The Old Schoolhouse in Barnstable, which closed its doors to children in the 1950s, is still alive with learning. The classrooms continue to buzz with excitement, but now it’s the artists of Cape Cod who are keeping the soul of the building alive.
By Rory Marcus Photography by Michael and Suz Karchmer
The Unitarian Church on Route 6A, within an arm’s reach of the Old Schoolhouse, was granted the building by the Town of Barnstable in the 1950s to preserve it rather than tear it down. Jo Ann Kelly, a volunteer for the Unitarians’ “Friends of the Schoolhouse,” which manages the facility, says it has had many incarnations—offices, a thrift shop, and now a home for 14 artists spread out across seven studios. “This has turned out to be a wonderful fit,” Kelly says. “We just want to make enough rent to preserve the school.”
The schoolhouse is a boon for artists who want to make a living on the Cape, where studio space is scant and rents are at a premium. The high ceilings and large windows create an ideal working space. The added attraction of this schoolhouse: The proximity to other artists to share ideas and inspiration.
Since 2009, three of the first artists to work here include Jackie Reeves, James Wolf and Richard Neal, friends who share a love of contemporary abstract art. They are all well-established artists represented in galleries on- and off- Cape, and whose work is shown in museums and bought by collectors. Yet as dedicated artists, they are using these studios for ongoing exploration and self-discovery.
Initially, the trio shared one large studio, where working so closely together fostered lively discussions about their work and the art world. These conversations continue to this day, even though Neal has moved to a space upstairs. “We can spend two hours critiquing one little section of a painting,” Wolf says. They began calling themselves the Chalkboard Studio, inspired by the classroom setting.
As you enter the large ground-floor, north-facing studio now shared by Reeves and Wolf, large and small canvases of paintings and drawings cover the walls. Long tables are topped with paint tubes and plastic containers, palettes, sketches and studies, and books. The only divider between these two artists with very different styles is a beam in the ceiling. Because the door closest to the school entrance opens directly to Reeves’ half of the studio, she sometimes enjoys a social break with impromptu visits from other artists or strangers who have seen the sign for “Art Studios” outside and want to know more.
The Barnstable Village schoolhouse was built in 1854 by master carpenter Samuel Crocker, who also built the original Agricultural Hall in Barnstable Village in 1862.
In 1912, the schoolhouse was enlarged to accommodate the growing population of Barnstable Village. It served the elementary school children for more than a century until 1957, when the new consolidated Barnstable-West Barnstable Elementary School opened.
The old schoolhouse building was given to the Unitarian Church by the Town of Barnstable in the 1950s. From 1957 until 1982, the building was used for community activities that included the Cape Cod Conservatory of Music and Arts, followed by a thrift shop and service center under the Council of Churches and housing the offices of the Cape Cod Times Needy Fund.
On Halloween 1982, the building was seriously damaged by arson. Insurance did not cover the cost of rebuilding, putting the future of the building in jeopardy. Friends of the Schoolhouse, Inc., a nonprofit corporation, was organized in 1984 to raise the funds to repair and reactivate the Old Schoolhouse as a community-service facility. It was during this time that the members of the Unitarian Church of Barnstable voted to lease the building for 25 years at $1 per year to Friends of the Schoolhouse, Inc. Repairs were completed in 1985. In 1992, a new lease between the church and Friends of the Schoolhouse was signed for 30 years. In the spring of 2009, the thrift shop closed its doors and artists took over the space.
Reeves is married and the mother of three teenage girls. Having parents who are architects meant she was always surrounded by art. Since Reeves is one of seven children, with five sisters, it’s not surprising that women and family are her main subjects. She has become a sought-after artist for her compelling and expressive figures in drawings, oils and acrylics.
As a young mother, she designed murals with a friend. It was a very good way to balance work and family, but after 15 years, a question kept nagging at her: “What does it mean to be an artist in the world today?” She sought answers at the MassArt MFA Program at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
“The first time a teacher told me to paint without a figure, I felt lost,” she says. “And when I attempted it and worked with color and shape and form, I felt exhilarated. I realized I was not limited.”
Reeves studied the modern artists of the 20th century who no longer felt the need to be representational and explored the basic elements of art—the color, the line, the form, the processes—themselves and then, ultimately, as an expression of the artists’ inner lives.
