638 Commercial Street

 
Whimsical. Idiosyncratic. Delightful. Surprising. Humanistic. Kinetic. And recycled. The sculpture of John W. “Jack” Kearney (b 1924) has not only been a staple of artistic life in Provincetown for a half century, but its eccentric qualities suggest it is a very fitting body of work, indeed, for this particular place. Kearney is probably best known for his fantastic reworkings of chrome bumpers and other salvaged automotive remnants, a métier that can be traced to the Provincetown dump. Even though the family hails from Chicago, Kearney and his wife, Lynn, and their children Jill and Daniel have been fixtures on the Provincetown scene since just about forever. For some 30 years, Kearney has also maintained one of the most impressive art studios and workshops in town, at 3 Aunt Sukey’s Way. (More pictures of his works can be seen in that entry.)

The Kearney home began as a garage for the Hyphen-House estate across the road, at 635 Commercial and 637 Commercial — two houses joined by a hyphen-like passageway. It is not extant on a 1929 street atlas, suggesting it was constructed in the 1930s. That was not a prime building period anywhere in America, though the owner of Hyphen-House, a Pittsburgh steel man and lawyer named Gordon Fisher Sr., may have had deep enough resources to weather the storm of the Great Depression. His son sold all three lots in 1945, and 638 Commercial wound up in the hands of Thomas J. and Mabel L. Diab, who sold it in 1957 to Joseph and Virginia (Haber) Kaplan. By this time, it was described as a “garage-apartment.”

Kaplan (1900-1982) was a painter primarily of landscapes and figure studies (Provincetown Artist Registry). He was born in Minsk, Belarus. After coming to New York, at age 12, he studied at the Art School of the Educational Alliance in New York, as had other Provincetown figures like Chaim Gross, Mark Rothko and Bernard Simon. He told Frank Crotty of The Worcester Telegram in 1958 that his principal influences were Albert Pinkham Ryder, Gustave Courbet and Paul Cézanne. “I do not attempt to make a literal rendering of any subject,” Kaplan said. “I try rather to get the impression without destroying the reality.” Kaplan also loved jazz and had assembled a collection of about 1,000 early jazz records. While he is not well known today, one of Kaplan’s paintings — Waterfront, looking more like a Charles Sheeler than anything else — is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kaplan died in 1980 and his wife also died at about the same time. There was no direct heir. “Like many artists of that era, they did not have children,” Jill Kearney told me in 2012. “My mother always reminded us that many artists wouldn’t risk it — the life was too uncertain.” The Kearneys, who had been living most recently at 641 Commercial, bought the Kaplan house from his estate in 1981. “The house at 638 was actually a garage with a cement slab in front and garage doors,” Lynn Kearney told me in 2012.

He used the garage as his studio, chockfull of all his life work, a great music library and books. He and Virginia lived upstairs in a small apartment that had been the chauffer and maid quarters for the house across the street, in more splendid times. The aptartment consisted of a small kitchen, a bath, living room and one bedroom. It was filled with antiques and art. Almost all of his remaining art was left behind by his nephew, and I have spent the last 30 years placing it in museums and collections. He was a great artist. Joe was a very active member of the art community and showed his work constantly.

 

What the Kearneys inherited was a poignant tableau, with a number of Kaplan’s paintings strewn on the floor. “It was a beautiful, rough, simple, cozy house,” Jill Kearney said. “You could feel Joe and Virginia’s presence. His palette was hanging on the wall, and his brushes remained in a vase by the kitchen, and Joe also left a large trove of dog-eared, beautiful old reproductions of master etchings.” Jack Kearney set out to turning a garage apartment into a home, his daughter recalled.

I remember that Dad ripped out the garage doors and framed in a real door and windows and shingled the whole thing in one day. I have a photo of him at the end of the day, looking happy and exhausted. I love that Dad didn’t really measure anything or put the door precisely in the middle of the building. Building in Ptown grew out of the dune shack philosophy; find some driftwood, nail it together, and live there.

