Cape Ann landscape inspires Learning to Swim exhibit at Cape Ann Museum Green

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Cape Ann landscape inspires Learning to Swim exhibit at Cape Ann Museum Green
Joy Halsted, Cold Water #1, 2010. Acrylic on canvas. Gift of the artist, 2016, [2016.051.1]

GLOUCESTER, MASS.- Cape Ann has many places to learn to swim -- beaches, harbors, quarries, ponds, and swimming pools. Generations of people on Cape Ann have swum in these waters and generations of artists have depicted them. As summer in New England continues, the iconic pastime is getting an interactive celebration through the lens of painters and photographers.

Learning to Swim is an exhibition that pairs an interactive map where locals can share their memories of learning to swim with artwork and archival photographs from the Museum’s collection that depicts these popular swimming spots. Opening at the Cape Ann Museum Green’s Janet & William Ellery James Center on August 14, the exhibit will run through September 12. Paintings by Joy Halsted, Elaine Wing, Norma Cuneo, Jessica Tam, Bernard Chaet, Jeff Weaver, and Dorothy Arnold look at the water through the lens of an artist while photographs from the Museum’s archives capture the joy of swimming through the ages.

“The landscape of Cape Ann is defined by granite and water,” said Oliver Barker, the Museum’s Director. “For many residents, one of their earliest memories is where they first learned to swim, and we are excited to engage this community and showcase their stories through this exhibit.”

During the mid-19th century, swimming became popular in the country and on the North Shore. Prior, beaches were often viewed as dangerous spots, where shipwrecks washed ashore, pirates landed, and hurricanes struck. That perception changed as urbanization spread, leisure time expanded, and transportation improvements allowed people the means to get to a beach or a lake. Social norms also changed, making it increasingly proper for men and particularly women to reveal their bodies, or at least suggestions of their bodies.

On Cape Ann, public access to the water has always been a concern -- and a prerequisite for learning to swim. For decades, town landings and community footpaths have been threatened by encroachments and abutters intent on privacy. Today, it is not just privacy concerns that are imperiling the chances of learning to swim and being able to enjoy swimming at our pleasure. Increasingly climate change is figuring into the equation with rising sea levels and strengthening storm surges eating away fragile coastal habitats, flooding beaches and access areas. This exhibit hopes to raise awareness and encourage the Cape Ann community to think about what can be done to safeguard those special places where people learned to swim so that future generations can continue to enjoy this pastime on Cape Ann.

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