My father, the painter Wolf Kahn, died at home in New York City on March 15, 2020, on the eve of my birthday, and just days before the city was shut down by the coronavirus. He was 92.
He died of congestive heart failure and probably heartbreak — it had been 95 days since the death of his wife, my mom, the painter Emily Mason. They’d been married for 62 years and, by Dad’s account, his happiest summer was “the one spent courting my wife in Provincetown in 1956, living in an upstairs apartment overlooking the bay.”
Dad often told my sister, Cecily, and me about his time in Provincetown, where he traveled after the war in 1947 to attend the Hans Hofmann School. He was a Jewish refugee fluent in German, and Hofmann quickly made use of his ability to translate. He spoke five languages in all, with vast knowledge of art history along with a proclivity to draw that was evident from a young age.
He spent many more summers in Provincetown and ended up living in Hazel Hawthorne’s dune shack in the 1950s. The Provincetown Art Association and Museum owns his painting My Shack on the Dunes.
Recollections of his time in the cabin made for compelling childhood stories: his three-mile treks through the sand to get groceries (as much as he could carry). He hiked to town when the fishing boats came in to score free fish, since “the custom for fishermen was to give a fish to locals who asked and seemed like they needed one.” Out of necessity, Dad lived frugally and in complete solitude. Since he had no electricity, his time was spent painting and drawing, digging for clams, and foraging off the land and sea.
The Provincetown summers resulted in an array of portraits of my mother, who looks angelic in the dunes, captured in a style that can now only be described as Wolf Kahn’s. He told us a terrifying story of sheltering in the shack during a hurricane. (I guess it was Hurricane Carol in 1954.) He had no knowledge it was brewing, other than an unusually rough ocean. Suddenly, on a sunny afternoon, the clouds gathered, the winds swirled, and the hurricane bore down. He recalled literally “battening down the hatches” and riding out the storm, the wind coming up underneath the floor boards, which kept popping. He would hammer them down as they sprung.
When I return to Truro with my own family every summer, we visit the Province Lands Visitor Center to see the excellent exhibit on the dune shacks and their many artist inhabitants. To see the photos is to be transported back to a simple, golden time on the Cape, where for $100 my dad could live in a dune shack and work uninterrupted. I am both envious and grateful that he and my mom shared those magical years in Provincetown.