Lynn Kearney described the process of reconstructing the house and the quality of life at the far East End in an e-mail written in July 2012. He made

a large room out of the interior, with a big open kitchen, living and dining areas, bathroom with shower, etc. The ceilings were very high and full of light. It’s a great room. Jack did all the work himself. (Our son Dan did a lot of the work later.) Jack installed a kitchen from salvaged cabinets and equipment from a house we owned in Chicago that was torn down for a highrise. We had saved it all at our studio in Chicago for such a use. … Jack really transformed the house, made a raised garden over the cement in front and created a patio in the rear. We love the place, simple as it is. At that time, Jack’s studio was back behind, where Arthur Cohen’s studio is. He really just worked out of doors there at the generosity of Edith Thomas, whose house
faced Allerton Street and stretched back further east.

We always think that our particular block of Commercial Street is the best. We’ve had the whole outstanding Walker clan there forever, and so many amazing people: i.e., Lily Harmon, Norman Mailer, Robert Motherwell, Grace Hayes, Chris Busa, Michael Field, Nicholas Meyer, Arnold Newman, among others.

By the time the Kearneys moved to No. 683, they had been coming to Provincetown for almost a quarter of a century, though — as Midwesterners — they were not the likeliest of candidates for life at the tip of Cape Cod. Unlike so many of the artists in his cohort, Kearney was not the product of the Art Students League of New York but rather of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., which he attended after serving in the South Pacific during World War II. His studies were broadened over the years through time spent in Italy on fellowships and grants, including a Fulbright Award and four residencies at the American Academy in Rome. Kearney’s link to Provincetown came in the person of the artist Richard Florsheim, who taught at the Contemporary Art Workshop in Chicago, which Lynn and Jack Kearney founded in 1950. “Well, he was going there all the time, and we got sick and tired of hearing him talk about Provincetown,” Lynn Kearney said in a 2009 interview with Judith Olch Richards for the Archives of American Art. “We said, ‘The heck with that; we’ll go.’ So we went, and the first time we went, we stayed forever.”

It did not take the Kearneys long to gain warm acceptance in the older art circles of Provincetown. “My father was a boatswain’s mate in World War II and he was very adept with boats,” Jill Kearney told me. “His favorite thing in the world, I think, was rescuing neighbors’ boats. One day, Robert Motherwell’s boat broke loose from the mooring and Dad jumped into the surf and saved it. Afterwards Bob and Renate [Ponsold] invited them over and they became good friends.” Jack Kearney delivered a eulogy at Motherwell’s funeral and Lynn Kearney served on the board of the Dedalus Foundation.

Kearney had been a painter and also a sculptor in cast bronze, but in the 1960s, the Provincetown dump set him on the course for which he is most renowned: anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figures made principally of discarded bumpers. Here was the recollection he offered in the 2009 interview for the Archives of American Art:

It started in Provincetown this way. In those days, they burned the dump. And all the sculptors could get clean steel down there when it got cool. And so you could see the smoke out there. And so this was one of the times. And there was a big burning out there. And then it was down to a white smoke, like that. So I went over with the car, and … there was a whole pile … of bumpers. And also – but mostly bumpers. But I picked them all up and took them to my place where I was working. And I threw it on the ground, and it looked like a woman dancing. So I made one. And that was the first one that I showed in Chicago, after I made it, because we’d go back and forth.

The early ’60s also found Kearney experimenting with kinetic sculpture. The Chicken Age Machine of 1962, a dancing four-foot red rooster powered by an old washing machine motor and commemorating the era of bomb-shelter construction, was placed between paintings by Pablo Picasso and Karl Knaths in the Chrysler Art Musuem, 356 Commercial Street. It was later purchased at auction by the gallery owner Berta Walker (who babysat for the Kearney children) and presented to Jill so that it would stay in the family. “It is still one of my most treasured possessions,” she said.