Reeves opens a book to a visitor, “Vitamin P2,” which shows the work of contemporary artists from around the world. This is the audience she holds in her mind. Her work is in dialogue with those she admires, not only from the past, but also the present, like Wangechi Mutu, Mickalene Thomas and Peter Doig.
“To be able to be seen by those artists and for them to see something of interest in my work is my ideal,” she says. What interests Reeves now is the way artists look at our culture today. “We are bombarded with so much information, it becomes a mashup of images.”
Her work has become more abstract. Along with figures, she adds shapes, letting the materials form the shapes spontaneously, creating a collage of disparate figures with a restless ambiguity that adds new meaning. “Painting is like poetry to me,” she says. “Shapes are like words. There are many nuances.”
On his side of the studio, Wolf looks hard at a large abstract painting that fills a wall space.
Though mainly known for his watercolors, this painting is in acrylic. Wolf finds he can thin the acrylic with water and make it move more gracefully, like watercolor. “Many see landscapes,” he says, “but that’s not what I’m trying to do.”
Wolf is clear about the work he’s doing: “I’m an abstract expressionist. For me, it’s about the movement of the whole body into the paint. Bringing my thoughts and emotions into the work, until it just seems right to me.”
Wolf’s father was an illustrator who gave him his first watercolor set when he was nine. He hasn’t stopped painting since. He studied Asian painting in college, an influence that is clearly reflected in his work. As a young man, he traveled through Nicaragua and Columbia, drawing people during times of major strife in those countries.
In addition to being an artist, Wolf has also been a successful musician, a commercial artist, and is founder of the Cotuit Center for the Arts. He’s married and the father of two boys in their 20s.
Wolf is highly praised for the rhythm and dynamics of his brushwork. In his hands, something as simple as brown and black marks move gracefully across the canvas and create a beautiful image.
He examines a small watercolor. “People say it’s finished, leave it be. But I’m not sure. I’ll look at it again and again until I feel I have to go back and do something.”
Wolf picks up a notice of an exhibit of abstract artist Sigmar Polke in New York that he wants to see. “I’m beginning to feel I’m too conventional and I need to do something, take risks, go somewhere risky as I did when I was young,” he says.
Though it’s a lifetime endeavor, Wolf is trying to get to the core of who he is as an individual by going beneath the surface and expressing that through his art.
There’s another advantage to working at the Old Schoolhouse, Wolf says. Sometimes when he needs to think through a problem, he takes a good walk on the road behind the building straight down to the harbor.
In a small alcove in the schoolhouse hallway outside his studio, Neal picks a book off the table: “Pictures of Nothing, Abstract Art, After Pollock,” by Kirk Varnedoe. He’s read it many times, and always trying to open minds, he highly recommends it for anyone who wants to understand abstract art.
Neal is married with two boys and also works as a builder and carpenter. He became hooked on sculpture in art school, working with welded and cast metal combined with wood and other materials. Out of school, when his interest in painting grew, he began adding things to the painted surface and his assemblages grew, giving his paintings a sculptural aspect.
Neal’s collage work has been widely admired. He has a unique ability to put objects on a canvas that lose themselves in the painting. Viewers have been surprised and delighted when viewing a portrait up close to discover torn pieces of jeans that form parts of the face.
But today, he feels challenged to make his painting work without the extra objects.
“I’m drawn to abstracting the world around me, putting down my response to the world with something that comes out of me. Hopefully I’m communicating the activity of creation in an intriguing way so viewers will respond to it,” he says.
Lately, Neal has been thinking about physics and art. “Not everything in life can be explained,” he says. “Paintings have the possibility to express the mystery of life.”
Neal is thinking about the idea that matter is not static, it is floating in space. Things, forms and objects are in motion. Recent works depict city spaces with construction and huge levels of activity. It’s abstract yet recognizable, arresting and stimulating with its dynamic motion of bold colors and shapes.
He doesn’t analyze the painting, he’s absorbed and in love with putting the paint on—slathering it with a trowel, spray painting, working with different size brushes, or working neatly in small spaces.
Neal hopes looking at his painting is not too much work for a viewer. “If I succeeded, they will observe and ask their own questions, like what does it look like, how is it done, and come up with their own answers.
The important thing is that it should make you want to think of possibilities. “I find that when I learn something,” says Neal, “it’s a great moment in my life.”