by Steve Desroches
It’s a spectacular late summer day on the cusp of September, the kind of day when people dispense with “hellos” and “how are yous” and lead with a greeting of “beautiful day, isn’t it?” Dry, crisp, and with a gentle breeze that carries the first hints of autumn, the sun shifts as well as the golden, honey drizzled light that signifies the change of seasons begins to shine, too. That light, which has drawn thousands of artists to the Cape tip, flashes across Erna Partoll’s face as the door to her Howland Street studio opens to reveal a warm smile and a kind glimmer in her eyes. She looks radiant in the light of her studio. An artist herself, it wasn’t the light that enchanted her, but the ocean. Until recently, the 91-year-old walked daily on the beach, no matter the weather, as she loved to absorb the power of the sea. But a bit of arthritis in her leg has her sidelined for the moment and she’s hopeful a new treatment will have her on the beach again soon. Life changes and you can’t do much but ride the tides the best you can.
After over 50 years in Provincetown, Partoll was reminded of both the immense force that is the ocean as well as how life can change in an instant this past December when Cape Cod was hit by Winter Storm Elliot just a couple of days before Christmas, bringing catastrophic flooding to her neighborhood. The high winds, an astronomical high tide, the failure of a harbor side sea wall, and rising sea levels brought about three feet of sea water into Partoll’s home within 10 minutes. Provincetown firefighters arrived quickly and carried Partoll to safety. And soon, friends and neighbors scurried all of the art from her long career out of harm’s way and to the Berta Walker Gallery, where the namesake agreed to keep it safe for as long as necessary.
Now, her home is back to some semblance of normal, or at least a new normal, as nothing goes back to the way it once was. That’s just how life goes, and whether it’s good or bad is up to us. And out of that frightening and disruptive experience, something very good did come out of it. Walker looked through all of the work, seeing pieces that her longtime friend had never shown her, some of which are now part of a new exhibition at the gallery up for the month of September. And one piece, done about 10 years ago, titled New Day’s Promise, was chosen by fellow artist Jay Critchley, who is the founder and producer of the Swim for Life, as the event’s art for 2023. New Day’s Promise, as such, graces the official t-shirt for the Swim and all promotional materials.
“The title of the painting came out of a conversation I had with a friend 10 years ago when I did the painting,” says Partoll. “What was the promise of the day was the question. That’s an interesting thought, don’t you think? I gave it a conscious thought. Well, every day the sun comes up, that’s a promise. Get up early and you can see it for yourself. Every day the sun comes up on a new day. And every day the moon comes out and that day is over. That’s a promise. That there will always be a new day.”
When asked if New Day’s Promise is an optimistic painting, Partoll responds with a firm, definitive, and declarative, “Yes!”
It’s that spirit, mixed with a strong sense of self and adventure, that led to Partoll living in Provincetown and to her life as an artist. Born in St. Gallen, Switzerland, as young adult Partoll lived in London and Paris before immigrating to Canada, where she stayed for three years before moving to New York City in 1960. At that time the grand capitals of Europe didn’t have anything on the bright lights and the hustle and bustle of New York. Speaking several languages and having taken secretarial courses, Partoll worked day jobs (and sometimes nights) to allow her to attend the Art Students League where she studied with Will Barnet and Theodoros Stamos, both of whom had connections to Provincetown. After a little more than five years, the wonderment of New York gave way to a longing for the colors and open space of nature, and come 1970 Partoll came to Provincetown for a summer. Fifty-three years later she’s still here, but how did that initial move happen?
“I really don’t know,” laughs Partoll. “Most people don’t know either.”
It is true that most people don’t move to Provincetown, but rather, are absorbed, or even embraced into the town so subtly that one day they look around and realize that they live here. At least that’s the story for many. And over that half century, Partoll distinguished herself as an important abstract artist focusing on color, composition, and the relationship between colors and how they create space, as well as a career-long exploration of shape, in particular circles, squares, and waves. And New Day’s Promise is both representative of that work as well as prophetic as it colorfully resembles the disaster that struck in December and Partoll’s resilience and refusal to capitulate. She’s especially happy now with life and this attention her work is receiving as well as its connection to the Swim for Life, an event that she says perfectly captures the spirit of Provincetown. Proceeds from the sale of New Day’s Promise will go to the Swim for Life.
“Provincetown is all about community,” says Partoll. “It was community that helped me after the flood. It’s community that has kept me here all these years. During those sad, sad years of the AIDS pandemic it was the community that came together. I’ll never lose my love for the ocean or this community.”
Partoll’s work will be part of a group exhibition at the Berta Walker Gallery, 208 Bradford St., September 8 – 30. For more information visit bertawalkergallery.com or call 508.487.6411. To purchase a Swim for Life t-shirt ($25) featuring New Day’s Promise visit Seamen’s Bank main office at 221 Commercial St. or order online at swim4life.org.
The 36th Provincetown Swim for Life & Paddler Flotilla
Friday, September 8
Celebration of Life Concert – 8 p.m.
Unitarian Universalist Meeting House,
236 Commercial St.
On the Friday after Labor Day since 1994, the historic and elegant sanctuary of Provincetown’s Unitarian Universalist Meeting House has been the home of an event filled with music, celebration, life, memory, and joy. Founded and produced by John Thomas the Celebration of Life was meant to celebrate the lives lost at to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Held in conjunction with the Swim for Life it is a beloved community event. This year’s concert features Megan Amorese, Arian Carlos, Chanthoeun Varon Collins, Donnelly & Richardson, Harrison Fish, Deyan Gerginov, Sue Goldberg, Billy Hough, Zack Johnson, Zoë Lewis, Ken Lonergan, Madison Mayer, DeAngelo Nieves, John Thomas, Peter Toto, Darlene Van Alstyne, Janet Villas, Rev. Kate Wilkinson and other surprises. The concert is free.
Saturday, September 9
Provincetown Swim for Life & Paddler Flotilla – 8:30 a.m.
Provincetown Harbor: Swim starts at the Harbor and Breakwater hotels, 698 Commercial St., and finishes at Cannery Wharf Park, 387 Commercial St., where a Mermaid Brunch, featuring the music of Zoe Lewis and food by Far Land Provisions will be held at 10 a.m. An ancillary swim event is held at Wellfleet Great Pond near Cahoon Hollow Rd. at 9 a.m. and is limited to 50 swimmers. There will also be Watch Parties at the Cape Codder Guest House (570 Commercial St.), St. Mary’s of the Harbor (517 Commercial St.), and Fanizzi’s (539 Commercial St.). Shoreline residents may create their own private ones, as well!