Painting of old bridge donated by local couple
A painting of the old Jamestown Bridge by artist Joseph Szarek is now hanging in a place of honor in the Rosamond A. Tefft Council Chambers, thanks to a gift from residents Paul Sullivan and Gloria Dahl.
Szarek said he is thrilled the painting has been given to the town. The artist couldn’t have given the painting to the town himself since he was no longer in possession of the original. So he intended to give the community a print of the painting, which he made several of.
Then Sullivan recently had the opportunity to buy the original painting – for a second time. He had owned it some 20 years ago.
Sullivan knows the artist person- ally and owns other paintings by him. Szarek is a Warwick native but graduated from North Kingstown. After high school, he served in the U.S. Air Force and later studied art at the Rhode Island School of Design, spending a year in Italy with the school’s European program. Besides earning a bachelor’s degree from RISD, he also studied with artist Henry Hensche at the Cape School of Art in Provincetown.
In 1979, the Providence Journal featured him in a story in its Sunday magazine. It chronicled the struggles of trying to become successful in the art world. Szarek had been trying to make a living as an artist for some time – even penning editorial cartoons for some of the small Rhode Island newspapers.
Szarek finally caught a break. He was discovered and offered some commissioned work. The Journal reporter followed him to New York City where he went to sell some paintings to a gallery – only to hear the owner wasn’t ready to buy.
Szarek has painted several Jamestown scenes and said he did some of his best work while living here.
“I spent about 12 years on the island,” he said, “starting in the center of town.”
Szarek says he lived “all over the island.” He had a second-floor apartment overlooking downtown, and also had a place near Beavertail and another near Fort Wetherill.
The “Jamestown Bridge” painting was commissioned by David Stewart-Smith.
“He was interested in all kinds of local history,” Szarek said.
Szarek picked the view of the bridge from Watson Farm. “Watson Farm was just so beautiful at sunset,” he said.
The day Szarek painted the 1.3-mile-long truss bridge, he says it was steeped in color. “It lit up in a certain color at sunset,” he said.
“It’s a commanding painting,” said Dahl, who is Sullivan’s wife. Szarek, she added, captured the Jamestown of that period, and the Jamestown that visitors love to see.
“When people come to Jamestown for the first time, they love the farms,” she said. “And the bay.”
Szarek depicted a view of the West Passage from the farm. In the foreground, you see the Watson Farm cows grazing in the field. Behind that, in the water, a tugboat and sailboat, all leading up to the bridge illuminated in the sunset.
But Dahl and Sullivan couldn’t hang the painting in their house due to its size.
“I didn’t have any room for it,” Sullivan said. “So I put it in our office in Wakefield in our conference room.”
When he retired, he sold the painting to his firm and it stayed inside the company’s building.
“I always regretted I did that,” Sullivan said.
The reason for his regret, Sullivan says, is because he felt the painting belonged in Jamestown. Then a year ago, he learned his former business partner planned to sell the company. Sullivan approached him about buying the painting back with the intention of giving it to the town.
A few weeks ago, Sullivan contacted then-Town Administrator Bruce Keiser to say they wanted to give the town the painting. Keiser made a special trip to Sullivan’s home to see the work.
“He came up and took a look at it,” Sullivan said.
Keiser snapped a picture with the camera on his cell phone and consulted with councilors and some experts from the Conanicut Island Art Association. Most likely, some members of the art association knew Szarek personally or knew his reputation, Sullivan said. Ultimately, Keiser called Sullivan back and said the town would gladly accept the gift.
Dahl said she coordinated the painting’s delivery with Council President Kristine Trocki. Keiser and Sullivan actually managed to hang it on the wall inside the council chambers.
“We’re just really glad it’s in a prominent place where everyone in Jamestown will be able to look at it if they wish,” Dahl said. “One of the conditions was that it will remain up on that wall. We don’t want to see it in the cellar of Town Hall.”
Town officials have agreed the “Jamestown Bridge” belongs there.
“I just thought it was right because it’s a painting many people in Jamestown would remember,” Sullivan said, “and it should stay in Jamestown.”
Now with the old bridge gone, Sullivan says the picture is extra special to the community.
“Years from now, nobody’s going to know what it is or where it was painted,” said Sullivan. Unless, of course, they’re from Jamestown, he added.
For the coming generations, Sullivan says the painting may be the best way to hear the stories about the old bridge and see the way Jamestown used to look.
“If you ever went across that bridge, you will always remember it,” Dahl said.
As for the future, Szarek may relocate to Jamestown with his wife, Pat Miner.
“Well, we don’t know yet,” the artist said. “We’re still looking.”