How a Fish Shack Became the Heart of an Art Colony and the Symbol of a Town

How a Fish Shack Became the Heart of an Art Colony and the Symbol of a Town

A fish shack does not become famous on its own.

Yet one red shack boasting a mere 1,008 square feet has managed to claim the title of “the most often-painted building in America,” adorned innumerable souvenirs, inspired a perfume, been featured in the films Finding Nemo and The Proposal, made headlines in the New York Times and American Art Review, prompted its own festival, decorated stamps, and, perhaps most importantly, become a celebrated icon of a bygone era.

The Old Red Fish House, Rockport, by Harrison Cady (1877–1970), 1908. Watercolor on paper. From private collection.

Motif No. 1 not only fuels an art colony but also provides a glimpse into the “Old New England” and an authentic America. Motif No. 1 is a story of sea captains and immigrant fishermen, sloops and schooners, Gilded Age elite and the Great Depression, American Legion parades and secret paint formulas.

Enter L.M. Vincent, an outsider to all things maritime. Hailing from Kansas, he had never seen a live lobster until he was twelve years old and dining at a steakhouse. Yet when Vincent journeyed to observe the picturesque Motif No. 1, he came back with more than a snapshot.

Upon discovering that the sanguine shack was rebuilt after the great blizzard of 1978, Vincent puzzled over this mysterious shack that had necessitated the construction of a replica within a year of its destruction.

Modern-day Rockporters, however, appeared unperturbed by the numerous enigmas surrounding Motif No. 1; this compelled Vincent to step into the role of detective:

“Gaping holes [existed] in the historical record [but] no real answer to what I considered the crucial question: why this particular fish shack? I set out to tease away the threads of fact from myth and extricate true tales from tall tales. Like an artist, I would consider Motif No. 1 from various angles, in different lights and from changing perspectives, all to answer the question of how a humble fish shack became transformed,” Vincent said.

Vincent explores the linguistic, artistic, architectural and anthropological origins of Motif No. 1 in anecdotes that will both resonate with locals and also engage unfamiliar readers. Vincent expertly informs as a historian and narrates with the entertainment value of fiction, debunking myths surrounding Motif No. 1 to provide the most comprehensive account of its origins to date.

….but we’re a little biased. See what the Boston Globe and Boston.com have to say, and then read why Massachusetts Book News recently called the book a “must read.”

Meet the author at Motif No. 1 Day in Rockport, Massachusetts on Saturday, May 19. Vincent will read and sign books at the Old Firehouse Trust at 3:30 p.m.

Q&A with L.M. Vincent

Q: Let’s start with the big question: what is Motif No. 1?

A: I didn’t even know myself not that long ago. And my embarrassment caused me to overcompensate and write this book, I think. Motif No. 1 is a red fish shack on the end of a granite pier in Rockport, Massachusetts, a very quaint and picturesque little town in Cape Ann. It got the moniker “Motif No. 1” because it was generally the first subject to be painted whenever artists or art students would come to Rockport to paint in the summers. So, as the claim goes, this particular fish house is the most painted structure in America.

Q: And is it…the most painted?

A: It’s fair to say that it’s been painted a lot by some very good artists. And some mediocre and bad ones as well. There’s a lot of mythology associated with the shack, which is one of the reasons why it’s so interesting.

Q: How did you first encounter Motif No. 1?

A: I was on a road trip around the country, visiting some of the tourist attractions I had always wanted to see, such as Mount Rushmore, the Baseball Hall of Fame and the like. Of course, Motif No. 1 wasn’t on my list because I didn’t know about it. But I was planning a drive up the New England coast, and my cousin Al, who lived in Peabody, Massachusetts, told me I had to go to Rockport to see Motif No. 1. I was intrigued, so I drove to Rockport, walked out on the main town wharf, and had a look at the Motif for the first time.

A watercolor of Motif No. 1 purchased for thirty-five dollars on eBay, perhaps by someone really famous who forgot to sign it. Offers accepted. Collection of the author (photographic reproduction by Linda A. Marquette).

