“I never thought the bottom line would be numbers,” Shirl Roccapriore says, sitting back in the cozy space that is her Oils by the Sea Gallery at 437 Commercial St. on a chilly November afternoon last Saturday. “If I was making money, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation. It’s sad to walk away from this space and the business. But raised rent and off-season sales-wise, I have to face the facts. I just can’t afford it.”
It happens all the time in Provincetown — a business closes because the rent gets jacked up, because the owners want to retire and can’t think of how they’d sell it. But there’s something especially poignant about the closing of Oils by the Sea, because of the history of the place and because of Roccapriore’s own story.
The house at 437 Commercial, a small Cape that was the longtime home of the Avellar family — Mary Heaton Vorse called them Clan Avellar, and their families were close — is best known in the art community as the former Harvey Dodd Gallery. According to David W. Dunlap’s Building Provincetown, Dodd arrived in Provincetown in 1959 and worked as a sidewalk portrait artist, eventually switching to painting watercolor and pastel streetscapes. He opened the gallery at 437 Commercial in 1971 and closed it nearly four decades later in 2008, three years before he died. John Mark Lucas ran the J. Lucas Gallery there for a couple of seasons, then it was Foc’sle, a clothing shop. Roccapriore moved there in 2014 from a shack on MacMillan Wharf.
Like many artists in Provincetown, Roccapriore, who grew up in Meriden, Conn., had a lifelong dream of making a living from her art. After getting a degree in art education, she ended up working corporate jobs in graphic design and production. She moved here 20 years ago and worked as a waitress to pay the bills. When her mom died in 2012, Roccapriore says she was inspired to take the leap to doing art full-time. The first step was renting half of a pier shack, where she sold her work for two years before coming to 437 Commercial.
“I have always felt proud and blessed to be in the old Harvey Dodd space,” she says. “Or, as Mary-Jo Avellar always calls it, ‘my grandmother’s living room.’ Wow! What an honor.”
Roccapriore is a student of Provincetown art colony history and coproduced a documentary film, Art Spirit, about it. She and her wife, Dot Caruso, have an affordable living space and studio in town that she got by lottery after three attempts. Launching the gallery was another way to be a part of it all.
“How wonderful it is to have a business in this town, and especially an art gallery, and not ever experience any cutthroat competitive behavior,” Roccapriore says. “It’s the way an artist community should be. I’ve always felt very fortunate about that. I want to thank all the gallery owners who welcomed me and helped me, such as Francine D’Olympio at Kobalt Gallery and Cynthia, Leslie, and Anne Packard at Packard Gallery.”
Oils by the Sea shows the work of a handful of artists other than Roccapriore: she represents Jim Broussard and Christine Sullivan, and has always featured the work of the teenage students of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum’s Art Reach program during Family Week. The old-world figurines in the gallery that are carved in wood and painted are by Roccapriore’s father, Gero, who died last April at age 91. “It was a privilege witnessing the creative growth of the artists I represent,” she says. “And my kids — the students of Art Reach! What an amazing experience.”
She’ll keep the gallery open weekends at least through Holly Folly, and then she hopes to focus on her own artwork, particularly larger-scale pieces. “There’s too much pent-up energy to fit on a small canvas. I do not plan to show anywhere for a year, so I can take the pressure off and just work,” Roccapriore says. “I want to push the envelope, experiment with my black bird series, make mistakes and a mess — it’s taken a back seat to the business these last eight years.”
She says that she’ll miss the customers and people she met while her doors were open, especially during art strolls on Friday evenings during the summer. “It was like throwing a party in your living room. I’ll miss that very much — it’s very, very bittersweet. But now I’ll have the time to be attending many an art stroll myself.”