(Provincetown) “Art’s in my blood,” says Julie Heller with the quiet intensity that bespeaks a true dedication. Trained as an art historian, she has been working in the art world for virtually her entire adult life. Her first job in Provincetown was as what she terms “a frame girl” at a shop called Draw Me a Circle, and for the past nine years she has operated the Julie Heller Gallery, which is currently located on the beach at 2 Gosnold Street.
Heller’s first gallery was situated above the Studio Shop in the East End gallery district. Operating on a slim budget, the fledgling gallery owner also lived in the space, putting up curtains to screen off the art at night and “pulling out the futon.” While this might seem a little too Spartan an existence for some, for Heller it was simply a matter of emotional necessity. “When I reached the point where I knew I wanted to operate a gallery,” she explains, “ I was willing to do almost anything.”
The gallery remained in its East End location for two years, and having found the area not as good for her business as she had hoped it would be, Heller decided to move. “I wanted to be more in the mainstream.” The building she now occupies was, at the time she began considering it as a gallery space, the former home of the Box Office Museum of the Provincetown Playhouse, and it was in serious need of repair. “There were holes in the roof,” she recalls, and it was full of storage items. Nevertheless, she liked the spot, which she now refers to as “the best of both worlds,” being in the center of town, but not right on busy Commercial Street.
Even after effecting major repairs, however, the space was not yet quite right, Heller notes, for the gallery she had always dreamed of operating. “The walls weren’t good enough,” she explains with a smile, and adds, “it used to be dark.” Rather than attempting to show art not to the best advantage, Heller opted for dealing mostly in another of her passions. “It was more an antique store than a gallery...It made a funky old antique shop,” she remembers with another broad smile.
Eventually, the space “slowly evolved into the gallery as you see it now,” says Heller. With new walls and new windows installed, she was ready to begin realizing her ambition of creating the finest gallery she was capable of. Though she notes with a slight smile that the building and its environs “will never be a slick spot,” she speaks of the gallery itself as “constantly evolving even now.”
That evolution revolves around what Heller refers to as her “eclectic” taste in art. “I don’t just focus on one thing,” she points out, and this is confirmed by a quick glance around the room. Over the years, Heller has more often than not had exhibits opening every Friday night in season, and, she says, “because of this I’ve been able to show a great variety of artwork. Regardless of what show is up, there’s always a great storehouse of art on hand,” with paintings literally stacked eight to 10 deep against the walls all around the baseboard. Similarly, the upper portions of those walls hold dozens of paintings and sculptures, as do the movable folding walls that are repositioned from show to show to help create new environments in the small, homey space.
Despite her eclecticism, Heller does specialize in a few particular eras and areas of art: “chiefly 19th and 20th century American, with an emphasis on early Provincetown,” as she puts it. In addition, Heller has a passion for “contemporary and antique folk art.” In the matter of styles, however, the gallery “storehouse” features everything from realistic to Impressionistic to the most Modern and Abstract - with the only emphasis on quality. “This is not garbage art,” she says with a teasing smile. Amid this wealth of paintings, Heller has not forgotten her love of jewelry, which she maintains is “a part of art,” and she has an impressive collection of antique pieces always on display.
Among the Provincetown artists whose work Heller shows are Charles W. Hawthorne, Oliver Chaffee, Ross Moffett, Milton Avery, Agnes Weinrich, and Blanche Lazzell. She also represents the estates of Irving Marantz, Marguerite and William Zorach, and Lucy and William L’Engle. “You’d be surprised,” she asserts, “the impact Provincetown art has. Provincetown art is coming into its own, due to more and more visibility through museum shows,” she explains. Speaking of Provincetown art and museum shows moves Heller easily and enthusiastically onto the subject of the Provincetown Art Association and Museum’s currentFounders of An Art Colony exhibition, which she terms “a fabulous show,” explaining, “that show is the heart of Provincetown art.”
Heller’s enthusiasm for art makes it clear that this is far more than a business for her. “What I do for pleasure is what I do for business,” she says. “When I take time off, I do the same thing as when I’m working”: that is, remaining in what she calls “my element.” From her description of her “working” life, it’s easy to see why she derives such pleasure from it, and why she says, “I can’t imagine ever being removed from art.”
As the gallery is open year-round, Heller encounters a great variety of people who, knowledgeable or not, further fuel her enthusiasm for her work. “In the off-season, I get an awful lot of people who live here in town or on the Cape who don’t have time for gallery hopping during the summer,” she says. “I meet people who have bought art since they were kids, and some people who are just beginning to relate to art.” She finds both types equally interesting, principally because “it’s important that art be in people’s lives, even if their taste isn’t very evolved or isn’t my taste,” she asserts, concluding, “at least they’re looking at art.”
The gallery’s patrons seem to have responded to Heller’s welcoming attitude. “I’ve started to get letters from customersthanking me,” she reveals with a tone of surprised pleasure to her voice. “I’ve become friends with my customers,” she says simply. Heller feels that this camaraderie stems in part from her off-the-beaten-path location, which largely ensures she will not get much just-passing-through foot traffic. “When people see the sign, because it’s not on Commercial Street, they have to want to come here.”
Currently, the Julie Heller Gallery is showing the diverse work of Provincetown artist Ray Nolin, whom Heller refers to as “a genius,” explaining, “I’ve wanted to show his work for years.” On view are a wide and varied selection of Nolin’s paintings in oil or pastel, plus several wall assemblages composed of found objects, an arresting crucifix among them.
Following the Nolin show, Heller is planning an exhibition of work from the gallery collection, with emphasis on Provincetown artists. For that show, she is waiting and hoping to receive a few select works by three young painters about whose work she is unabashedly enthusiastic: Heather Bruce, who has studied with local artist Lois Griffel, and the sometime Provincetown artists David Gloman and Katie Schneider. Of these and other young artists, Heller says, “There is a new generation of young painters in Provincetown that’s very much alive - and to be watched.” There is no doubt that Heller herself will be watching them, and when she says she is “very pleased with the direction the gallery has taken,” it’s equally clear that direction encompasses a great respect for the past and a keen interest in the future of art.
The Julie Heller Gallery (487-2169) is open every day. A walk down to the town landing at the foot of Gosnold Street will take you out of the busy reality of present-day Provincetown and give you a taste of the funkier old town known to many of the inspired artists Heller exhibits.
[Michael McGuire, Provincetown Magazine]