Q: What were your first impressions?

A: I wasn’t sure what to think. The scene was definitely quaint and picturesque, but I couldn’t figure how this little fish shack had become such a major tourist attraction. It wasn’t designed by a famous architect…no major historical events had occurred there. I couldn’t figure out why this shack was so special. I asked a few locals about it – when it was built, who built it—but no one was able to give me a straight answer.

Q: How do you account for the fact that they didn’t know much about their town symbol?

A: Well, it’s a shack, after all, and no one paid it any mind for most of its history. If the folks living back at the end of the nineteenth century knew their little shack would eventually become such a star, they probably would have paid more attention to it. In any case, there’s a twist here. The original Motif No.1 was completely destroyed in the Blizzard of 1978, and the existing structure is a replica, rebuilt from scratch.

Q: So what you saw wasn’t original or even old?

A: This is the thing about New England…visitors naturally assume everything is old. The existing Motif No. 1 was built nearly a decade after the Beatles broke up. And the more I delved into things, the more fascinating I found the story to be. Rockports economy was initially based on fishing and granite quarrying, but both petered out, and the establishment of an art colony—which led to tourism, for better or worse–became instrumental in saving the town’s economy. Of course, much of the art was maritime in nature, and the shack proved an attractive and worthy subject.

L.M. Vincent's first photo of a humble fish house known as Motif No. 1.

Q: What’s your background in fishing and maritime history?

A: I’m originally from Kansas, and I had the typical oceanic experience for a Kansan growing up. I read the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Old Man and the Sea in junior high school, and I was a member of the surfing club (which didn’t involve any surfing…just listening to the Beach Boys and looking at surfing magazines). I don’t sail or fish; never have caught a fish, in fact. I have absolutely no nautical aptitude.

Q: Did your unusual background put you at a disadvantage in researching the book?

A: Not always. For starters, I could ask some really dumb questions and get away with it. And people were very kind and helpful. And now I’ve come to think that my questions weren’t so dumb after all. Not that it was all smooth sailing. There were some embarrassing moments, like the time I was interviewing Captain Bill Lee, the last trawler captain operating out of Rockport Harbor, and I had to ask him what a trawler was.

Q: Does the book go into specifics about trawlers and lobstering?

A: The book is really more about the art and the art colony. As I say in the book, Motif No. 1 is to the Rockport Art Colony as the Rouen Cathedral was to Monet and Madame X was to Sargent. The real story is in the art and the way the Motif was perceived (and painted) by thousands of artists. I focus especially on the period between 1920 and World War II, which was really the heyday for the Rockport Colony.

John M. Buckley painting Motif No. 1. Courtesy of John D. Buckley.

Q: What about the Rockport Colony artists?

A: The leader of the colony was an artist named Aldro Hibbard. Other notables included W. Lester Stevens, Anthony Thieme and Harrison Cady. With Hibbard at the helm, the colony became a very collegial place, which attracted artists to the area and was also good for selling art. They pulled some shenanigans over the years, which contributed to the fame of the little shack they often painted. They were also masters of public relations, which led to the eventual dominance of the Rockport Colony of artists to the detriment of the painters in Gloucester. One thing is for certain: Motif No. 1 didn’t become famous without a lot of help.

Q: How did you feel about the process of researching and writing?

A: For me, it’s all about the art, and the art is fabulous. Several private collectors were generous enough to let me view their art collections and reproduce some of the pieces in the book. And the artists themselves were a fun-loving and lively bunch, for the most part. Their antics are quite amusing, and the tall tales—and deciphering fact from fiction—was a challenge. My goal was to write a definitive history of a small place, but I’m a comic writer by disposition, and this story of a fish-shack-turned-celebrity was right up my alley. The result is both informative and entertaining.

Q: One final question: did you figure out how the fish shack was transformed into a celebrity? Was your search successful?

A: I think so, but I’ll let the reader decide.

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