The Early Days of Castle Hill

by Joyce Johnson

Joyce Johnson Founder   photo by Marnie Samuelson

Joyce Johnson Founder  
photo by Marnie Samuelson

In 1971 Truro Center for the Arts at Castle Hill was taking its first tentative steps toward becoming a successful art center. And tentative was the word. There was no money, just a wonderful old New England barn that had cried out for years to be converted to an art center. Eventually the cry was heard by a group of people who wanted just that. The alternative would have been fateful for the Snow's Stables, over a century old and once the hub of community activity. Built around 1882, it was used by Charles W. Snow for multiple purposes, including keeping a team of horses, storing equipment for his building trade, and serving as a retail paint store. He also rented sections to ever-changing tenants.

Contractor Peter Brown, who bought the property in the 1960s, told a group of people who first assembled to discuss the barn's future that if artists were not interested in using the space as studios or for a school, he would demolish the building and use the lot for another purpose.

I attended that meeting of a handful of artists and craftsmen in August 1971. It was organized by the late Harry Hollander, who wanted a place to teach his specialty, working in plastics. Those who met at the home of craftsman Albert Kaufman were indeed very interested in the availability of studio space, even creating an art center. But without funds, and no one offering to produce them, the meeting ended without resolve, except thatBrown was encouraged enough by the group's interest to move forward with renovations to stabilize the building, with the hope of renting sections as artists' studios.

For five years I had been running the Nauset School of Sculpture at my studio in North Eastham. Several weeks after the meeting, Hollander found me at my Truro home. Someone had pointed the general direction of my isolated homestead in a kettle pot and he arrived, tramping through a swamp and brambles, having missed the dirt road leading in. He suggested that I move my school to the barn and add a few diverse workshops to the program, including his particular workshop on plastic techniques. He urged me to take a look at what Brown was doing to renovate and repair the barn-adding windows for north light and reconstructing floors and walls to convert the barn into seven individual studios.

I followed the suggestion the next day and when I saw the new space, any questions and concerns faded away. If nothing else, I decided to rent the spacious main studio for my sculpture school, convinced my luck for running the school in Eastham during rainless summers in a grove of pine trees without shelter would soon run out. Doris Harris, a ceramics teacher from Binghamton, New York, with a summer home in Wellfleet, had been a student in my school for several years and became very interested in the idea of a summer school in Truro also. She agreed to set up a ceramic department, a major start for a summer craft program. We told Brown we wanted to rent another room. Then we asked for two more as other artists and craftspeople expressed interest in teaching.

The first official meeting of a steering committee occurred in my Eastham home. It included Rigmor Holbrook Plezner and George Zilliac, both of Orleans, and myself. Eleanor Meldahl of Truro was invited but unable to attend. We decided to move forward. My sculpture school mailing list of about 200 people and a barrage of news releases began to inform people that an art center would be opening in late June close to the picturesque Pamet River in Truro. The news was well-received.

Funding was still an issue. I said I would work on the project without recompense until we saw what might happen. Brown said he would postpone the date to receive rent until June, a significant reprieve. And I borrowed $250 on my newly acquired Master Charge card-all that was needed to get out the first one-page brochure describing 15 workshops.

Teachers agreed that the Center would not be obligated to run a workshop if the number of students needed to break even was not reached. The list of instructors was small but, in retrospect, formidable. Among them wereRobert Vickrey, an internationally known egg tempera specialist who lives in Orleans, and New York sculptor Sidney Simon who has a summer home in Truro. Printmaker Jan Gelb of Provincetown agreed to teach, along with New Hampshire weaver Mary Bishop and Orleans poet Thomas Whitbread. Orleans printmaker Marcia Howe would teach experimental printmaking and Hollander, who lived year-round in Truro, would teach jewelry-making with plastics. His wife, Ruth, and Harris would comprise the ceramics department.

