Summer Retrospective Celebrates a Provincetown Realist
Originally published in Cape
Arts Review, Vol.1, 2001
real subject is what is known and felt about things encountered in
world of real people and actual things.
Painter Nancy Whorf is a student of Provincetown,
and she brings to that study an independent intelligence, a generous
and the history of her own life among the artists and fishermen, town
folk and summer people of this light struck harbor at the tip of Cape
Cod. One might place her work within what Edward Lucie-Smith, in American
Realism, calls 'conceptual realism'. That is, the painting presents a
kind of cumulative inventory of what the observer believes to be in front
of her at a given moment -- governed by subjective experience -- things
seen in the past, and ways of seeing developed through experience. Whorf
herself says, "I paint pretty much what I want to see, not necessarily
what is there." The subject of Whorf's painting is place - and she
sees it with a complex eye.
Whorf began painting as a child in Provincetown, long a center of American
Impressionism, with its romantic vistas of rose-covered
cottages, boats and gardens dissolved in light, she was not captured
by that fashionable prettiness. Her assertive style employs high keyed
color and bold gesture, the paint applied in quick, thick strokes of
built-up layers. While her lively gardens and vivid renditions of the
bobbing rhythms of street life in a summer resort are well loved, her
best work depicts the frank and dynamic images of the extremes of life
lived thirty miles out to sea. There is the clear sense of the artist's
admiration for the hardy and enduring life of a small fishing community.
Viewing the PAAM retrospective, the visitor is aware of Whorf's spiritual
descent from the American painters of gritty urban life in the early
20th Century, for she does not spare us. For sheer emotional force, one
notes a kinship with Charles Hawthorne, the founding painter of the Provincetown
art colony and teacher of her father, internationally admired watercolorist
John Whorf. Yet, it is not dramatic, indulgent emotion that Whorf presents.
There is no polemical edge. There is always a certain distance, a lack
of moral judgment, an acceptance that nature will have her way. Whether
her subject is the tremendous, elemental power of a winter storm on the
bay or a hushed view of Provincetown under snow, devoid of human activity,
Nancy Whorf's record of place is not merely realistic; it is true. Her
departures from the real, her conscious pictorial construction, serve
to enhance the evocative quality of the scene.
As a small child, Whorf painted at home with her father. By 14, she began
her formal art study as an apprentice to Peter Hunt, painting furniture,
and for twenty years, she supported herself and her three daughters
as a decorative artist. Yet, early on she wanted to explore her own
painting more deeply and spent a year at the Museum School in Boston
where she studied with Karl Zerbe. She also studied with Hawthorne
student Vollian Rann. In the mid-80's, Whorf decided she would devote
herself entirely to painting and closed her popular furniture shop
in Wellfleet. Now she spends all her days painting, stopping only to
work in her garden and walk briskly from one end of Provincetown to
another, accompanied by her dog.
"I know this town, Whorf says, "There's a lot of information.
I think I'm getting better at saying more with less. I want to simplify,
to suggest. That's what I like about the palette knife. It's easier to
suggest." Over time, Whorf has refined her knife stroke to the merest
twist of line, the bright touch of color, to suggest the whole world
The Nancy Whorf retrospective, "Provincetown Seasons and Sensations",
will be on view at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum July 27-August
13. Berta Walker Gallery will present a concurrent exhibition of recent paintings, "Nancy
Whorf: Provincetown Personals",
July 20 - August 12.