The Way It Used To Was: Selections from the Van Dereck Collection at PAAM

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by Steve Desroches

Top Image: Napi Van Dereck

If ever Napi Van Dereck struck up a conversation with you at his eponymous restaurant and you listened to his tales of Provincetown over the years, you may have heard him say “the way it used to was” to describe the town of yesteryear. Napi loved to tell stories, and he was good at it. He could paint such a vivid picture of the Provincetown of his childhood in the 1930s and the preceding decades that the imagery he created with his words rivaled the famous art collection he assembled over the years and hung in rotation in the dining rooms of his Freeman Street restaurant.

His death on Christmas Day last year at the age of 87 struck the town hard. He was one of those figures who was such an integral and consistent part of the community, as well as a serious interpreter of Provincetown’s history, the town felt knocked off its axis after he died. In a town where transience is the norm, losing someone with such deep roots and knowledge compounded the loss. But Van Dereck left behind a marvelous legacy, one that extends beyond those with memories of his stories: his art collection.

Clamdiggers – William Averbach Levy

At about 300 pieces the Napi and Helen Van Dereck collection is widely considered to be one of the most impressive private collections of Provincetown art. And an exhibition featuring over 40 works is on display at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum (PAAM), curated by executive director Christine McCarthy.

Annually McCarthy curates a Director’s Choice show at the East End museum, and traditionally she features contemporary women artists, though not exclusively. McCarthy notes Van Dereck had an impeccable eye and, in particular, a keen interest in artists who at times went ignored and whose work was unappreciated. With that collector’s ethos, Van Dereck became a champion of many women artists who were part of the art colony over the years, and that’s reflected in Director’s Choice: In Memoriam: Napi Van Dereck up at PAAM, now through September 13.

“You could see how his mind worked as a collector,” says McCarthy walking through the front gallery wearing a white mask featuring the PAAM logo in the museum’s signature saffron. “He honed in on what he really liked; historic scenes of Provincetown. He was very specific in the kind of work he collected. As a collection it tells a story. There’s a narrative. It’s Napi. He was a storyteller, and that’s exactly what these are. These paintings are stories.”

Figures and Dog – Ada Gilmore

The show is as much an art exhibition as it is a history lesson. Frequent diners at Napi’s will recognize some of the works immediately, like a trio of oil paintings done by Nancy Maybin Ferguson (1872 – 1967) with imagery of Provincetown from a variety of familiar vantage points. Though the paintings are undated, they have the strange juxtaposition of clearly being from a different time period and yet the scenes of town are instantly known and could have been painted yesterday. Lucy L’Engle’s (1898 – 1978) Clammdiggers captures both an integral occupation and a beloved tradition on the Outer Cape while Mary Tannahill’s (1863 – 1951) Eight Nudes on a Provincetown Pier is a snapshot of the free spirited freedom native to the town. And a painting signed by an unknown artist S. Mathy is a stunner. Titled View of Red Inn, 1897, the imagery of that West End neighborhood is completely different than now, but the spirit of Provincetown shines through. The breathtaking Horse and Carriage on Nickerson Street, done in 1902 by George Elmer Brown (1871 – 1949), captures the shadows of summer shade with the late day sparkling light on a busy harbor eliciting the hiss of a hot August day. This grouping of paintings tells so much about part of the artistic heritage as well as historic snapshot of Provincetown in the early 20th century. As a collection it’s as if Van Dereck left behind a detailed account of Provincetown history.

“He had an encyclopedic brain,” says McCarthy. “He knew everything that was in the collection. If the painting was of a wharf that no longer exists, he knew where it was. He knew it all.”

Over the years Van Dereck and McCarthy had many conversations over meals at Napi’s. And he and his wife Helen have been very generous to PAAM, donating multiple pieces of work, some of which are part of a concurrent exhibit Harbor to Bay from the Permanent Collection, with art that features Provincetown Harbor or Cape Cod Bay. It makes this exhibition more personal in that McCarthy and PAAM are honoring a beloved supporter and a good friend. Helen, along with Jim Bakker and Bill Evaul, provided significant assistance in assembling this show and in giving McCarthy the ability to really view the collection in its entirety, and enormity. As McCarthy explored the collection, alone, in the storage unit protecting the work, she could hear echoes of Napi. She adds she thinks that he would be quite pleased with the exhibition. But there is of course the question on most everyone’s mind: what’s going to happen to the collection.

Clamdiggers – Lucy L’Engle

“I do believe the collection will eventually end up at PAAM,” says McCarthy. “To keep the collection together and in Provincetown; I think it’s what Napi wanted. We can give it the home it deserves. He believed in the art colony and he loved this town.”

Director’s Choice: In Memoriam: Napi Van Dereck is on exhibition at PAAM, 460 Commercial St., Provincetown, through September 13. In keeping with health and safety protocols a reservation for a specific time to visit the museum is required. The museum is open Thursday through Sunday, with five time slots available (the first being reserved for those 60 and older or in a high risk group). Admission is $12.50 and while still free for members, a reservation is required. Masks are mandatory when inside the museum. To make a reservation call 508.487.1750. For more information visit paam.org.