“Historical diorama” depicts Pilgrims arrival and Natives’ reaction 400 years ago.
What might have happened 400 years ago when Native people first saw the giant Mayflower ship sailing with white strangers into Provincetown Harbor?
Artist Mimi Gross and officials at Provincetown Art Association and Museum want to put visitors literally into the middle of that moment through “The Arrival, 1620” a near-life-size “historical diorama” that includes what looks like the prow of the ship bursting through a gallery wall.
“The Wampanoag people were minding their own business when the boat appeared,” Gross says. “Can you imagine how strange that was?”
Imagining what museum officials describe as “a pivotal moment in both national and human history” is the crux of the art exhibit, open Friday through Thanksgiving weekend. In an area about 30 by 50 feet, Gross has set up nearly 30 painted wooden “sculptures” representing members of the Nauset and Wampanoag tribes, Pilgrims, and what they might have been doing that day.
One piece depicting several Pilgrims is more than 24 feet wide. The prow of the ship was designed to jut six feet out of a wall as if the ship is exploding onto the scene.
“You just feel this intrusion, and the way that portends the future,” notes exhibit curator Breon Dunigan.
Award-winning artist Gross — who lives part-time on a hill in Provincetown — is a painter, set-and-costume designer for dance, and creator of multiple interior and exterior installations. She has had international exhibitions, including in Tokyo and Paris; and her art is part of public collections that include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Museum officials had already planned to hold an exhibit of Gross’ work when they began to discuss what PAAM could contribute to the town’s events surrounding the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower landing there. Knowing Gross’ past large-scale work and sympathies toward social justice, Dunigan says, officials asked whether she would be willing to create new work particular to the Mayflower theme.
“I think she’s an amazing artist and I’m really excited … and grateful … she had the gumption to pull this off,” says Dunigan. “I’m blown away by what she’s accomplished.”
Gross began planning “Arrival” in July 2019, and her detailed model is expected to be part of the exhibit. She began fitting together the intricate, multi-layered wooden figures this summer in New York City, constructing and assembling pieces on long days of collaboration with Mike Levy, a “quite wonderful” young artist in New York. The figures were brought to Cape Cod in trucks, and she has been painting them since August in a large room at her family home in Provincetown.
The result is an exhibit that Dunigan calls “interactive” and Gross describes as “completely experiential,” with scenes that visitors can walk between to see her artistic renderings of Native life at the time and the visitors’ first glimpse of land.
“I’ve done a lot of sets for dance, so this is kind of a cross between fine art and a set,” she says as she gives a FaceTime walk-through of her Provincetown studio. She notes that the Pilgrim figures are relatively flat, while she has rendered the Natives “dimensional,” using skills and techniques related to depth and animation that she learned while creating a previous series of artwork for a park near her home in New York.
Although the casual visitor to “The Arrival” might not notice, each highly detailed, three-dimensional piece differs from the others in a variety of ways, she says. “It’s been a genuine challenge.”
The gallery also includes what’s described as “proportional sea and sky” to turn the room “into the shores of Provincetown as it existed 400 years ago.” Water is a key element, according to museum information, because Europeans crossed it to come to America and then the absence of the needed fresh water was a key reason the Pilgrims moved on to Plymouth.
Gross researched the period and history for months, and while she says she was unsuccessful in contacting Native representatives for input, she emphasizes, “My sympathy is for the Wampanoag people. Period.”
“They were here for 20,000 years, then along came the white Pilgrims with their inflexible ideas and (they) weren’t open to these very peaceful people. At first, it was peaceful, but later it was acrimonious because the Pilgrims were bringing more people and taking away land,” she says.
Gross hopes people will find “an appreciation of Wampanoag people that they might not have recognized before” through her artwork, and wants children to experience what is represented there. Patrons will “see the myth of Thanksgiving is a little exaggerated in terms of the Pilgrims,” she says, but amends, “Or maybe (visitors) will just enjoy looking at” the art.
Discussing the exhibit, Dunigan emphasizes that PAAM “is an art museum, not a historical museum.”
The pieces are “art. It’s not meant to be … a reenactment. It’s an artist envisioning what might have been,” she says. “It’s more about the arrival, not making a comment on what the future would be or the past was. Just that moment in history she’s capturing from an artist’s perspective.”
While many of the big public events that had been planned to mark the 400th anniversary of the Mayflower arrival — and the ramifications of the Pilgrim landing on Native people — were canceled because of COVID-19 concerns, this exhibit at PAAM can still be visited by small groups of people at a time. Another museum option in Provincetown is the new permanent exhibit “Our Story: The Early Days of the Wampanoag Tribe and the Pilgrims Who Followed” created by a Wampanoag-led company at Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum.