The Eastern Shore and art? To most outsiders, that usually means only one thing: ducks. Duck paintings. Duck sculptures. Duck decoys. But look beyond the surface and you'll discover a region that's redefining itself -- quite rightly -- as a serious arts destination.
Easton, Chestertown, Cambridge and Berlin in particular are turning into thriving art colonies with galleries, studios and shops to show for it. Just look at Cambridge: In the last year alone, a half-dozen storefronts in the 400 block of Race Street have been transformed into trendy space for working artists as well as a photography studio, a gourmet wine and cheese shop, a high-end children's store and an antiques gallery.
Cambridge, trendy? Yes, it's really happening. It's the sort of energy, too, that tourism officials are beginning to recognize -- and reward.
"It's like they get it now," notes Leslie Prince Raimond, executive director of the Kent County Arts Council in Chestertown. "A lot of states see the arts as a frill, but the Maryland state government has been very supportive monetarily. There's a growing awareness that the arts are part of economic development and tourism."
I didn't understand the vitality of the Eastern Shore arts scene until last September when I went on a tour of artists' studios in and around Chestertown, where I live. The tour, sponsored by the nonprofit Chester River Artworks, lasted two days and included more than 40 studios and the work of painters, potters, sculptors, jewelers, woodworkers, metalworkers and photographers.
Artists have been drawn to the Eastern Shore for decades, in part because of the region's extraordinary light. Ross M. Merrill, chief of conservation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, has painted landscapes here for the last 20 years. As he puts it, "The atmosphere is always full of humidity and haze, and all these layers make the landscape really interesting. The light is quite different from anywhere else."
Chestertown gallery owner Carla Massoni agrees. "The Eastern Shore is so unusual. It's sort of like Italy or someplace else where the light, the land and the atmosphere attract. You get these creative people who come here, love the place and begin to do their work," she says. "Then comes the next evolution: Where might I show my work?"
And that's where things get fun, as day-trippers and longer-term visitors to the Eastern Shore are beginning to appreciate. The galleries offer a startling array of work by regional artists, some of whom have national and international reputations.
In my wanderings, I've discovered artists in my own back yard whose work has been showcased at such venues as the Smithsonian Institution, the National Air and Space Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the U.S. Senate and in U.S. embassies from Brazil to Bahrain. Moreover, their work has shown up in the private collections of well-known folks like Bill Clinton, Mel Gibson, Robin Williams and Jane Goodall, among many others.
As a visit to the Eastern Shore's art towns demonstrates, there's far more here than art ducko on the walls.
Leading the way
If the Eastern Shore has a cultural capital, it's Easton, whose nationally recognized Academy Art Museum serves as the granddaddy of the arts for the region. Not that the museum is stodgy. An exhibition opening next month, "Born to Be Wild," will feature guitars from renowned guitar manufacturer Paul Reed Smith, whose plant is located on Kent Island.
Easton was ranked in the top 50 in the book, The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America, (John Muir Publications, 1998,) leading author John Villani to call the 45-year-old museum "one of the nation's most effective and impressive small-town arts institutions."
And the museum is about to get more impressive with the addition next fall of 10,000 square feet of new exhibition, educational and performing arts space. The museum, whose permanent collection consists largely of works on paper and contemporary art, operates as the anchor of a downtown district that includes galleries, retail shops, restaurants, antiques dealers and the Avalon Theatre, a performing arts venue.
Two galleries that shouldn't be missed: Troika, at 9 S. Harrison St., and South Street Art Gallery, at 5 South St.
Troika, owned by three painters who work in a back studio, represents 30 artists in a kind of homey space -- not off-putting the way some galleries can be. South Street Art, located around the corner from Troika, is in an old Victorian -- itself worth a look -- whose three floors are filled with the fine art of 42 artists including Ross Merrill, Yves Parent and Henry Greenewalt.
South Street Art also has a children's studio where kids can create their own work while their parents explore the artwork. In addition, both galleries participate in the First Friday Gallery Walk, held on the first Friday of each month from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.