First Person: Lost, then found, in the dunes of Provincetown

Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2014

In April 2013, I was awarded an artist’s grant to live for seven days in a shack in Provincetown without electricity or running water, where I could paint surrounded only by ocean, dunes and sky. From one paradise to another, I would leave Amherst behind, with its blossoming trees, rows of plantings just beginning to peek through soil, and mountains and fields turning pale yellow-green.

On the highway east, clouds grabbed the sunrise, like peonies hanging in the sky. Arriving in Provincetown, I met up with the dune buggy driver who, skidding through the sand, drove me to my temporary home. “Chip” told me a few things about the shack and left me there. The shack, right near the ocean, had two small rooms and squeaky floorboards. Solar lanterns sat near windows, through which I could see dunes rising like waves. I ran up the cliff to see the blue-green ocean before dark.

Early next morning, it was 30 degrees inside. My icy fingers were like steel rods. I filled the woodstove, carried water jugs up from an outdoor pump, and swept sandy floors — my fingers moving again.

To keep connection with family, I needed to charge my cellphone in Provincetown right away. I also had an appointment that first day to see two painters, Bob Henry and his wife, Selena Treiff, whose loft I visited in New York City in the ’70s.

I retraced the dune buggy’s tire marks, still visible in the sand. By noon, I had no directional axis. The dunes were as high as little mountains; my feet sank deeply into sand each step. I stem-christied up and then slid down, but to where? Four-and-a-half hours later, the sun, moving west, gave me reference. I saw the P-town monument, and tried to keep it in sight as I slid down a dune and climbed back up another, a pattern followed until I heard cars on the highway. I struggled through thick bush to avoid a small river, climbed back up another dune. Finally I emerged near the highway, and found Bob and Selena, waiting where they said they’d be. Knowing I must have been lost, they’d brought food and water.

After our visit, I made my way home, which took several hours. Back at the shack, exhausted, I carried wood, filled water jugs, and finally lay flat on the bed, floating to sleep to the sound of ocean waves.

Second morning, I wheeled my easel and art materials up the cliff on a dolly meant for dunes or desert. I mixed colors together, to reflect the constantly changing light.

Each day, I would remain as long as the weather allowed, sometimes six hours, other times not even one. My focus was a direct translation from eye to hand, from what was out there, to paper. As I worked, I saw whales, big like elephants, leaping up out of the water, suspended in mid-air, then arcing back into the water. Wind blew sand into my face, my cold fingers struggled to grasp the crayons.

I savored my new home, losing track of days, aware only of sunrises and sunsets.

Each evening, I would pin the drawings I’d made that day to the walls of the shack and study them, to see how to carry my work further the next day. I’d draw some more, read by lantern-light, write — or go outside and lie under a sky full of stars.

I got lost in the dunes several more times, while venturing into town to recharge batteries, buy a bottle of pinot noir, a tomato, cheese and bread. A local reassured me, telling me that the dunes shift every time there is a storm — and that even she gets lost.

I came to enjoy the search, the same way I love the challenge of finding my way through a painting. To be lost and then found became an affirmation of a certain kind of struggle. I have always enjoyed figuring out how to place colors on canvas, taking them apart and reconfiguring them so that they harmonize. Finding my way out of the dunes became the metaphor for how I improvisationally paint, seeking resolution.

Fighting cold winds on my last day, I carried my easel to the ocean, where streaks of sunlight were falling through the clouds. I wondered whether I would be able to memorize what I saw, keeping alive the images I now owned.

I’ve had a visceral longing to paint the ocean all this past year, and will go back again soon. Images appear in my paintings from the experience. The Holyoke Range reminds me now of ocean waves, when low-hanging, fast-moving cloud shadows run across the mountains. They rise up like big furry animals you can reach out and pet, then they lie back down in the changing light and seasons.

Lorna Ritz lives in Amherst. For more information about artist residencies at the Cape visit

First Person welcomes submissions from readers. Email submissions of close to 800 words to Suzanne Wilson at


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