The first light of dawn casts shadows on the white walls of an Outer Cape home. At low tide on Wellfleet Bay, shimmering mudflats mirror the image of a moored sailboat. The hull of a fishing vessel throws foam in the air as it breaks through cresting waves. These are the scenes to which Wellfleet artist Paul Suggs is repeatedly drawn.
Working in a photo-realistic style in his studio, Suggs aims to do much more than simply replicate a picturesque Cape Cod landscape in his paintings. Instead, he renders the motion and light of a fleeting instant with intricate brushstrokes in layers of acrylic paint.
“I am trying to capture a oneness with the moment, the feeling of being right there,” Suggs says. “That is the art. The rest is just technique.” Although he returns over and over again to his favorite themes, no two paintings are alike, just as no moment in time can ever be repeated.
Suggs’s paintings are currently on exhibit at Wellfleet Preservation Hall in a one-man show titled “Scenes of Wellfleet, Maine & More.” Images of local scenery hang alongside views of coastal Maine, where Suggs has built a small vacation home for his family. The exhibit also includes figurative portraits from a new series, inspired by old photographs he finds at flea markets, painted in soft, sepia tones.
A viewer familiar with the Outer Cape will sense in Suggs’s work the intimacy of a native. Though he’s not a Wellfleetian, as some who were born here call themselves, he could easily be mistaken for one, so imbedded is he in the community.
Born and raised in Connecticut, Suggs attended the School of Visual Arts in New York City, where he worked with Chuck Close and Malcolm Morley. “That experience opened my mind,” he says. “So much was happening in the city in the late ’60s. I would go to the galleries and museums all the time. I like primitive art, modern art, classical art, though I was always drawn most to impressionism and realism.”
It was the local landscape that led Suggs to make his home here in 1971 at the age of 20. “I drove into town on one of those beautiful days in September and went to the ocean, the ponds, the bay,” he says. “That was it — a month later, I found a rental and moved here.”
As a young artist, Suggs used “an impressionist approach” and opened the Sun Gallery at Mayo Beach in Wellfleet, a venture he admits “was not successful.” In 1972, Suggs created the landmark lobsterman hanging from a boat on Mac’s Shack for Joe Francis, the owner of what was then the Bayside Lobster Hutt.
“The boat is attached to the rafters of the building using a bed frame that we cut and welded,” Suggs says. “The guy himself is made of papier-mâché and fiberglass. We never thought he’d stay up there for almost 50 years.”
That same year Suggs also built his “squirting clam,” a beloved feature in Wellfleet’s Fourth of July parade. Even though the event was canceled this summer due to the pandemic, Suggs pushed his clam down the entire route, just as he has done every year since it was made, squirting water into the empty streets with only his nephew by his side.
“When I told my wife that I was going to do it, she asked, ‘Why? No one will be there.’ I replied, ‘Why not?’ It was fun, and a few people appreciated it,” he says with a chuckle.
Suggs drew an iconic oyster for the logo of his oystering business, and later sold the image to a T-shirt printer. Shirts bearing his Wellfleet oyster are still being sold today. But Suggs eventually gave up the oyster grant and worked as a house painter. He stopped making art for a few years, and only when his brother-in-law offered him studio space in his garage on Briar Lane did Suggs return to painting.
“My earlier paintings were done in plein air and very quickly,” Suggs says. “When I returned to painting in my early 40s, I started taking photos and using them to work from. That slowed down my process quite a bit, and my style turned to realism.” He shows his work, alongside the pottery of his wife, Ann Suggs, at their Works Gallery on Commercial Street.
His new figurative paintings from vintage photographs represent another shift in style. “At some point last winter,” Suggs says, “I wanted to eliminate color from my palette and try something different. As I continue to work, my paintings will continue to change, because I give myself a new challenge to learn from in each one, whether it be light, color, composition, or subject.
“The key is to love the journey,” he adds. “And to share the work.”
The event: “Paul Suggs: Scenes of Wellfleet, Maine & More,” exhibit of paintings
The time: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and online, anytime; through Jan. 8
The place: Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St.; wellfleetpreservationhall.org
The cost: Free