Lowell, Massachusetts, boasts a thriving cultural scene with hundreds of visual artists, literary and music festivals, a professional theater, ethnic dance groups, and major performance venues. But when and where did the local Big Bang take place to set much of this in motion? One small arts galaxy far, far away in time was Gallery 21, founded by my oldest brother, Richard Marion. Just this week I heard that Lowell’s Canalway Cultural District, the arts and heritage core of the historic downtown, received a prestigious award from a national association of city planners. The following short essay which tells part of the origin story appeared first in the Lowell Historical Society Newsletter in April 2008. I have not updated the essay with references to the many cultural ventures that have emerged in the past 10 years, from Luna Theater for films and the Kinetic Sculpture Race to more galleries downtown and Flying Orb Productions with its arts fusion events.
Lowell Bohemians of the Sixties
WHEN I WAS FOURTEEN YEARS OLD, I made a room-sized painting. It was the subterranean back room of my brother Richard’s art gallery at 21 Hurd Street, which he operated from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. We broke through a plasterboard wall to enlarge the downstairs exhibition space. The scruffy room used for storage was in bad shape, so my brother gave me the green light to turn it into a life-sized knock-off of a Jackson Pollock action painting. I wrapped myself in plastic bags taped at the ankles, waist, neck, and wrists with masking tape, grabbed gallon cans of black and white house paint, and proceeded to drip and whip paint around the floor, walls, and ceiling until all surfaces were spattered and drooling.
That’s what we did at Gallery 21, the epicenter of contemporary art in the city during the early years of Lowell’s revitalization. I remember a lime-green bookmark my brother made that read: Join the Lowell Renaissance!
Before Western Avenue Studios and the Arts League of Lowell, before the Revolving Museum, before Open Studios Lowell and Ayer Lofts, before the Lowell Public Art Collection, before the University Gallery at UMass Lowell and Brush Gallery & Studios at Market Mills, before Guy Lefebvre’s Lowell Gallery, before the Art Alive! co-op, before City Fair with a dozen arts jobs funded through a federal employment-and-training program—before these was Gallery 21, blazing a modern trail when Lowell’s main stage for visual arts was the solid Parker Gallery of the Whistler House Museum run by the Lowell Art Association, the oldest of its kind in the nation (est. 1878).
Next door to the Harkins Real Estate office close to the District Court, the Gallery attracted local bohemians. They were Mass. College of Art and Museum School graduates, small-time art buyers and big-time appreciators, transplanted Bostonians, precocious Lowell High School kids, college professors, and blow-ins from Texas and Manhattan as well as from the Lowell suburbs and farther out. Beards and mini-skirts. Paisley ties and big hoop earrings. Flowered dresses, corduroy jackets, and blue denim. Sandals, Beatle boots, and wingtips. They read The New York Times on Sunday, watched educational TV on Channel 2, bought memberships at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and enjoyed the opera, foreign films, and Peter, Paul and Mary concerts. For several years, the director was a guest auctioneer on arts night for the annual Channel 2 Auction. They boosted early concepts for an innovative urban cultural park. Soulmates at Gallery 21, they constituted a small but sophisticated youth movement, the shock troops of the coming cultural revival that made Lowell what it is now.
There was more going on, of course. Around the city there were garage bands and folksingers, amateur theater groups, auditorium events, school marching bands, Parker Lectures, variety shows, union musicians doing gigs, stars like The Doors and Cream making noise at the Commodore Ballroom, and churches and temples keeping choral music, ethnic dances, and traditional foods alive. With his wife from Lowell, Stella, and ailing mother, Gabrielle, Jack Kerouac lived in the Highlands neighborhood in 1967-68 when some of this was happening. The Vietnam War raged. Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon. Lowell’s economy slid downward until a late ‘70s upturn.
Who would you see at Gallery 21, besides the director at the start and later his wife, Florence Patti Marion? Janet Lambert-Moore, Mico Kaufman, Carol Bacak Durand, Charles Durand, Sherman Rider, Selma Schwartz, Sarah Supplee, Jeannine Tardiff, Ross Hanvey, Jack McWilliams, Helen Weld, Antoinette Nault, Bernie Betruziello and his wife Kay, Bill Giavis, David Brow, Hiroko Trainor, Al Santerre and Richard Santerre, Lillian Cooper, Carlton Plummer, Joan and Bill McGeer, Frank Wyman, Phyllis Berwick, Leo Panas, Suzanne Ballantine, Andy Robinson, Raymond Foye, Kevin Harkins, Dan Rocha, Robert Kuszek, and more members of the creative class (before that was identified as an economic sub-group).
On display were watercolors, black-and-white photographs, brass rubbings, prints, mobiles and stabiles, fabric art, oil paintings, assemblages, drawings, jewelry, sculpture. Gallery-goers might see abstract paintings in slashing colors by an Eastern European artist or meticulous ink drawings of ostriches. Lowell scenes in any media had their fans, particularly corporate clients. Bankers and attorneys knew where to find just what they needed for their walls. Customers could walk in and order prints out of the New York Graphic Society catalogue for delivery in a few days. Restoration, repairs, framing, interior design consultation—all available. With the director at his day job teaching art in public schools, part-time gallery sitters, sometimes one of his aunts, kept the door open.
The artists who orbited around Gallery 21 took their work on the road under the name of the Lowell Sunday Painters, and with their easels and boxes of paints and brushes traveled from Tyler Park in the Highlands to the city parking lot along the Concord River that pre-dated the Lowell Hilton, now UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center. The Gallery partnered with the Lowell Art Association to produce a downtown art festival in Lucy Larcom Park. Organizers rolled out a 150-foot piece of fabric from the Pellon Corporation on the walkway and then handed out brushes and pots of poster paint to citizens to create a spontaneous group scroll.
Gallery 21 artists displayed their works in the lobby of the now-gone Route 3 Cinema in Chelmsford, at the Lowell public library, and other locations. The director carried works to the outdoor Poly-Arts Festival in Cambridge, Mass., one time losing a large framed piece not tied well enough to the car roof rack as he sailed along Route 128—whoosh!
Lowell Sun art critic Ann Schecter, a painter herself, reviewed all the new shows at the Gallery. She never missed a Sunday in the newspaper, covering regional, Boston, and northeast exhibitions. There would always be an image or two with the review. This essential piece of media infrastructure connected the artists to their public. She was an enthusiast, but didn’t hesitate to point out less than successful attempts.
When Gallery 21 closed, the director moved to a studio space at the Brush Gallery. Today he works out of his home studio in Lowell. He later received a grant from the Lowell Cultural Council to create an artist’s book documenting the life and times of the Gallery. This one-of-a-kind volume is available to researchers at the UMass Lowell Center for Lowell History, a special collections library, at the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center of the National Park Service, 40 French Street, in Lowell.