When the Covid lockdown hit in March 2020, Provincetown artist Larry Collins was living alone in his small condo in the middle of town. “Here I was, in my 70s, vulnerable to this,” Collins says, the sounds of summer tourists on MacMillan Wharf muffled by air-conditioning. “So, I decided to stay in, isolating myself. I bought a lot of canned goods, whatever I could find. My whole schedule changed. I used to get up really late. But, once Covid started, I’d go out for walks early in the morning. And, one day, I just started drawing.”
It was not the first time he had adapted to the demands of an epidemic or a horrific twist of history. Collins lost a longtime partner to AIDS in the 1980s. After graduating in 1967 from the University of Oklahoma with a B.F.A. in painting, he was drafted into the Army and served in Viet Nam. He was eventually lifted from the front lines to become a combat illustrator — a skill he learned on the job, because painters in that era were not taught to draw realistically. He also took photographs of his fellow soldiers — stunning images that were exhibited in a show of his wartime art at the Amarillo Museum of Art in Texas in 2017.
Collins’s initial Covid drawings were “very loose and moody,” he says. “Somewhat different. I sent one to my friend Midge Battelle, and she said, ‘I can’t get that drawing out of my head.’ That was the spark. I began to draw other things around me. Something would jump out at me, and I would draw it. After a while, it became the center of my day. I would look forward to drawing. If it wasn’t happening very well, I’d stop after an hour. If it was going good, I’d go for five hours.
“I didn’t set out for it to be a project in the beginning,” Collins continues in his gentle, gravelly voice. “But it developed into that. As I went along, the drawings got more and more detailed. I ordered special pencils online — 10B, very soft and dark. I hadn’t worked in pencil in many years. I used to use charcoal, which is more like paint — you can move it around, smear it. With pencil, you can erase it, but it’s not malleable. It’s more like ink drawing.”
Using charcoal or paint was not feasible in his compact apartment. Though Collins shares a studio above the Provincetown Post Office with painter Christopher Sousa, “I didn’t want to go, because Chris was there all the time,” he says. “If you’re isolating yourself, you’re isolating yourself from your studio mate.”
Collins’s paintings are celebrated — he had a survey show of them at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum in 2010 — and with their bold strokes and darkly saturated colors on large canvases, they’re a marked contrast to his pandemic drawings, which are small (8.5 by 5.5 inches) and delicate.
After weeks of drawing, “I realized that I had a body of work,” Collins says. “And I wanted to keep going. At first, I thought I’d do 20. Then 30, then 40. I did 50. I took three out. I didn’t think they were good enough. There are 47, total.”
Collins wasn’t sure if his gallerist, Debbie Nadolney, would want to do a show of the drawings, so he focused on creating a book, which he has self-published. “They have more meaning when put in context,” Collins says. “When you realize they were created in isolation during this pandemic. Otherwise, they’re just pictures of objects.”
Nadolney fully embraced the idea, however, and the show, “Pandemic Drawings,” will open at her AMP Gallery this Friday, and be on view through Aug. 11. Friday’s opening will double as the book launch.
The drawings, like Collins’s apartment, are a deep reflection of his sensibility. He’d been an art and antiques dealer before settling in Provincetown in the 1990s, and, once here, he worked as a photography curator at the original Schoolhouse Center and owned a gallery in the West End.
“I live in a little museum,” he says. The space is neat and organized, adorned with works in stone, wood, and bronze; prints and paintings; majolica and other collectibles; and shelf after shelf of books. “I grew up in a hoarder’s house,” he says. “It was kind of a nightmare existence. I have a little of that in me — I have to be really careful. What you see here is pared down to the stuff I really like.”
He has a story for almost everything. A box of military medals: “A therapist insisted that I get the ones I earned but didn’t have. It helps you come to terms with it.” A pair of acrobats cast in marble: “I found them on the side of a doorway, on the floor in a house in Andover. I said, ‘Give me a price.’ They did, and I bought ’em.”
All are now the subject of drawings — even everyday objects, such as a water glass or stack of toilet paper rolls. Collins says that drawing is more about the technique involved — light, shade, shadows, texture — than what’s depicted. “Some things are common, others are exquisite,” Collins says. “That’s what I do.”
The event: Opening of “Pandemic Drawings,” a show of new work by Larry Collins, alongside “Communication & Courage,” a show of paintings by Jackie Lipton
The time: Friday, July 23, 6 to 9 p.m.; on view through Aug. 11
The place: AMP Gallery, 432 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free