Out of the Sea and Into the Frying Pan
By: Susan Blood, September 28, 2012
When Steve and Sarah Swain took over the oyster shack on Wellfleet Harbor, it hadn't seen a beam of sunlight in at least 40 years.
The building that now houses Frying Pan Gallery is the last, largely unadulterated oyster shack in its original location in town. After its life as an oyster shack it became Central Towboat Comapny and Central Trading Company. In more recent history, it was dry storage for Captain Higgins restaurant (now Pearl).
“Originally, it was built from parts of buildings that washed off of Billingsgate Island after the big storm that took out the lighthouse,” Steve said.
“If you look at the framework inside, all the beams are different. It's a good example of recycling before people were recycling. It could take someone two or three weeks to make a beam out of a tree, so they wouldn't just turn around and throw it away.”
This is right up Steve's alley. The building materials they used to renovate it include parts of Uncle Tim's Bridge and the Spit and Chowder Club from Captain Higgins. The rolling doors on the front of the gallery came from a barn in New Hampshire.
The other doors - the iconic red ones on the water-side - are falling apart, so Steve replicated them. In keeping with the spirit of the building, they'll use the wood from the old doors for something.
The building is unmistakable, but once you walk inside you may not notice that some of the beams were once ship masts, or that some posts (originally part of a horse barn) have gnaw-marks.
In addition to Steve's steel sculptures, there's furniture, paintings, jewelry and pottery by local artists – all with a certain Frying Pan vibe (think Joey Mars).
Sarah describes the gallery's artists as “a little left of center, accomplished, and local.”
Steve adds that when they add new artists to the gallery, they “try to think outside the local gallery box. We have strict rules against lighthouses, seagulls and seascapes. There's already plenty of those.”
With the change of seasons, Steve will be hitting the studio to create new pieces and realize some of the ideas he's had over the summer. He's also working on restocking the gallery with top sellers and creating new things, as well as filling orders for “people who have been incredibly patient,” he says.
It's been an especially busy summer for the Swains, who – on top of running a successful gallery – are building a house and just had baby Stanley.
Steve did take a few moments out this summer to create a Great White bottle opener. When sharks showed up on Cape Cod, he couldn't resist.
He makes them (and the rest of his sculptures) with a plasma cutter, which uses electricity and compressed air to cut cold-rolled steel. Plasma cutters are not as detailed as lasers, which he says are “too clean. Too perfect.”
While he avoids an edge that's too clean, his work is becoming more refined as he has more time to focus and create new designs. The gallery, too, is becoming more refined - in a horse-gnawn post kind of way.
“Every year we try to bump it up a notch,” Sarah says. “The first year we only had the front room open. We're looking forward to having a lighting display and a place to display weather vanes. Steve does really cool weather vanes.”
They also have their eye on getting bigger, more sculptural pieces in front of the gallery, but that's a year or two off.
There's still time to visit the gallery this year. They're open through Wellfleet OysterFest and continue with limited hours through the holidays.
Some might call the gallery unheated. Steve prefers “well ventilated.”
Either way, bundle up. You'll want to spend plenty of time looking around.