The Eastern Shore and art? To most outsiders, that usually means only one thing: ducks. Duck paintings. Duck sculptures. Duck decoys. But look beyond the surface and you'll discover a region that's redefining itself -- quite rightly -- as a serious arts destination.
Easton, Chestertown, Cambridge and Berlin in particular are turning into thriving art colonies with galleries, studios and shops to show for it. Just look at Cambridge: In the last year alone, a half-dozen storefronts in the 400 block of Race Street have been transformed into trendy space for working artists as well as a photography studio, a gourmet wine and cheese shop, a high-end children's store and an antiques gallery.
Cambridge, trendy? Yes, it's really happening. It's the sort of energy, too, that tourism officials are beginning to recognize -- and reward.
"It's like they get it now," notes Leslie Prince Raimond, executive director of the Kent County Arts Council in Chestertown. "A lot of states see the arts as a frill, but the Maryland state government has been very supportive monetarily. There's a growing awareness that the arts are part of economic development and tourism."
I didn't understand the vitality of the Eastern Shore arts scene until last September when I went on a tour of artists' studios in and around Chestertown, where I live. The tour, sponsored by the nonprofit Chester River Artworks, lasted two days and included more than 40 studios and the work of painters, potters, sculptors, jewelers, woodworkers, metalworkers and photographers.
Artists have been drawn to the Eastern Shore for decades, in part because of the region's extraordinary light. Ross M. Merrill, chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, has painted landscapes here for the last 20 years. As he puts it, "The atmosphere is always full of humidity and haze, and all these layers make the landscape really interesting. The light is quite different from anywhere else."
Chestertown gallery owner Carla Massoni agrees. "The Eastern Shore is so unusual. It's sort of like Italy or someplace else where the light, the land and the atmosphere attract. You get these creative people who come here, love the place and begin to do their work," she says. "Then comes the next evolution: Where might I show my work?"
And that's where things get fun, as day-trippers and longer-term visitors to the Eastern Shore are beginning to appreciate. The galleries offer a startling array of work by regional artists, some of whom have national and international reputations.
In my wanderings, I've discovered artists in my own back yard whose work has been showcased at such venues as the Smithsonian Institution, the National Air and Space Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the U.S. Senate and in U.S. embassies from Brazil to Bahrain. Moreover, their work has shown up in the private collections of well-known folks like Bill Clinton, Mel Gibson, Robin Williams and Jane Goodall, among many others.
As a visit to the Eastern Shore's art towns demonstrates, there's far more here than art ducko on the walls.
Leading the way
If the Eastern Shore has a cultural capital, it's Easton, whose nationally recognized Academy Art Museum serves as the granddaddy of the arts for the region. Not that the museum is stodgy. An exhibition opening next month, "Born to Be Wild," will feature guitars from renowned guitar manufacturer Paul Reed Smith, whose plant is located on Kent Island.
Easton was ranked in the top 50 in the book, The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America, (John Muir Publications, 1998,) leading author John Villani to call the 45-year-old museum "one of the nation's most effective and impressive small-town arts institutions."
And the museum is about to get more impressive with the addition next fall of 10,000 square feet of new exhibition, educational and performing arts space. The museum, whose permanent collection consists largely of works on paper and contemporary art, operates as the anchor of a downtown district that includes galleries, retail shops, restaurants, antiques dealers and the Avalon Theatre, a performing arts venue.
Two galleries that shouldn't be missed: Troika, at 9 S. Harrison St., and South Street Art Gallery, at 5 South St.
Troika, owned by three painters who work in a back studio, represents 30 artists in a kind of homey space -- not off-putting the way some galleries can be. South Street Art, located around the corner from Troika, is in an old Victorian -- itself worth a look -- whose three floors are filled with the fine art of 42 artists including Ross Merrill, Yves Parent and Henry Greenewalt.
South Street Art also has a children's studio where kids can create their own work while their parents explore the artwork. In addition, both galleries participate in the First Friday Gallery Walk, held on the first Friday of each month from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. "Has this been a cultural arts destination? In the past, no. I do think, now and in the future, absolutely," says Chris Brownawell, director of the Academy Art Museum, whose permanent collection includes works by such top regional artists as Anne Truitt, Lee Lawrie and John Moll.
My recent trip to Easton yielded its own wonderful reward when I discovered the Gilbert Byron house at the off-the-beaten-path Pickering Creek Audubon Center. Byron (1903-1991), known as "The Chesapeake Thoreau," wrote volumes about his native Eastern Shore, notably The Lord's Oysters. The cabin he lived in is being preserved and restored by an Easton boat builder. The 400-acre site, open daily from dawn to dusk, has four hiking trails. The afternoon I was there, I met the woman, visiting from England, who had typed Byron's last manuscript, which is still unpublished.
The 'artsy-litsy' scene
With Washington College and its rich literary tradition in place, it shouldn't be surprising that the arts have flourished in Chestertown.
After starting Literary House, a student center for the literati, in 1971, Bob Day, an English professor at the college, helped launch Literary House Press in 1992 to publish works on "the artistic, cultural and intellectual atmosphere" of the Chesapeake Bay region. It's what novelist John Barth, a Chestertown local, calls "the artsy-litsy" scene in his essay, "Goose Art." The essay is included in an anthology, Talking Tidewater, re-issued last year by Literary House Press.
"The arts are blooming but it's not like Miracle-Gro. It's not like they poured it on a seed and it popped out. This is a culture that's been developed over time," says Day. "We wouldn't want instant culture."
