Art kindles memories of Scituate

Kaitlin Keane

As a newlywed summering in Scituate during the 1940s and ’50s, Janet Kaplan had no shortage of inspiration for her art. The woods that flanked her summer cottage, the rocky coastline nearby, and Scituate’s quaint downtown were fodder for a young artist with watercolors and some extra time.

But Kaplan was less drawn to the sailboats bobbing in the harbor than the fishing nets and wood strewn on its shores.

For two decades, Kaplan painted Scituate as she saw it, alternating sea-toned landscapes of the lighthouse with grittier depictions of the town’s fisherman and industrial sites.

While Kaplan eventually moved on to sculpture, the medium she became known for on the South Shore, her paintings from that time document a Scituate that many current residents have never seen.

In “Scituate Memories,” an exhibit of Kaplan’s work at the Scituate Town Library, graphite sketches of the former Finnie’s Chicken House hang beside gouache renderings of a dredger working through a town marsh.

Watercolors show lumber piles beside the Welch Co. and sweeping hills of sand and gravel in pits along the Driftway – testaments to Kaplan’s fascination with the Ashcan School of artists. The Ashcan artists painted urban industry and street life in the early 1900s.

Just before Kaplan died in January at 90, the watercolors were rediscovered by her daughter, Josephine Schneider, an artist from Newton.

Schneider pulled a number of pieces from dusty portfolios beneath her mother’s bed and had them framed for a gallery show. She was shocked at the response – 11 of the paintings sold, and several art dealers approached Schneider about seeing more of Kaplan’s industrial renderings.

For Schneider, the library show is a fitting tribute to her mother, who balanced her artistic efforts with her life as a Radcliffe College student and, later, as the society wife of a Boston lawyer.

“When she had to be a corporate wife, she was dressed up for dinner and did it well,” Schneider said. “It was never a role – she was who she was.”

Kaplan pursued sculpture while raising her three children. She built a studio and installed a kiln in the basement of her Cambridge home. She also taught sculpting.

The large sculptures that are her legacy – mostly abstract renderings of birds in everything from mahogany to Tennessee marble – are in homes across the South Shore.

Schneider hopes the art show will commemorate not only her mother but parts of Scituate that have been forgotten.

A notebook at the entrance to the gallery invites visitors to write memories of places Kaplan painted.

People are also invited to share memories at the gallery talk Schneider will give on Aug. 27.

For longtime residents who recently visited the gallery with Schneider, the paintings acted as a personal scrapbook. They talked about their memories of the defunct chicken house and watching tugboats from Third Cliff.

“Well, that’s something I haven’t seen in a while,” a longtime resident told Schneider, pointing to a bright rendering of the gravel pits. “I’m glad I turned around.”

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