Walk into this Gloucester gallery and you might overhear a conversation about a deposition. That’s because Ken Riaf is also a lawyer in general practice and you’ve just stepped into a client’s private legal issues, all contained in this one room law office/gallery. This is normal for someone like Riaf, a person who has lived many lives—commercial fisherman, professor, documentary researcher, playwright, lawyer, artist, and gallery owner.
In his Law and Water Gallery, Riaf has spent the last two years representing local and regional artists as well as displaying legal ephemera such as handwritten documents and 99-year leases dating back to the early 1900s. On the gallery website, he writes: “Truth and justice themed art is not just for lawyers, judges and those who toil in its fields, but is for everyone who searches for meaning in the blindfolded eyes of the law.”
Whether being out to sea on a scalloper or wielding the law, both have the same effect, says Riaf. “I’ve come away from these experiences with a firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be mentally and physically exhausted.” Riaf grew up going back and forth between Boston and New York City. His mother was from Brooklyn, his father from Dorchester. “It’s the same neighborhood, only 250 miles apart,” says Riaf, whose personal love for Gloucester was formed during his college years, while visiting his brother who lived there.
Trying to put the lure of Gloucester into words isn’t easy, says Riaf, even for a writer. “I’m not sure anyone could put their finger on that or even if there is a ‘that.’ It’d be a long list with plenty of classics—like light and atmosphere, sea and sky, faces, geography and geology, but there’s other things that don’t have names or words—dark matter or whatever they call it. The space in between the notes, a fog that covers and reveals all at the same time, mirages thrown up on the horizon or echoes over moor and meadow. There’s those things and, of course, there’s lots of bars too.”
On a summer visit to the Pleasant Street storefront that once housed a Western Union office, Riaf featured the happy work of Gloucester-based photographer Michael Prince. Hopping around like a kid, keen to show off his bedroom, he says, “He’s got them in that perfect moment of suspension,” referring to a playful shot of summer swimmers. Prince’s work was smartly paired with photographer Tricia O’Neill who tracks the disappearing markers up and down the eastern seaboard on Route 1, including the massive dinosaur along the bit of highway that runs through Saugus. Riaf touts the artists as two photographers who let us “study people, places and things that are usually a blur in our hurried lives.”
In addition to naming the Pleasant Street arts district with its galleries and studios, Riaf has helped out Jon Sarkin, the workaholic chiropractor turned self-taught artist with a studio a few blocks away, who has been interviewed by both Terry Gross and Ira Glass and featured in The New Yorker and The Guardian. Sarkin suffered a dramatic stroke in 1988 and became a prolific artist, creating elaborate drawings and paintings filled with words and images, or order to make sense of his new way of seeing the world. The two have travelled all over, delivering Sarkin’s sold artwork. Riaf helps Sarkin spread the word when he is working on a new project, such as his designs being featured in a Fish City Rug Collection by Landry & Arcari Rugs and Carpeting.
For his own creative expression, Riaf makes tiny mixed media assemblages, micro worlds that often contain legal themes, sometimes Gloucester scenes, usually involving word play, but always practically microscopic with subtle humor small enough to fit inside a little wooden box.
“I don’t want to say less is more, but it really is,” he says. “With a big box, you can shovel it in there. But with a small one, you have to think about it, make some choices.”
Occasional commissions elicit some kind of talisman from a drawer, an object that evokes a loved one, and a nudge that it should be incorporated. “People tell you things,” says Riaf, adding that his job is then to come up with something nuanced that doesn’t hit over the head. A recent commission included themes like tennis, monopoly, fusion jazz and the New York Review of Books.
In his own words, the boxes “explore power and place, law and justice, the personal and interpersonal” all through “repurposed throw-away objects.”
Among the varied roles that he tries to make fit into one life, Riaf has written scripts for Gloucester-based documentarian Henry Ferrini and has been a visiting professor at Endicott College, where he taught law in literature and film. This past summer, Gloucester Stage Company produced a staged reading of My Station in Life, Riaf’s new one-man play, chronicling the last days of legendary Gloucester curmudgeon Simon Geller, the country’s last sole radio operator, who broadcast classical music for 20 years from his cramped apartment.
The attraction to Geller was his outsized influence on Gloucester, says Jeff Zinn, managing director at the Gloucester Stage Company, who directed Riaf’s play. “He was loved, hated, appreciated, under-appreciated. Most of all, he was noticed. And now artists are telling his story,” says Zinn.
Telling stories and making art is fun. But even for someone with a seemingly impressive bendability of time, Riaf says he can’t squeeze it in every day. “It’s like the fish, they’ve got tails and move around, so they won’t be in the same place tomorrow but you gotta have your gear in the water so at least you’ve got a chance,” he says. “I try to have things set up so I’m in a position to work when the time allows. Fishing, art, law—they sound like distant and distinct pursuits and they are, but they all require degrees of presence, attention, and effort. You come away from each with an appreciation of the vastness of time and space, the beauty of nature and the mystery of human endeavor.”