Years ago, Falmouth’s beloved artist Karen Rinaldo was having a conversation with a friend who was a successful Wall Street financier. Her friend was attempting to teach her some life lessons. As successful as he was, he explained that he still showed up at the office early. When she asked him why, he said that “You never know who will walk in the door to give you the opportunity to change a life or make some history.” Karen understood. In her own words, she understood the challenge from her friend to mean that when opportunity presents itself, you can “be the singer who sings in the shower or the singer who performs in the arena.”
Last week at the Falmouth Museums on the Green, Karen recounted that conversation and those words and shared a time when she uttered them as part of a decision on whether to accept a commission for a painting. The call came in 1994 from the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC), which wanted Karen to paint a historically accurate depiction of the first Thanksgiving. That would take a tremendous amount of research and effort. They also wanted it to be a large painting—36 inches by 60 inches, a huge undertaking. They also put the effort’s consequence in perspective, noting that it would be seen as a “gift to the nation.” The enormity of the task seemed overwhelming, but then she remembered the words of her friend and simply asked herself if she wanted to sing in the shower or the arena, or in this case, paint on a small canvas or transform her canvas to an international stage.
Karen, of course, accepted. She took six months to research and verify everything—from the structures to the surroundings to the people. She consulted Pilgrim Hall and Plimoth Plantation. She consulted a Wampanoag expert. In order to prevent any advance information from being released, she kept the painting under a curtain at her Scranton Avenue studio during the day and took the painting home and slept with it at night. It was proudly on display at the Pilgrim Hall Museum and Plimoth Plantation from 1997 to 2017. The painting is an American icon now, used in classrooms and for teachable moments across the country and across the globe for a generation. It is one of the most well-known paintings of that moment in our history. As Karen noted, “Amazing is the best word to describe the foundation of a nation.” And amazing is the best word to describe this painting.
And now, it is home.
“The First Thanksgiving,” Karen’s transformational and enduring painting of 52 Pilgrims and 91 Wampanoag natives, is back in Falmouth and on display for the public’s appreciation and enjoyment, a short distance from where it was created. The NACCC has loaned the painting to the Falmouth Museums on the Green, where it will stay on display through 2021, culminating with the 400th anniversary of the event depicted in the painting.
The welcome home party for one of our hometown artist’s most-viewed works last week was also a celebration of her impact and her support in our community. “This night is all about community,” she said to me with a smile as we shared a hug and a hello. More than 100 supporters of Falmouth history and this visual historian agreed, and came to celebrate not only the painting, but the impact its artist has had on the soul of our community—our Falmouth community, our national community and our global community. Attendees were welcomed to the museums’ gathering by executive director Mark Schmidt, then led by president Tamsen George and others to the painting’s current display at the facilities’ Conant House, then shown the future display area in the “rear ell” room of the museums’ Wicks House, the longstanding home of the Falmouth Historical Society, which will be renovated to be a permanent exhibit room. Karen’s chef d’oeuvre will be the room’s first inhabitant. Board members Rocco Maffei and Bob Haskell, among others, were also on hand to assist a cast of friends and supporters in seeing not only the painting but a bit of its history, as well.
Earl Mills, known to many as Chief Flying Eagle, was on hand with well wishes. He provided advice and support during the painting’s creation. At the event, his youthful smile and enthusiasm belied his nonagenarian shell. Chamber chief Michael Kasparian joined in, as did hospitality mainstays Greg and Dorie Ketterer. Brooks and Karen Watt showed their Karen Rinaldo fandom, as did Fluffy Winner, who has some of Karen’s works proudly displayed in her Falmouth home. Bob Young mentioned how much he appreciated Karen’s history of the painting, and Jay and Susan Zavala were there to agree. Karen’s most enthusiastic promoter, Kevin Doyle, was on hand, as was her Gallery On Main partner Donnie Cross. Kathy Twomey wouldn’t have missed an opportunity to support one of her dearest friends, and brought Susie Palanza along to share in the smiles. Barbara Kanellopoulos and Karen Bissonnette were both on hand, as were Richard and Ann Prior, all sharing in this wonderful Falmouth moment.
Karen Rinaldo noted to the gathered supporters that “an image can be the great communicator.” Karen’s image of that moment in time nearly 400 years ago has communicated to a generation of worldwide citizens. The gathering of Falmouth citizens to commemorate the homecoming of this amazing painting is an image that will last a generation, as well.