PROVINCETOWN – In the late 1980s, “Bob Gasoi was a bohemian artist living hand to mouth,” said Ronny Hazel, the owner of Shop Therapy. “I had put the word out. I was looking for someone to do murals for my building.”
“We are anti-establishment,” said Hazel, describing Shop Therapy. “We’re a little outspoken, a little wild,” he said. Plus, Hazel added, “We’ve always been a head shop.”
So when Gasoi was hired to paint murals for Shop Therapy, Hazel said the project quickly became more than what Provincetown selectman envisioned when they suggested business owners paint some artwork on the the dull off-season plywood that covered closed-for-the-winter businesses.
As Chris Busa, the founder and editor of Provincetown Arts magazine, pointed out, Hazel’s is a “very wittily named store. You get therapy from shopping, and it will help cure your mind.”
Gasoi’s murals reflected that, and maybe something more. “The old building was an evolving monument to local figures,” said Busa.
“Through my filter, those murals are a very important part of Provincetown history,” said Chuck White, Provincetown-based multi-media artist, and the founder of Motherlode.TV – a website dedicated to those who create something because of passion. Motherlode.TV has written about Gasoi.
Almost 30 years after Gasoi’s edgy murals first appeared as very public and sometimes political art that quickly covered the front of the old Shop Therapy building on Commercial Street in Provincetown, what could be saved is now on display in an alley on the side of the new Shop Therapy location, further west on Commercial Street.
“Shockingly, an amazing amount of people walk down there,” said Arnie Charnick, an artist and self-described “art problem solver,” who rehabbed and saved what he could of Gasoi’s old murals.
“It’s become a destination alley,” said Charnick.
“Provincetown has always been about the radicals and people pushing the envelope,” said White. “And Ronny did it. He and Gasoi together.”
“I was living in a cottage on the beach,” said Hazel. “Back then, I was more of an underground personality.”
When the word went out that Hazel needed murals, Gasoi, who died in 1997, found Hazel’s cottage and knocked on the door.
“I didn’t know who he was,” said Hazel. But Gasoi knew who Hazel was, and he had brought along a portfolio of his art
Hazel liked Gasoi’s artwork. Perhaps as importantly, he liked Gasoi. Both were originally from Brooklyn, New York, and they quickly became friends and collaborators.
Thus, a new chapter of Provincetown art history began. This was, in fact, art as history – Hazel’s history, as interpreted by Gasoi.
“We would talk and I would tell him what was going on with my life, and Bob would paint it,” said Hazel.
“It’s almost like he was an emperor or something,” said Charnick, reflecting on all the pieces Gasoi painted of Hazel’s life – including his world travels, as well as some of the legal drama his store caused him.
“I was arrested 17 times in Provincetown,” said Hazel. “I’d talk to Bob and say I’m having a little trouble with the police department right now. And he’d create an image of whatever it was that was happening at the moment.”
This went on for a while, and the outside wall was soon full of images – some that certain folks found to be obscene.
“It was part of the Provincetown experience,” said White. “It was the archetype of what Provincetown stood for. It left an indelible mark in people’s minds, especially young impressionable minds. You got to see naked women on the wall. And it was all based on Renaissance stuff.”
“I live an alternative lifestyle,” said Hazel. “I always have. I was a hippie, and I would say that Bob was the bohemian artist documenting it all.”
The first time Joey Mars saw Gasoi’s artwork on the front of Shop Therapy was in 1990. “There was so much going on, I just sat on a stoop across the street and took it all in,” said Mars, the artist whose work is currently on the front of Shop Therapy.
“The murals were just so vibrant. They were pretty new at the time,” said Mars.
“They were poking fun at people,” said Mars. “Taking out their frustrations. It was incredible. It was hard for me to wrap my mind around it at the time.”
Mars said he could tell Gasoi was classically trained, but the work was so colorful, “and the subject matter was just crazy; there was sexual innuendo, pop art, mythical scenes, a lot of army, a lot of war.”
White described Hazel, who is a Vietnam veteran, as “a tunnel rat during the Vietnam War.” White said the store, the art, and Hazel’s anti-establishment attitude “are an extension of Ronny’s war.”
And the art is an extension, or perhaps an expression of Hazel’s worldview. “He’s the total soul and spirit of what created Provincetown,” said White of Hazel. “He keeps the spirit alive.”
White sees a clear line from the groundbreaking Provincetown art and theater scene of 100 years ago to the controversial public art that Gasoi and Hazel thrust upon the town.
Shop Therapy, said White, represents “the last embers of the old spirit of Provincetown.”
“Everybody talks about the gentrification of Provincetown,” said White, “but it’s happening everywhere… 20 years from now, people are going to realize how messed up it is what they did to Provincetown.”
Hazel has made it clear that Shop Therapy isn’t going anywhere, and the Gasoi paintings – what’s left of them anyway – are good for another 50 years.
While White warned of gentrification, Provincetown will always be Provincetown. As Mars pointed out, “Ronny is a great marketer. In a town going a million miles an hour, a giant painted building is going to stop you. It’s going to bring you inside.”
