I met Pat de Groot in the large, enchanting house she has lived in since the 1960s, on Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts. You enter through a front garden overgrown with kale, statues of the Buddha, and a memorial to her first dog, one of the loves of her life. Her living room is filled with records and conga drums, her painting studio with kayaks hanging from the ceiling, the walls leading upstairs, with art by friends and her late husband, the painter Nanno de Groot.
We settled in to talk at the dining table, near huge front windows facing the harbor and beach. Pat set out a plate of strawberries, and as we talked, she sliced them and passed them to me, one by one, each time with a reminder to dip them in a tiny bowl of raw sugar.
Petite, wiry, and strong at age 83, she later sat beside me cross-legged on the carpeted floor upstairs, flipping through a portfolio of her drawings of cormorants. Her gestures were as purposeful, direct, and intimate as her work.
De Groot exhibits with Albert Merola Gallery in Provincetown. She was the subject of a well-received solo show at Pat Hearn Gallery in 2000, which first brought her work to the attention of the New York art world. Tibor de Nagy Gallery exhibited her work in 2004 and 2006, and a survey exhibition was presented by the Provincetown Art Association in 2009.
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Jennifer Samet: You started your career working for The Paris Review and then you took up book design. Can you tell me a little bit about your family’s background and how you got started in this artistic milieu, albeit not as a fine artist immediately?
Pat de Groot: I was born in England and lived there until I was ten. My father was British and my mother was a New York girl. My father drank a lot of whisky. They separated when I was about 4. My mother then married a Mexican man who became an air gunner in the British air force at the outset of World War II.
With my younger brother and a caregiver called Edie, I was sent to live with my uncle in Englewood, New Jersey, for three years. My uncle was a businessman. It wasn’t a creative time for me. I was an angry kid, and wild. You grow up somehow.
When her husband was killed in a plane crash, my mother returned to America. After I got out of school and college, I went to Europe, ending up in Paris and working for The Paris Review, then run by George Plimpton. My father is a skier. I went to Austria and spent time with him skiing.
After two years I returned to New York and got a job at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. I moved on to become an apprentice to Marshall Lee at H. Wolff Book Manufacturing Plant on West 26th Street. Marshall was a leading book designer in New York. He was a good teacher. I spent four years learning the fundamentals of book design — how to turn a manuscript with a box of pictures into a well-designed, finished book.
It was in this period that I met and got together with Nanno de Groot here in Provincetown, although at the time he was married to Elise Asher. He had bought a small farmhouse in Little York, New Jersey. We lived there together and I commuted to the city by car and train two hours each way.
JS: Can you tell me about that phase of your life, when you moved here to Provincetown with your husband?
PdG: Yes. I got a vicarious trip off of Nanno’s painting; I didn’t have to make art — he did that. I was satisfying a need in myself, as long as he was painting. I learned from him. Not deliberately, but because I was there. After he died, in 1963, I spent many years learning to draw. Before we built this house, we lived in a tiny shack on the west end of Provincetown, which is where most of his later paintings were made. We spent five months a year in that cabin. We rented outside of New York in the winter.
Nanno was Dutch; he grew up in Holland as a country boy. His father ran a school for delinquent city boys. His parents were not at all interested in his artistic endeavors. They made him join the merchant marine, where he became a sea captain and spent a lot of time in Indonesian waters, particularly on the island of Bali. During the war he ran the Dutch port authority in San Francisco routing convoys. At the end of the war, he became a painter, connecting to the New York School and Provincetown painters.
JS: You developed friendships with artists such as Gandy Brodie and Bob Thompson in that period?
PdG: Nanno’s close friend at that time was Gandy Brodie. Much later, Gandy stayed with us when he was in Provincetown. He shared our cabin and painted there — sometimes both he and Nanno painted the same pot of flowers.
It was after Nanno died that Gandy and Bob Thompson were together in my house in the summer of 1964. Nina Simone was singing at the Atlantic House in downtown Provincetown, and she paid us a visit. Bob did a series of paintings of her when she was here.
Bob and Carol went to Italy in 1965. Someone gave him dope that was too good, and it killed him. I kept Gandy’s brushes that he left here for many years.
JS: How did you teach yourself to draw?
