Gloucester Daily Times: Painting Brings Joy of Remembrance

September 20, 2023

My View | Bruce Tobey

My love of art museums and galleries was born during my college years, and it has only grown since. No matter the location or the subject matter, I always experience the opportunity for peace and reflection and to learn more about the execution of the creative impulse.

In recent days, a visit to the Cape Ann Museum’s exhibit of works from the Addison Gilbert Hospital Art Collection at CAM Green offered a new experience — the joy of remembrance from seeing two paintings in the exhibit done by a woman whom I knew well as a child and who taught me lifelong lessons.

The first of the 28, titled “Summer Garden,” features a small house on Rocky Neck that stood until 15 years ago and an English cottage garden she might have cultivated herself. Her name was Bertha Baxter.

Born in Indiana in 1882, Miss Baxter had settled in New York City as a young woman. But evidence of her evolving Gloucester roots, first as a summer resident, lie in the pages of 1920s editions of the Gloucester Daily Times and its log of visitors to the city:

She shared a Rocky Neck studio with Leonard Craske, Oscar Anderson, and Frank Stoddard.

She exhibited her artwork throughout the many galleries of Cape Ann and her own studio on East Main Street.

Her floral arrangements and Rocky Neck garden won numerous awards at exhibitions from the community gardening association of that era.

She went into business with another “pioneer summer resident,” opening on East Main Street an antique shop they called The Old Barn.

As time passed Gloucester became her full-time home. The Old Barn moved to a new home at 238 East Main St. in half of a dual-use post-Civil War structure. That half, with its flat roof and false front, had long been a grocery store, paired with a two-story residence for the grocer and his family. For many years, The Old Barn was there as a tenant.

She had lived just half a block away from The Old Barn since 1934 in a lovingly-restored antique house on Gerring Road. In 1949, she seized the opportunity to buy all of 238 East Main St. She immediately disconnected the shop from the home to create two separate structures, keeping The Old Barn half and selling the house in December to a young Gloucester couple, Robert and Lillian Tobey, where they raised their children, Bob Jr., Kathy and me.

My first memory of Miss Baxter arose from her use of the shop’s back yard as a work area. Armed with a tub of lye and a scrub brush attached to a pole, she vigorously scoured and stripped antique wooden furniture for re-finishing and re-sale. She was a sight — short and compact with a loosely-bound gray bun, in knee-high rubber boots, a short-sleeved cotton day dress, and gloves that came up to her elbows.

When the shop opened for business in the summer, I was the inquisitive kid-next-door. Miss Baxter would explain her latest finds: glassware, paintings or freshly restored furniture. Her answers spoke to the unique beauty of each piece. One day, she closed early, and we walked to her Gerring Road house for a tour.

All the walls were freshly plastered, with hand-stenciled decorations adorning the fresh paint, all of which she had done herself. A tasteful array of antiques, mirrors and paintings gave each room a unique ambiance. Each looked out at her flower garden, which had become by 1960 a steady winner of blue ribbons from the Civic and Garden Club.

These were no ordinary gardens — each bed was carefully planted and maintained, skillfully mixing traditional perennials with colorful annuals so there were always blossoms. I especially remember her fuchsias and tuberous begonias and her matchless English tea roses, and she mastered composting long before it became fashionable again.

Over the next six years before her passing on March 2, 1966, Miss Baxter shared this world with me, teaching the value of order and planning and the worth of old things made new again. She trained me to be patient — a dried-up dahlia bulb might look very dead when planted in the spring, but nurturing and time will likely bring it back to life. She encouraged developing an eye for detail that even I on occasion find annoying. Most importantly, she taught that the mistakes you make in your garden are not failures if they provide the lessons to get it right the next year.

She never mentioned her past life as an artist. I only discovered that fact years later when I was city solicitor and saw her wonderful painting of City Hall in Mayor Leo Alper’s office. I was stunned to see the artist’s signature: Bertha Baxter.

I then learned of her work under the umbrella of the 1930s WPA artist program and her donation of four of her paintings to the city. I saw her other three donated paintings when I was mayor, discovering them, unharmed, atop a debris-filled cart heading toward a nearby dumpster. They are now in the care and custody of the City’s Committee for the Arts and hang, safe and sound, in offices throughout City Hall.

I am so grateful to the Cape Ann Museum and Addison Gilbert Hospital for organizing this exhibit. As partners with Gloucester400+, they have demonstrated yet again their commitment to our community. The exhibit casts a special spotlight on artists such as Miss Baxter — you all should see it.

After serving as Gloucester’s interim mayor in 1991, Bruce Tobey went on to win election as mayor in 1993, and was re-elected to three more terms. He is also one of the tri-chairs of the Gloucecter 400+ Committee.

Commentary: Painting brings joy of remembrance | Columns | gloucestertimes.com

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