And in a town full of art galleries, a painted building is very public art. “I’m a big fan of public art and the bottom line is, so are most people,” said Charnick, who besides his job as an art problem solver, is himself a renowned muralist. He has been profiled, among other places, in the New Yorker.
As part of the restoration of Gasoi’s work in the alley, Charnick has carefully meshed some of his original work, including a large, 33-piece Chinese yellow dragon, tied into and around the Gasoi display “like a shoelace.”
“I am no fan of gallery art,” he said. “I do not like little paintings with little frames. In a gallery, you have to cross a threshold into sort of an elitist world.”
To see the Gasoi artwork, said Charnick, “you just have to walk down an alley.”
Public art, said Busa, “has to appeal to a value in the community, a symbolic value that is maintained and helps bond people together.”
“At one time, we were the test case for drug paraphernalia laws,” said Hazel. “Bob and I got involved in a censorship case. There was constant and ongoing legal drama.”
Hazel said, “What was happening to me was happening to people all over the country.”
And Gasoi would paint it. Or he might paint Jesse Helms or a sign defining obscenity. Gasoi painted one police detective naked, said White. It was a detective “who tried to get Ronny arrested for 30 years, but could never make anything stick,” said White. When the police complained, the detective’s groin was covered by a sheriff’s star.
The art was a collaboration, but Hazel was the driving force.
“Ronny is like a Hunter S. Thompson character,” said Mars. “He’s bigger than life. He’s fearless. He’s a beautiful cat. And now he’s almost like a town father. Everything goes in cycles. Led Zeppelin sells Cadillacs now.”
“What Ronny was doing 30 years ago is now mainstream,” said White. And, he added, “Ronny is a superhero.”
“I admire (Hazel) because he’s a fighter,” said Charnick. “They arrested him so many times, sued him so many times. He fought through it every time, fighting for his rights. Sticking to his principles. He’s very well respected.”
Beyond that, Charnick said, “Ronny is an excellent and well-respected patron of the arts.”
“He buys work by artists,” said Busa. “He’s a collector.”
Mars said Hazel has been buying his art for decades.
But decades ago it was Gasoi and Hazel, said Busa, who “shared an aesthetic.”
While Gasoi “doesn’t have the reputation that a major museum would be dying to acquire at a high price certain of his works,” Busa said the murals on plywood have a “significance to Provincetown history.”
Back then, Hazel said, “We were just living our lives. I was living my life. Bob was painting it. And the building began to become muralized.”
Hazel called Gasoi “an intelligent guy,” and said Gasoi had traveled to Italy and to Mexico, and was always learning.
“After a few years of working together, he would say, ‘I need to be paid this amount of money.’”
They always worked it out. They were friends, collaborators.
But Busa recalled once being with Gasoi when he was negotiating with Hazel. “He was negotiating with Ron how he would be paid,” said Busa. “He used the word – ‘Ron, if you want fine rendering, that’s going to cost you more.’ He had different prices from rapid sketch to very detailed and refined.”
It all stopped when Gasoi died in 1997.
But Hazel said, “Bob Gasoi will not be forgotten by me. We have a bond. When he passed onto his next life, I was like, ‘Gee Bob, why did you leave me like this? We have so much more to do together.’”
There are legends and ghosts everywhere in Provincetown. Literature, art, theater – this edge of the continent place has produced it all.
And White argued that Gasoi and Hazel are in that continuum. “Being a punk rocker, the art scene never resonated with me. I was punk. I thought, who gives a shit about American theater? But I didn’t realize where it really came from. Where the art scene comes from is the same scene the punk rock scene comes from. I didn’t realize the history of where everything comes from, and it was right before my eyes here in Provincetown.”
And White said of the Gasoi murals on Shop Therapy, “that particular moment in time and that project really fits into that.”
But time and weather – especially weather on the Outer Cape, had different plans on preserving history. Over time, the Gasoi murals got weathered. Eventually they came down when Hazel finally convinced Mars that his shop’s building needed newer brighter murals.
Being in awe of Gasoi’s work, Mars said, “I put it off for several years.”
According to White, Mars “was already doing all the calendars, glossy cards, packaging, and the artwork for all the lines that Ronny was importing.” Mars, said White, was part of the Shop Therapy brand. So it was natural for his murals to be the next generation.
When Mars finally made some murals, he tried to convey “the energy of Shop Therapy.”
Mars described his art as “graffiti punk style. I created a lot of crazy faces.”
But finally his work went up 2010. The business subsequently moved, and Mars did fresh artwork.
All the Gasoi artwork on 4-foot by 8-foot 3/4 inch plywood were left outside, leaned up against the wall of a building. It was White, said Mars, who recognized the historic significance. First he went about cleaning them and taking photos of what he could save.
About then, Hazel began “asking artists all over town, how can I save this?”
“Arnie figured out what we could do,” said Hazel.
Of course he did. “Arnie is like the son of a writer who has the right to finish his father’s books,” said Busa. “He’s got bohemian credentials. That’s required.”
Plus, having been in Provincetown since 1964, Charnick knew or knew of all the characters in Gasoi’s paintings.
Charnick realized it was impossible to save the full sheets of plywood. There was too much weather and rot. But he jigsawed out what he estimates to be about 90 percent of Gasoi’s characters then restored them and arranged them in the alley.
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