PdG: I taught myself by drawing hundreds of calligraphic drawings of seagulls, then black ducks and later cormorants. At first I used the dropper from the Higgins India ink bottle. Nanno had made drawings that way. I moved on to bamboo sticks dipped in India ink, sticks that I made.
The cormorants I drew from life at the Provincetown breakwater out of my kayak, which I tied up to lobster buoys. I used 11-x-14-inch pads of paper and a Sharpie black felt marker. It took me fifteen years to learn how to draw those birds. It was a serious activity from the end of August until the end of November, or until I froze and the birds went south.
I feel that you can’t do anything without learning to draw. But, eventually, if you keep doing it, and you get the mileage, you get better. When I did the cormorants, I was interested in finding the spirit of the birds. They are not feather perfect.
JS: What do you mean by that?
PdG: Well. You’ve got your choice. You either get all those feathers right, or you get the feeling of the bird right. I was interested in getting the character of the birds in the drawing of their gestures and movements of their feet, their necks, their head and eyes. Who the bird is, is what I’m looking for. You have to get the structure right, or else it doesn’t work — that’s what takes so much mileage. It is the mileage that teaches your hand to respond directly to what you are looking at.
JS: How did you arrive at the very specific format you are working with — the small vertical paintings of sea, sky, and horizon? What interests you about this format and motif?
PdG: I work with what I see. That’s what there was to do. They are about creating the feeling you get from the thing — from what it is out there. Even though the paintings are all done in the studio, they are a result of being in the kayak, and getting a feel for the water.
They are done from what is happening: the color, the wave action, the wind, the sky, and the horizon, although that changes a lot in the course of a day. I have to move with the changes until I get something that looks pretty much all right, unless my hand carries me to a place I reach by accident. Accident, and how to use it, is an important part of the process. Most of them are done in a day. Occasionally I go back into them, which is difficult, because the paint dries.
I painted all those paintings with a palette knife. I never painted with a brush. I finally bought myself some expensive palette knives. I wanted something to push on. There is a physicality to it. People have that with a brush, but I found the brush too unwieldy. I never learned how to use it. I never cared; I could do anything I wanted to with a knife, and I really couldn’t do anything with a brush.
I had started with 5 x 7 inches, and then went to 8 x 10 inches. When I finally gained some confidence with paint I cut the plywood to 12 x 11 inches and glued multimedia art board to the surface. There didn’t seem any necessity to go big. If I went big, I would have to learn new implements and that sort of thing. I came into painting a bit late, and had to work with what I had.
JS: What studies of art of the past did you do?
PdG: I was interested in Picasso because of the way he draws. And Japanese art and calligraphy, because that had a lot to do with the Zen and the way I was drawing. Although I didn’t have a brush, I had a laundry marker. Also, Impressionist painting and Van Gogh. I spent time in Italy looking at Michelangelo’s sculptures and Caravaggio’s paintings.
JS: I know you are also interested in Buddhism. Do you see the repetition of format and motif as a kind of meditative practice?
PdG: My studies in Zen and Tibetan Buddhism were very important to all this work. I don’t know how it dictates what I do: that is inside me. I went to Trungpa. I went and followed them to some degree, but I never joined a sangha because I’m not a groupie.
Also, I was involved with jazz music and, like Trungpa, the musicians have power too. I was involved with that power — magic. I played the conga drums, and had a passion for American Black jazz. I lived in New York; I had an apartment for $26 a month on the Lower East Side. I went out and listened to music every night. I spent ten years studying that music. I was mesmerized by it. I played jazz and reggae with groups here in Provincetown, but living out here, there is no way you can go past a certain point in your ability.
My hand is working with the birds, hopefully getting my brain out of it. It is the same thing with Zen, where you have to get in your gut. And it is the same thing with drumming too. When you are playing you have to get into it. The minute you start thinking about it, you lose it. So that way it’s all the same activity.
I was always very physical. I did Tai Chi, and I got a black belt in karate. I did a lot of long camping trips alone with my dog up north, to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. I took my kayak on a long trip up the Saint Lawrence River. It is a time when you are just there for whatever comes your way.
I am direct. The birds did something to me; they attracted me so that I wanted to draw. That’s where my relationship with art started. It is not a conceptual thing. It is teaching your hand to relate what you see, without saying I see this, I’m going to do that. It is outside of what your brain tells you.