Emancipated Woman was the best known of the kinetic sculptures, as it was installed in 1962 at a place of honor: in front of the Chrysler Art Museum (now the Provincetown Public Library), having received a solemn police escort from Kearney’s studio. Made of scavenged metal junk, it was a mechanized figure of a women, about seven feet tall, mounted on a bicycle frame and painted bright yellow. “When activated by a push button,” The Advocate said, “she shakes her head and twists her body while with one hand she beats a small motor in rebellion against the ‘mechanical age for women.'” Walter P. Chrysler Jr., the founder and proprietor of the museum, declared: “I’m glad to introduce this new art form to the people of Provincetown and its visitors. It is not just humorous. It has artistic significance this era of mechanization.” Kearney recalled in 2009 just why it was that Chrysler awarded Emancipated Woman such a prime spot. “He said, ‘If you give it to me at a lower price, I’ll put it right here where my best sculpture is.'”

Chrysler bought another kinetic sculpture from Kearney in 1962:

 

Automobiles re-crafted by Kearney figured into two of the more memorable happenings of the memorable summer of 1969 (although it is said that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there). The first involved a Citroën belonging to Beverly (Bentley) Mailer — Norman’s wife at the time. She wanted Kearney to make a sculpture from the beat-up old automobile and so, with outlandish pomp and circumstance, Kearney arranged for the vehicle to be attacked by a 30-ton bulldozer at the Provincetown Auto Body Shop. He told Peter Manso, for Mailer: His Life and Times, that the flattened Citroën was cut up and handed out to friends.

Pieces are probably still hanging on walls all over town. The two rear fender guards, the skirts around the wheels, had popped off, and I immediately realized they were shaped like the pointed head of Charles de Gaulle. At that time de Gaulle, in an outburst of patriotism, had just prevented Fiat of Italy from taking over the Citroën Company, so I proceeded to make a de Gaulle caricature out of the fenders.

That was merely the run-up to the summer’s main event, the burial of Danny Banko’s Ford in his backyard; another happening engineered by Kearney. The event gets a chapter of its own in Mailer’s Of a Fire on the Moon, and is described at some length in the entry for 606 Commercial, where it happened. Mailer’s book records only the event, however. He doesn’t dwell on the very tangible residue: an upended sedan halfway buried in a yard — not an abutter’s dream landscape. “The woman next door didn’t want that thing there,” Kearney recalled in 2009. “So I said, ‘I’ll make a sculpture out of it.’ So I put heads on it and things like that. And that settled it.” What Kearney created was a gigantic earwig. That spared the sculpture’s life for a few more years but eventually, despite Mailer’s intervention to preserve it, Danny Banko’s half-buried Ford was hauled off to the dump. “Then, for some strange reason, alongside of our house, pieces of cars kept coming and coming,” Kearney recalled 40 years later. “And apparently that was people bringing it back from the dump so that I could work with it.”

It may be that the work for which Kearney is most widely known is the suite of Wizard of Oz characters he created for Oz Park on the North Side of Chicago, not too far from where L. Frank Baum had lived. They are The Tin Man, paradoxically made of steel and fabricated in 1995; the bronze Cowardly Lion of 2001; the bronze Scarecrow of 2005; and Dorothy and Toto, also of bronze, completed in 2007. They took form in Provincetown, and not without some kibbitzing. When Tin Man was under way, a father and young daughter happened by the foundry on Aunt Sukey’s Way. She was about seven years old and knew exactly what was taking shape before her eyes. She whispered something to her father. Kearney asked what had been said. The father relayed the girl’s concern that Kearney had forgotten to install a heart — exactly the reason that Tin Man went to see the Wizard of Oz, after all. “And I said: ‘You’re right! I forgot.’ So I said, “You bring that girl in here tomorrow, and you’ll see a … stainless-steel heart.’ That’s what it was. And they did. And she came, and she was so happy.”

[Updated 2012-07-30]


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “638 Commercial Street

  1. This is an amazing and fascinatingly informative article. So special about some very, very special people — the Kaplans and the Kearneys. Both are the artists I was lucky enough to grow up knowing. I have loved reading all this amazing history.

    And I have one note: we “kids” of the neighborhood always referred to Jack Kearney as “King of the Sea.” He taught us sailing, and even set up parasailing off his boat. There wasn’t a day that he wasn’t out on the water with his family, and all our families! His love for all the kids in the neighborhood is still pervasive, even though we’re grown and some are even in our 70s!

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