15, to now 20 artists. “I didn’t know it was going to turn into this much of a thing.”

With food, wine, chitchat and music often playing, these sessions are a true social gathering. “And there’s no instruction here—just paint what you want and have fun,” Schulenburg says. “You never know what might happen.” Like the impromptu dance Rosalie Nadeau and Hiram Ball shared as Jerry Portnoy played. And when Portnoy shared the amusing story of how he met Bob Dylan through Muddy Waters, and Waters thought his name was “John Dylan.”