The Center had approached Dan Klubock, a Boston lawyer, to begin applying for non-profit status, which was finally certified a year or so later. He also counseled me, in the initial stages during the fall of 1971, to squelch a move by several residents of Castle Road to stop the Center. Since schools are allowed in residential areas, the attempt was groundless and thankfully faded away. We, of course, had no idea whether the Center would succeed. I was prepared to lose no more than $2000 that first summer. As it worked out, we made a "profit" of about that much, some of which was paid me as salary. We need not have feared. The response to Castle Hill was steady and enthusiastic. Volunteers began to surface. Many, such as Ella Jackson, Mary Lou Friedman and Eleanor Meldahl, are still working to keep the center afloat with fundraising and promotional efforts and of course there were Doris and Chet Harris, without whom there would never have been a ceramic department. The economic reality was that even with so many volunteers, tuition still covered only about half of the operating costs. A board of trustees to help with fundraising was critical and soon came together.

Truro proved to be the ideal location. The town had no center for artists and writers. All ages were soon attracted to Castle Hill as though there were a magnet hidden among the barn's weathered beams. Some came to learn, others to teach or to fold flyers and stick labels on them. Others came to meet others-to feel a part of a worthwhile project.

Josiah Child, a retired Boston architect, had recently bought a home in Truro just up the hill from the Center. As a board member, he saw its potential and invited Louise Tate, the director of the newly-formed Massachusetts Council for the Arts, to see Castle Hill in the early fall, after the first summer. She liked what she saw and gave the Center its first grant, $5000 for administrative salaries, which was repeated a second year. By the end of the first trial summer we were renting five of the seven studios. A year later we took over the entire barn and tower, which had become the Center's administrative offices.

The next eight years were thrilling and exhausting. Each summer the enrollment increased at least 10 percent. The evenings as well as the days were filled with classes and events. A lecture and concert series drew crowds of over 100 people. In a few years the number of classes rose to over 40 offerings, among them a series of writing courses. Courses on nature were added, such as experimenting with natural dyes with Cape Cod National Seashore naturalist Hal Hinds. Dr. Graham Giese and Barbara and Charles "Stormy" Mayo taught coastal ecology and sea life and were excited enough by the response to start their own school the next year-the Center for Coastal Studies, which is now nationally acclaimed for its whale research.

Some of the most exciting workshops in those early days centered on the ceramic department, with ceramicist Mikhail Zakin acting as the Pied Piper of clay. She led students to discover over 12 natural clays at local beaches, most low-fire, but a few high-fire. They experimented with the clays and one summer built a wood-fired kiln in the back area, staying up for 24 hours to feed the straw and clay hulk filled with hand-crafted pots. Primitive pit firing was another course that attracted large classes.

The success of the Center was not without its down moments. Harris, on Memorial Weekend just before our anticipated opening in late June 1972, complained of a backache and went home to Binghamton to see her doctor. Within a short time she was diagnosed with cancer. She taught only one day at the Center and passed away the next spring, leaving a gaping hole in our program and dreams. She and her husband had completely outfitted the ceramic department with its sturdy tables, secondhand metal stools, deck, and kick wheels lovingly designed and constructed for the program.

In 1975, with only three years under our belt, Brown said he intended to sell the property and offered it to the fledgling board at a generously low price. A yearlong fundraising effort produced the down payment and we became landowners, filled with both excitement and anxiety.

The need for a strong board became clear if the Center was to honor its new obligations in maintaining the two buildings and the grounds. Friedman, a summer resident, agreed to become president of the board for a year and was succeeded by comic strip creator Lee Falk, who also had a summer home in Truro. He instituted a financial plan that has kept the Center in the black for almost two decades, giving subsequent presidents freedom to address the many other challenges that have arisen since Castle Hill's infancy.

Joyce Johnson, a writer and sculptor, was the founder of Castle Hill, president for six years, and director for eight years. This story was printed in Provincetown Arts magazine.