Artist finds her inspiration in a close call long ago
Paintings recall feeling of serenity after the rip tide
When the shouts and the screams faded away and she was alone out on the water where the rip current had carried her, Cheryl Dyment thought back to what she’d been taught in swimming lessons years earlier. The teenager lay on her back and floated.
The sun made the water sparkle like diamonds, and she could see the curvature of the earth. “I can smile when I think about it. [Floating] was a beautiful thing. I never felt scared; I never felt panicked. I was just appreciating being in the moment, I guess.’’
At least until an arm came out of nowhere and tried to grab her. The arm belonged to a lifeguard, who helped her back to shore with the aid of a tow rope and probably saved her life. According to Dyment’s recollection, several other people were also caught in the current on that sunny day in August 1969 at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, and one drowned. But she shook it off and went on with her life.
It wasn’t until 2009 that she realized how profound her experience alone on the ocean had been. A successful landscape painter in oils, she was used to beginning her paintings on scene, “en plein air.’’ But she changed track one day in her home studio in Middleton and decided to paint from memory a floater’s-eye-view image of sky and water.
That painting, “Regression (or the Day I Didn’t Drown),’’ was quickly followed by more. Now they make up the bulk of her exhibition, “The Importance of Floating and Other Lessons,’’ which opens at the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport on Wednesday and runs through March 11.
The Good Harbor experience, she said, is “like this place that I can go back to, like a well, and just pull stuff out.’’
Told that the ripples at the center of “Regression’’ make it appear that she has, indeed, gone under, Dyment, who is 61, shrugged and smiled. “I was supported by the water,’’ she said, “but I felt like I was of the water.’’
Dyment grew up in Melrose. She and her friend, Mary Garden, then both 19, figured they could enjoy a warm Saturday at their favorite beach. Dyment brought along her 10-year-old sister, Beverly. Mary, who drove, brought her brother, Eddie, also 10. Eventually they left the kids to play on the sand and headed into the water.
Dyment soon felt the current pulling her away from shore. Remembering a safety lesson, she tried to swim parallel to it, but kept getting pulled away. She heard Mary getting pulled under, but what really scared her was when some “grown men’’ nearby began screaming for rescue as well.
“It seemed like an eternity,’’ she said, although she guesses she was in the water for a half-hour. “I went into a whole other place mentally.’’
She struggled at first when the lifeguard took her by surprise, she said. It was not easy to get back to shore, even with his help. She passed out briefly when she finally reached the beach. “I remember waking up and there were all these people looking at me.’’
But there were no further medical consequences, and Dyment was full of the resilience of youth. It wasn’t until the next morning, waking up in her own bed, that the significance of what had happened hit her: “Oh, my God, I almost drowned yesterday.’’
She went on to college that fall, then career and family. She married, had two boys, was active in her Danvers community. A little over a decade ago, remarried and her sons getting older, she decided it was time to jump into her dream of painting and signed up for classes at Montserrat College of Art. Eventually she and her husband bought the 1705 Deacon Edward Putnam Jr. House in Middleton and had a large, airy studio built on the top floor of the barn.
She still loves the water and Good Harbor Beach, and has gone back throughout her life.
There are a dozen paintings of water and sky in the “Floating’’ series now, some large and some small, and she is finishing three for the Newburyport show. Some have already been seen, including in a show at the Boston Graduate School of Psychoanalysis. She’s had more than a handful of people want to tell her their own near-drowning stories.
“I think the work absolutely stands alone without the story, but when you know the story it becomes even more powerful,’’ said Firehouse gallery director Judy Hallberg.
Hallberg grew up along Lake Erie and “had great pleasure in pushing a log out as far as I could go, so I could barely see people on shore. It terrified my mother. And there was this great sense of being alone in the middle of nothing. I absolutely loved it.’’ She finds that same peaceful solitude in Dyment’s paintings.
Dyment’s sister Beverly has a less peaceful memory of that day. She saw the first painting by chance on a random visit to Cheryl’s website and told her in an e-mail that she almost fell off her chair with shock when she saw it:
“I should paint one with people lined on the beach in total disarray. I had the feeling of complete helplessness and the fear of losing my big sister . . . just crying and screaming for them to get you back safely. . . . I’m sitting at my desk in work with tears in my eyes, just thinking back to one of the worst days of my life. I’m sure way worse for you, but still very traumatic. Love Bev PS: I love the painting.’’
Joel Brown can be reached at email@example.com.