Conrad Malicoat and his Provincetown Fireplaces
by Steve Desroches
When you see one, you know it. Instantly. The jumble of bricks seemingly tumbling down from the ceiling. The rakish angles that look like an overstuffed bookshelf or a game of Jenga about to come to an end. A jumping marlin or a classic Bay State scallop shell. Artist Conrad Malicoat, himself the son of two Provincetown art colony masters, Philip and Barbara, created many works up until his passing in 2014 at the age of 78. But arguably the work that reverberates the most is his masonry, more specifically the fireplaces he built in various homes and businesses in Provincetown, creating unmovable works of art and, in the process, making the buildings that house them forever special by what they hold inside.
Born in Provincetown in 1936, Malicoat lived a life accentuating his bohemian roots, turning his artistic talents and training into a career that was both breathtaking in its creations and often practical in both their function to the user and the ability to please aesthetically. It’s hard to imagine anyone who has seen more of the interiors of the built structures in Provincetown than David W. Dunlap, the New York Times reporter behind the Building Provincetown project, publication, and website that document the history of the town through its houses, boats, and buildings. And as a bit of a sidebar, Dunlap is also assembling an inventory of Malicoat’s work, which to date includes work in 14 homes and two restaurants: the Red Inn and Napi’s. And he expects more will be discovered. Everyone, Dunlap says, who owns a property with a work by Malicoat exhibits a happy pride in this uniquely Provincetown phenomenon.
“Each one is unique,” says Dunlap. “They are madcap in design, but soundly engineered to stand the test of time. They really embody the spirit of Provincetown with their eccentricity and their durability.”
Walking into the lobby of the Red Inn one can’t help but be taken by the protruding fireplace, bold and angular. As diners excuse themselves to go to the famed “Either”/ “Or” bathrooms as Napi’s, they walk through a doorway framed by the loving chaos of a wall of Malicoat’s design. The residents of 8 Pearl Street, which is home to a gorgeous and massive hearth, leave the room dimly lit all night at the request of friends and neighbors who love looking at the work as they walk by. And when longtime town moderator Roslyn Garfield gave an overwhelmingly generous present to comedian Kate Clinton and writer and political activist Urvashi Vaid when she left them her Commercial Street home, they realized there was a gift within the gift. The kitchen features impeccable millwork by Malicoat, which was lovingly restored by contractor Deb Paine, and a fireplace, rare for its external feature.
“People walking by on Atwood Lane love it because it has a whale breaching,” says Clinton. “It’s really great. We tried to keep the fence as low as we could so people can still see it and still have some privacy. And even then, people made sure to tell us it was a little too high and not to block it.”
An inaugural fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center from 1968 to 1970, Malicoat also became well known for his sculpture, be it in brick, stone, metal, or wood, with four pieces ending up in the permanent collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, part of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. And especially since his passing at his Provincetown home three years ago, there is a growing vibration to keep his legacy alive, both to honor his work in general, but to also let future owners of the properties in question know that there is a major work of art that is an integral part of their home, in hopes that maybe the same pride those that own a home floated over from Long Point have could be applied to a house with a Malicoat fireplace.
The fireplaces are remarkable for their efficiency and sturdiness, too, says Dunlap, as well as Malicoat’s daughter Galen. She adds that she and her sisters Robena and Bronwyn are so proud of their father’s work, which in some cases they assisted him with, and it gives them much happiness they are so beloved. An alumnus of Oberlin College and the Skowhegan School of Art and Design in Maine, Malicoat had a mathematical background and mind, which accounts for the precision of the work and the daring he was able to apply to each fireplace, none of which was planned much in advance.
“He had this great saying, which he would use when he got frustrated, ‘Be not disheartened by how the first brick lies’,” says Malicoat.
He meant that both figuratively and literally, laughs Malicoat, who along with her two sisters lives on the Outer Cape. However, while he may have waited for the muse to speak to him in design, when it came to function he focused intently on creating something that worked well, expanding on the Rumford fireplace, a design by Sir Benjamin Thompson, to throw the most heat and to have the smoke and cold air draft up the chimney. The story of her father’s fireplaces is just one of the many, many aspects of what makes Provincetown so unique. Dunlap is at a loss to think of a comparable example in another community. There are site-specific murals and grand homes with Tiffany glass, but nowhere is there anything like the Malicoat fireplaces. Once you know what to look for, every time you see one for yourself it’s like finding an Easter egg.
“The work of Malicoat makes you smile if not laugh outright,” says Dunlap. “They are joyful.”