“How can we use the element of contrast in our work?” asked Alana Barrett, one of the co-founders of art collective PROMPT, at the start of last week’s Zoom meeting.
The answers began to pile up in rapid fire as Barrett typed them into a PowerPoint slide.
“To add depth and dimension,” said one member of the collective. “Strong darks against strong lights,” added another.
“What is this technique called?” Barrett asked. “Chiaroscuro!” someone interfered.
More answers followed: complementary colors, line quality, energy versus static, geometric versus organic, the topic itself. The slide quickly filled up.
Barrett, who lives in Miami, then began lecturing on the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi. The collective maintained the same high level of enthusiasm for the duration of the meeting.
Laura Shabott, the other founder of PROMPT and a recently returned resident of the Fine Arts Work Center, has been part of the Provincetown art scene for longer than Barrett has been alive. According to Shabott, it’s precisely the 40-year age difference that allows them to mesh their skills as presenters so well.
Their collaboration came about in 2020 in response to Covid, when Shabott was struggling to switch her art classes to Zoom. Barrett, whose mother was enrolled in Shabott’s class at the time and who had recently graduated from art school, came in to help Shabott figure out the technology requirements for the virtual class. The two soon realized their partnership had the potential to go beyond logistics: Shabott and Barrett also saw themselves as artists and educators, bringing different perspectives.
Their three-year collaboration has inspired a flood of creations. Together they have taught 27 courses at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum and Castle Hill and edited three publications. The collective received organizational support from other institutions, including the Fine Arts Work Center, the Berta Walker Gallery and the Four Eleven Gallery.
Shabott says the goal of the collective is “to find our individual voices in a modernist context. PROMPT exists because this core group took a lot of courses with us and we needed to develop further.”
At the height of the pandemic, about 45 people were regularly present. “We’ve gone from ‘I’m going to teach you something you don’t know, and I’m responsible for you knowing that’ to people, to ‘We like to work together as a community. We’re equals, and Alana and I are presenters,'” says Shabott.
With the new collective model established, the group decided to create a print publication. The zine – which Shabott calls “Alana’s Baby” – collected the work of member artists, including Shabott and Barrett, and compiled the collective’s work into a physical form that could be shared with a wider audience. (PROMPT recently released its third edition, available on the collective’s website.) The publication is particularly influenced by painter Hans Hofmann’s compositional idea of ”push and pull,” and draws inspiration from other prominent artists of the 19th and 19th centuries 20th century inspiration, including Robert Henri and Eva Hessen.
Shabott and Barrett have effectively managed to delegate the work required for the collective to thrive. Barrett oversees the website and design of her quarterly journal. She also manages Padlet, the app the collective uses to share their work. Shabott’s responsibilities are more local: managing PROMPT’s finances and long-term planning, as well as keeping up to date with the Provincetown gallery scene. Both give lectures, carry out demonstrations and criticize the work of the members.
The collective itself focuses on building community, studying art history, and making art. About half of its members live in the Outer Cape; the rest log in from across the country. Shabott says most of them are highly skilled in other fields and that their participation in the collective represents a different kind of creative opportunity for them.
Later in last week’s session, the group moved on to an analysis of Gentileschi’s paintings, paying particular attention to them Susanna and the elders. They noted how it represented the power imbalance between the sexes. The collective, heavily influenced by women, then discussed the rarity of successful female painters in Gentileschi’s era and speculated on the many challenges the artist likely faced – and marveled at the art she was nonetheless able to produce.
Moving on to a discussion of Gentileschi Judith kills Holofernes, One member wondered how its extreme contrast was possible in a time before electric lighting. Another asked questions about an ambiguous rectangle in the painting and asked others what they thought they could depict.
Gentileschi painted the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes several times, which Shabott described as “a demonstration of how an artist can learn so much by studying the same scene over and over again”. Suddenly there were only five minutes left in the meeting, and Barrett had to quickly go through her last few slides.