During this season of giving, some of the most important—and precious—gifts that we both give and receive are those that are omnipresent but ever-changing. Our most valuable gifts are priceless but prized and treasured. Our lasting gifts are those that have lasted and sustained changing times and changing mores. Our shared rich history—our identity as a community and as a collection of Falmouthites—is indeed our most precious gift.
Perhaps no single member of the community has better captured that gift of history throughout our history—and selflessly shared it with us—than legendary local artist Karen Rinaldo. Her ability to artistically exhibit the soul of our community and its landmarks and landscapes on canvas has touched lives for generations since she came to Falmouth as a self-described “creative soul” in the 1970s. Since then she has become deeply rooted in—and her artistry has been woven into—the fabric of the community she so loves. Karen’s gift to Falmouth is in her philanthropic pursuits in generously sharing her artistic gift with all of us and in supporting organizations that help preserve the historic bits of that same local soul.
Karen’s deep love for and respect of history is rooted in her own formative experience living in a pre-Revolutionary homestead in Worcester on the old Post Road that meandered through 18th century Massachusetts. Replete with secret tunnels and stories to match, this house sparked Karen’s profound connection with history and passion to preserve it. It was also the site of her first philanthropic exercise. She would charge a nickel to locals and provide tours of the house and tell the tales of its journey through time. She would then donate the proceeds to a local charity. The house was later razed, taking with it the physical remnants of those memories but solidifying Karen’s commitment to preservation. In much the same form, her work continues in that fashion today. Through her paintings, Karen takes us on tours of Falmouth’s history and preserves what may have been razed by raising our awareness and appreciation for the Falmouth of yesterday.
Her journey to Falmouth—and to the life of an artist—was not-so-gently nudged by what Karen calls a “defining moment” of her life. After youthful escapades and what she described as “prowling around,” she found herself as a 16-year-old before a judge. When the magistrate sternly but paternally asked her what she intended to do with her life, she told him she wanted to be a painter. He quizzically responded with another question, asking if she intended to paint with a big brush or a small one, mocking her whimsical but resolute response. She proudly and determinedly (if perhaps a bit timidly) reported to the judge that she wanted to, “be a painter with a small brush who paints fine paintings.” The judge replied, “Kid, you’re gonna need a lot of luck.” Karen knew that hard work begets luck, and set out that day to prove to the judge that she could paint with the small brush—but make a big impact. That day and those prophetic words—from Karen and from the judge—formed the foundation and the portal to a life dedicated to sharing her gift and her gratitude with others through that small brush.
Not too many years later, Karen found herself in Falmouth, pursuing that same goal of painting fine paintings. Her gallery, now a local landmark at the end of Scranton Avenue next to the venerable Clam Shack, was a fish market, replete with lobster tanks and rubber mats on the floor. The location, however, perfectly fit Karen’s love of colorful panoramas and connection with the sea. She displayed paintings there, and began to integrate into what is now her hometown. Through the 1980s she continued her relentless pursuit of living the life of an artist, always seeking local charities to support with her artwork. Her images on the Falmouth Fireworks tee shirts are now the stuff of local legend. People collect these local treasures like baseball cards—I have a few myself and look forward to my annual visit with Arthur Ratsy to buy mine. One of her gallery locales throughout that locally nomadic journey was a spot on Academy Lane, near the chamber of commerce. Her gallery didn’t have a phone, so she would give out the number of the pay phone outside the chamber building, then hurl herself hurriedly down the stairs and outside when it rang, hoping a willing and eager customer was on the other end.
The customers came. In 1989 the fish market next to the Clam Shack closed, and Karen had found a permanent home for her paintings and her passion. Still today, she sits in the modestly appointed studio, richly replete with the markings of a true artist’s lair: her inimitable works of art in various stages of completion, a canvas facing the priceless vista of Vineyard Sound, and of course, lots of small brushes. A generation later, Karen continues to capture the essence of our local soul, and continues to build on those tours of her homestead, living a life of purpose with her charitable pursuits.
One of her latest—and most amazing—projects has been working with the Falmouth Preservation Alliance to create the Heritage Map, a virtual tour of Falmouth’s history, character, and landscape, all in one remarkable work of art. The map, a tour of Falmouth’s history through its landmarks, depicts past and present buildings, locations, and neighborhoods that helped shape our local history. Completed with pen and ink as well as watercolor, Karen’s opus was completed painstakingly with hundreds (yes, hundreds) of tracing sheets that would overlay hand-drawn portions of this massive and important work. Working with the Preservation Alliance fits with Karen’s outlook on life and on Falmouth, as she sees this project as a chance to develop an even deeper connection with her community and provide a tribute and a lasting example of how a small brush can leave a huge legacy. She shared with me, with a twinkle in her eye and a contented smile on her serene visage, that, “A chair is just a chair if no one is sitting there,” paraphrasing singer Dusty Springfield. Falmouth should be grateful that we have Karen Rinaldo sitting in the artist’s chair next to the Clam Shack. To learn more about the heritage map, visit www.falmouthpreservationalliance.org or reach out to Karen directly at [email protected].
Karen Rinaldo told me that Falmouth is the “best place in the world.” She noted that she gives back because, in her words, “You give until the spirit stops giving to you.” So she gives—so much—to us. What a gift that we have the best painter to share with us her vision and view of this best place.