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Seacoast scavenger: A road-trip guide to the coastline arts scene

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Seacoast scavenger: A road-trip guide to the coastline arts scene
“Carpenters” by Jacob Lawrence. (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Ogunquit Museum of American Art)

Just an hour’s drive from Boston lies a cultural font of African American history and art. The New England seacoast offers fresh seafood, quaint accommodations and a cultural history older than any other in the country.

For a weekend getaway, start in Portsmouth, New Hampshire where you’ll find the 24-stop Black Heritage Trail, marking historically and culturally significant locations around the city. Though some of the stops simply denote where slaves lived, the African Burial Ground on Chestnut Street is a sharp and moving reminder of the black town members who shaped early New England. Though the initial burial ground has been paved over, a park with a memorial created by artist Jerome Meadows stands in its place.

On the web

Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail:

Seacoast African American Cultural Center:

Sanctuary Arts:

Ogunquit Art Association:

Ogunquit Museum of American Art:

Titled “We Stand in Honor of Those Forgotten,” the memorial park begins with two life-size bronze figures in bas-relief, standing back to back. The male figure represents the first enslaved person brought to Portsmouth in 1645; the female figure represents Mother Africa. They are divided by, and fused with, a large granite rectangle, a symbol of industry and colonization and the New Hampshire state rock.

The brick Petition Line guides you through the park, bearing the inscription of a 1779 document written by and petitioning for the freedom of 20 slaves. Past the artist’s statement and manicured bushes lies a reburial vault sealed with a mosaic Sankofa symbol. The vault holds the exhumed remains of the burial ground’s former occupants. Eight figures crafted in cement and bronze stand around the vault, representing the contemporary community and their acknowledgement of Portsmouth’s African heritage. Around the park’s outer railing are 110 tiles designed in collaboration with the local middle school.

This kind of community engagement in the arts spreads throughout the city. For more information on the burial ground you can head to the Seacoast African American Cultural Center on Middle Street. Its whole third floor exhibit, opening in April, will be dedicated to artwork created by local students and inspired by the burial ground and the area’s black history.

Sandi Clark, chairwoman of the SAACC says, “This isn’t just African American history, it’s American history. I think it’s important every day.” The organization’s theme this year is African American athletes. Their upcoming exhibits will center on Jesse Owens, Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson and others.

Sanctuary Arts

From Portsmouth, Sanctuary Arts in Eliot, Maine is only a 15-minute drive. Owner and founder Christopher Gowell created the arts school and studio space in 1996 inside an old Methodist church. The expansive property features a large, light-flooded teaching room, a series of basement studios, Gowell’s own studio and residence, a foundry and a sculpture garden. The space reverberates with positive energy, and artistry sprouts from every corner. The former church pews were repurposed into a built-in shelving unit, and local artists created new stained glass in homage to the building’s original purpose.

Sanctuary Arts offers six to 12 classes a year in a variety of media. Gowell teaches the sculpture seminar.

Ogunquit, Maine

Further north, the beachside town of Ogunquit has served as inspiration for painters, sculptors and sketchers since it was settled in 1641. The Ogunquit Art Association is Maine’s oldest art association and has been fostering local talent since 1928.

Get to know local Maine talent at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art (OMAA), which boasts both beautiful art and a beautiful view of the ocean, overlooking Perkins Cove. The museum has only a few galleries, but the grounds and ocean view are worth the visit. Sculpture and site-specifc installations grace the lawns.

Richard Haynes, artist and former board member of the OMAA, says his artistic career took off on the seacoast. A native of Charleston, South Carolina, his vibrant crayon creations depict African Americans at work and play. “Artists are cultural makers and cultural keepers,” he says. “My work is as an anthropologist and an artist.”

Most notable in the OMAA collection is an offset lithograph by Jacob Lawrence titled “Carpenters.” Flat planes of bold color depict three black men in overalls at work sawing sheets of wood. The simple style conveys powerful emotion as one man stands with his head down, bracing himself against a table. He pauses for a moment in his work, exhausted, a sharp contrast to his industrious counterparts.

Newly appointed Executive Director Michael Mansfield comes to Ogunquit from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. One of his biggest plans for the museum is an increased dose of diversity. “This site has given us a great perspective,” he says. “It’s a departure point of American creativity. I’m really eager to develop a program that connects with a diverse group of artists around the world.”

The arts extend beyond gallery walls in this culture haven. Local hotspots like Clay Hill Farm, Meadowmere Resort, Jonathan’s Ogunquit and M.C. Perkins Cove feature live music by local artists. This year the Ogunquit Playhouse will celebrate 85 years of seasonal productions of world and national premieres and timeless classics.

For an area of the country founded by Puritans, the seacoast has a lot to offer in way of African American art. As Haynes says, “New England is the place where I found the arts.”

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