John Huszer paintin. Courtesy of North Kingstown library archives

For the first time in 58 years, the Wickford Art Festival, like all other large gathering public events, has been cancelled because of pandemic restrictions.

The festival, which annually draws hundreds of artists in various media from around the country and thousands of browsers, has brought distinction to Wickford, a quaint waterfront village that dates back to pre-Revolutionary War days.

And while the festival’s official website states that the festival started in 1962, its true origins started a bit earlier out of one man’s financial desperation.

It was the fall of 1965 when I was named manager of the Providence Journal’s Wickford news bureau. For decades, the Journal’s system of local news bureaus–there were 15 scattered around the state and into nearby Massachusetts– was often cited in journalism textbooks as an ideal blueprint for gathering local news.

Most of the bureaus were staffed by two or three reporters who covered just about any tidbit of news—if a town council approved the electric company’s permit to install a utility pole at a certain location, that made the paper, albeit in tiny type. If someone got a $10 speeding ticket, that too was in the paper.

My new command, the Wickford news bureau, was quite typical—a couple desks with manual typewriters, a couple filing cabinets, a police radio and telephones. The only “high tech” piece of gear was a teletype, a noisy mechanical/electrical machine used to transmit stories up to the Journal newsroom in Providence.

The bureau was also typical in another way —the Journal excelled in renting some of the crappiest office spaces available throughout the state.

The Wickford bureau was located on the second floor of the Gregory Building at the corner of Brown and Main Streets. Named for an old time Rhode Island governor who once owned it, the building was one of the more imposing commercial fixtures in the village. The first-floor spaces had high ceilings and so to get to the second floor, there was a towering staircase that would deter just about any would-be visitors—we rarely got any in our office as a result. The building’s owner was John Huszer, who fully fit the stereotypical role of struggling artist.

How he got to own this brick building I never did find out, but Huszer was a likeable, odd character. He lived alone in an apartment on the third floor. Next to it was a huge loft that was his studio and where he often gave art lessons. One night when I returned from a town council meeting, I climbed the stairs and surprised a darting naked woman who apparently was the nude model for that night’s art class. Huszer and I became friends. We shared a love for classical music and when I needed a break from writing, I would visit him in his studio, chat, watch him paint and listen to classical records.

Over time, I was able to put together pieces of his life. 

Some years prior he went through a difficult divorce, so bitter that he decided to seek solitude on a small island in Wickford Harbor, just offshore from Smith’s Castle. He was content there for a short time until the Army Corps of Engineers decided to dredge a section of the harbor and dump the smelly dredgings onto his island. So much for a peaceful refuge.

He came ashore to live in Wickford and paint but Huszer’s artistic style was not a crowd pleaser. To save money he often painted on newsprint and his works were often dark and obscure. Sales were very spotty.

He reminded me of a figure in Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip—Joe Btfsplk—a tiny old man character who had a perpetual raincloud over his head, with an occasional lightning strike zapping down. Bad luck seemed to hover over Huszer.

For example, Huszer’s building had a flat roof and to save money he tried to grow his own food in a raised bed garden he installed there. His tomatoes were doing just great until the seagulls discovered that the roof was an ideal place to smash clams that they harvested in the harbor. They continually bombarded the roof with clams that would break open on impact. They then swooped down to get their dinner. Vegetable plants could not survive the daily bombardment. 

Another time he got so desperate for income, he started painting commercial signs for customers, some of whom never paid him. He also bought a used hearse which was ideal for hauling extension ladders when he tried his hand at house painting, another short-lived unprofitable venture.

But despite it all, I learned he had one claim to fame. A few years before I got to Wickford, Huszer had come up with another idea—one that actually worked. 

His income was dismal and his studio was getting cluttered with unsold paintings and so one sunny summer day he lugged a few of them downstairs and propped them up on the sidewalk with price tags. To his delight, a few of them sold. The next day, he put a few more on the sidewalk and success struck again.

At that time, Wickford was home to a lot of amateur artists and after witnessing Huszer’s success they decided that sidewalk art sales were not a bad idea and some of them followed suit with their own works of art.

A couple of years later, the Wickford Art Festival, formalized by the Wickford Art Association, was established and while there are no statues of John Huszer in Wickford, there probably should be one reminding us that even in a life filled with disappointment and bad luck, something good is bound to emerge.

(Rudi Hempe of Narragansett is a retired journalist.)

Rudi Hempe

Rudi Hempe of Narragansett is a retired editor of weekly newspapers in Rhode Island, a former reporter and bureau manager at the Providence Journal and a lifelong gardener.