The Carla Massoni Gallery on High Street, for instance, is in its 13th year and features a range of art from the wildlife sculpture of Bart Walter to the abstract paintings of Linn Meyers. Other artists include Marc Castelli, Marcy Dunn Ramsey, Greg Mort and Susan Tessum.
For the last 18 months, works from the gallery have hung in the office of the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. The gallery also has been involved in an outreach program that has showcased its artworks in embassies around the world.
"We could have decided to see how many boats we could get in here ... but we don't need or want to do that," says Massoni of the gallery's offerings. "We are rich in the arts. My goal is not to be a regional art gallery but a superb art gallery. I can find people with national and international reputations right here. The range is so extraordinary."
Her only rule? "No ducks. When I opened I said no ducks would cross this threshold."
The arts are steadily building as more galleries arrive on the scene. The Artists Gallery, on the same block as Massoni, opened recently, featuring Maryland artists. Artworks has a shop on nearby Park Row and the Kent County Arts Council, on Spring Street, features regular exhibitions.
The Chestertown Arts League on Cannon Street also operates a gallery. Coming in April: a monthly First Fridays gallery walk that will link them all together.
When Joy Staniforth opened Joie de Vivre, an arts and textile gallery on the 400 block of Race Street in Cambridge three years ago, friends gave the shop three to six months to survive.
"I stayed and stayed and people began to realize maybe there is some sense in being downtown," notes Staniforth, a textile designer. "Now, people are popping in asking, 'What's it like here? How are you doing?' "
Staniforth's gallery has a lot more company these days as new spaces open -- among them, Chesapeake Photos, a studio, gallery and bookstore run by noted photographer David Harp, a former Baltimore Sun Magazine staffer who has collaborated with Chesapeake Bay writer and Sun columnist Tom Horton on three books. Harp, who moved his operation from Baltimore last April, has more than 300,000 images in his photo library.
The revitalization of downtown Cambridge is attributed in part to the new Hyatt Regency resort that opened on the Choptank River a year and a half ago. The resort has brought tourists to town and built the confidence of a community that's beginning to get good word-of-mouth on its arts scene. In fact, the state last July designated the downtown as an Arts & Entertainment District, which should bring even more galleries to the area as a result of tax incentives.
Coming this spring: the opening of 447 Studio & Gallery, an 8,000-square-foot gallery on Race Street that will feature contemporary works by regional and national artists. Upstairs on the second floor of the former Phillips Hardware building are 12 artists' studios, six already in use.
"It's been surprising. In the last year, we've seen numerous shops open, buildings being restored. There's been a lot of growth," says Steve Vondenbosch, a partner in the gallery project. "It's all happening faster than any of us could ever have predicted." At Joie de Vivre, Staniforth has built a gallery that includes the work of Mama Girl, an up-and-coming folk artist from the Eastern Shore of Virginia; John Root Hopkins, a local painter whose work is currently on exhibit at the American Visionary Arts Museum; Barbara Lundy Stone, an Easton textile artist; and an array of impressive regional jewelers.
"People are amazed at what they are seeing here. These are first-class stores and galleries," says Staniforth. Not long ago, a man who works at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington bought some metalwork crafted by Cambridge resident Andre Jones. "I was so excited," Staniforth says. "He said he was going to tell all his friends about it" and describe the work as being competitive with "juried New York."
Most people associate charming and historic Berlin with the movies that have been shot in town, but there's a vibrant arts community -- just now being discovered -- that should overshadow the fact that Julia Roberts once slept here. (Remember Runaway Bride?)
The painter Kevin Fitzgerald, emerging as one of the top artists in the Mid-Atlantic, has developed into a great success story. And there are a number of other artists in the area who could be on the verge of making it big.
Watch for Lynne Lockhart, whose colorful and sometimes whimsical landscapes and animal paintings are being shown in galleries including the Henry Art Center in Berlin and Troika in Easton.
"There's a whole hive of artists down here," says Lockhart. "A lot of us have been down here working for a long time. Now, people are coming and finding there's a lot of art going on. People are sort of catching up with us."
The first place in town to check out: The Globe Theatre, a bistro/gallery/book shop/performing arts space at Broad and Main streets that rivals big-city competitors. In fact, two years ago the Globe, a one-time garage-turned-movie house that's on the National Register of Historic Places, won a governor's award as the No. 1 arts-oriented small business in Maryland.
The gallery, offering regional fine art and contemporary crafts, has a terrific mix ranging from art glass and raku sculpture to paintings and pottery.
Another must-see: the Henry Art Center, now featuring work by Lockhart and owner Pat Henry, a self-described "cheerleader for culture" who is painting the region's natural resources and architecture to ensure that there is a recording of them.
Other galleries downtown include the J.J. Fish Studio, A Step Above and the Worcester County Arts Council.
"When you walk into a small town like this, you think, gee it's a pretty place, a nice place to walk or to get a meal. The added bonus is to find art and find food that is on a competitive scale with D.C., Baltimore, wherever," according to Kate Hastings, who opened the Globe nearly 15 years ago.
It's no mistake that fine art and fine food have found their way to Berlin. As Hastings puts it, "This area offers intense inspiration for artists on all levels. We have very serious and professional painters and sculptors and artists working in all mediums. This is a place that nurtures the creative spirit, and it shows."
As a visit to the Eastern Shore's art towns demonstrates, there's far more here than art ducko on the walls.
When you go
Getting there: From the Bay Bridge, follow Route 50 east to reach, in succession, Easton, Cambridge and Berlin. To get to Chestertown from the bridge, take Route 301 north toward Wilmington, then Route 213 north toward Centreville.
Academy Art Museum, 106 South St.