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The Questions of Art

by Steve Desroches

The trees atop Miller Hill are swaying in the strong gusts brought on by Hurricane Jose, which has stalled 150 miles off Nantucket. Each stiff wind reveals the bottom of the leaves presenting the muted shades of green that usually signal that a band of tropical rain is on the way. But things are dry at the moment. With Hurricane Maria tearing across Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma devastated much of the Leeward Islands a week prior and a severe earthquake shook Mexico City days ago, Cape Cod is fortunate. That being said, Cape Codders are all too aware of the forces of nature that are constantly shaping the peninsula jutting out into the North Atlantic.

Stepping outside Mark Adams’ studio on Upper Miller Hill Road is another reminder of an ever-changing force on the Outer Cape: the Hawthorne Barn. The beautifully weathered building built in 1907 by Charles Hawthorne, founder of the Provincetown art colony, has survived storms and the forces of development and gentrification to stand as a monument to the creative impulses of the Cape tip.  As an artist and a cartographer for the Cape Cod National Seashore Adams has spent much of his life exploring the ever changing worlds of nature and art, and fused them together in his work, which will be on display in a mid-career retrospective titled Mark Adams: Expedition at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM) starting this week.

Swimmers series

Working for the National Parks Service since 1991, officially as a geographic information specialist and coastal geology technician, Adams’ knowledge of the stretch of land from Chatham to Provincetown is vast. But as any scientist will tell you, the more you know the more you realize how much you don’t know. This is compounded by a natural world in perpetual motion, changing so quickly human understanding can have difficulty keeping up. That’s where art is a powerful tool of interpretation. His work making maps needs to be technical and accurate, but Adams’ art can deliver the feeling and emotion.

“A picture of the Earth is not a map, just as a photograph is not a painting,” says Adams. “A map is an answer to a question. You can say the same about a painting.”

While the exhibition at PAAM, curated by Breon Dunigan and Joe Fiorello, presents work from throughout Adams’ career to date, Adams insisted it also include new works, one of which is an artistic rendering of a map of Cape Cod and the Islands and its relation to the Gulf of Maine (the giant body of water to our north bordered by the Maritime Provinces of Canada and the submerged Georges Bank to the east), on the floor of the museum. There will also be a recreation of Charles Darwin’s cabin on the H.M.S. Beagle, the ship that took the young naturalist around the world, an expedition where his observations led to his writings on evolution.

Lone Swimmer

Much of Adams’ work however, which is done in a variety of mediums, presents maps or images of the natural world interlaid with human figures, either expressly or with mere impression. There’s movement signifying these are moments in a person’s life and in nature, but there’s a water element, a diffusion, that presents these instances as fleeting, much as a map is only accurate for a brief period in time.  But above all the work shows Adams’ intimate relationship to the environment around him and his endless exploration of it, be it the kettle ponds of Wellfleet and Truro or the ever-shifting sands of Hatches Harbor. But he is no keeper of a magical world only open to him, he merely places himself in a world we’ve evolved to be a part of.

“People always say, ‘Tell me how to get to the ponds. Show me the ponds,’” says Adams. “It’s not a secret. It’s just that you have to take a bit of a leap to find them.”

Summer Flounder

A native of Illinois and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, Adams has a wanderlust of the body and the mind. He’s worked as a wildlife field biologist, scientific illustrator, forest fire fighter, and gymnastics coach. He frequently can be found carrying a bound notebook, which may contain sketches of animals he saw in Beech Forest that day or drawings from a recent trip to Bhutan or Morocco. But it’s the Outer Cape that has enchanted him longest, in particular because the culture of the place doesn’t require anyone to request permission to be an artist, allowing him to just focus on the work and not the title. As such he’s presented shows at the Schoolhouse Gallery for nearly 20 years.

Much like his maps, his art documents a place and time. The inspiration and method make the work enduring, while the subject creates context. A corresponding exhibition book On An Expedition, featuring his work and the writings of people such as Michael Cunningham, Marie Howe, and Victoria Redel, further places it in perspective. But as maps and art are about answering questions, the exhibition is not meant to do so literally, but to provide the framework for you to do so yourself.

“I want to communicate to people,” says Adams. “I mostly want the work to communicate to people. I don’t care too much what they take away from it, as long as they take it. When someone tells me what they get out of a painting; what story they get, it’s not my job to disagree.”

Mark Adams: Expedition is on exhibition at PAAM, 460 Commercial St., Provincetown, September 29 – November 12. An opening reception will be held Friday, September 29 at 8 p.m. Admission to this is free. Adams and the show’s curators will give a talk titled Environmental Autobiography: On An Expedition with Mark Adams on Tuesday, October 3 at PAAM at 6 p.m. Tickets ($10) are available at the door. For more information call 508.487.1750 or vist

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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