When Nancy Whorf (Kelly) died in 2009, shortly after Romanos Rizk, The Provincetown Banner said a major gap had opened “in the upper echelons of the Provincetown art colony, as if two of the brightest stars just disappeared from the sky.” (Sue Harrison, “Provincetown Artist Nancy Whorf Dies at 79,” The Banner / Wicked Local, 29 June 2009.) Though she left this home several years earlier as she succumbed to one serious illness after the next, Whorf had centered much of her life around No. 14, where she raised her daughters Julia Whorf Kelly (Perry), Lydia (Whorf) Pratt and Megan (Whorf) Nelson.
Born in 1930, Nancy Whorf was the daughter of the painter John Whorf of 52 Commercial Street, the sister of the painter Carol (Whorf) Westcott and companion of the artist Herman Tasha, with whom she operated the Hairpin Shop in a shed adjoining the main house. You have seen the work of Nancy Whorf around town, even if you weren’t aware of it at the time; that is, if you’ve ever purchased sundries at Adams, 252 Commercial; eaten at the Mayflower Café, 300 Commercial; conducted business at the Seamen’s Bank, 221 Commercial; or inspected art at the Berta Walker Gallery, 208 Bradford. Her murals adorn the walls of Adams and the Mayflower, her paintings hang in the bank and Walker represents her. The public art all portrays Whorf’s favorite subject: the town itself. “She only painted Provincetown,” Harrison wrote.
“What ultimately emerged from her vibrant love of life and keen observation of people and place was a style that captured more than the image of Provincetown — it captured the essence. Whether it was fishermen working the shore or hunters in the woods, a side street garden in late summer or Commercial Street turned mysterious in a swirl of snow refracting through pale streetlights, her hand and eye were true to the heart of the matter.”
Whorf’s paintings might be broadly and vaguely described as impressionistic, though there are often jolts of energy and color almost Fauvist in their intensity. Her daughter Julia Whorf Kelly worked with Whorf on a lovely memoir of the family and its home on Howland Street, Feast or Famine: Growing Up Bohemian in Provincetown (2008). “Painting mostly with a palette knife on masonite board,” Kelly said, “her paintings became a vehicle for expressing not only her unique vision of her beloved home and town, but also allowed her to develop her perception of color, light and compositional movement.” To put bread on the table, Whorf painted signs, decorated furniture for Peter Hunt and worked as a chambermaid. In 1974, under the patronage of Louise Souchac, she opened a store of decorative arts called Whorf’s Landing in Wellfleet.
Kelly lovingly described her old home:
“Behind a high honeysuckle hedge and big wooden gate sat an old yellow house with a blue kitchen door. We never used the front door, and instead all activities on 14 Howland Street came crashing through the kitchen door. Always inviting, never quiet, seldom still, the house was in itself alive. Dogs, cats, birds, fish, kids and grown-ups, all conspiring to bring about a bedlam that was home.”
Art, of course, was everywhere. Even the front of the refrigerator served as a canvas for Whorf’s oils. “A dead pheasant, still feathered; a bottle of Gallo sherry; a bottle of ketchup; a whole fish with the head still on; a clam still in its shell; and a loaf of white bread in a clear plastic bag,” Kelly wrote. “All the articles were painted realistically. It was amusing and clever, but to us girls who knew the menu all too well, it was no different when we opened the door.”
The family sold the property in 2004 to Peter F. Fine and Catherine Giacobbi of Brooklyn, who have since renovated it extensively. • Historic District Survey, main house • Historic District Survey, shed • Assessor’s Online Database ¶ Posted 2013-02-06