The Art of Seeing Whales

Entry begun on Saturday, June 21, 5:55 am

Crew hoists sails in June 11 trial run, Stephen Dunn, Hartford Courant

Crew hoists sails in June 11 trial run, Stephen Dunn, Hartford Courant

While I have been getting my affairs in order here at home, the 38th Voyage of the Charles W. Morgan has gotten under way. The Morgan sailed out of New London last Sunday, June 15, one day later than scheduled because of rough water. The photographs are absolutely thrilling, and the twelve-hour transit from City Pier in New London to Fort Adams State Park in Newport, Rhode Island, went without a hitch (except for a sail boat race in Newport that caused the whale ship to cool its heels for half an hour before its first landing). After being towed from its berth in New London by the tugboat Sirius, the Morgan had plenty of opportunity to sail under its own wind power, to the apparent satisfaction of all.

“You can just feel that she is happy and she wants to go and wants to sail again,” deckhand Aaron Gralnik told reporter Johanna Somers of the New London Day. Mystic Seaport historian Glenn Gardinier “was captivated by the way the Morgan took the swell of the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in more than 90 years.” He also “spent time admiring how the shadows on the floors and walls of the ‘blubber room’ rocked back and forth as the Morgan swayed in the sea.” My favorite quote in the account by Somers is this one from Alan Schaeffer, a crew member from Mystic: “Remember, no one who is alive has sailed a ship like this until last week.” How sweet to see the Morgan easing in toward her berth in Newport.

Charles W. Morgan arriving at Newort, June 15.  Sephen Dunn, Hartford Courant

Charles W. Morgan arriving at Newport, June 15. Sephen Dunn, Hartford Courant

Beyond the challenge and thrill of preparing for my own voyage, I had the pleasure of working this week with Christina Connett and Mike Dyer of the New Bedford Whaling Museum to finalize the object list and draft the wall texts for the exhibition we are calling The Art of Seeing Whales. The museum staff will be installing the show on the day I am scheduled to sail into New Bedford on the Morgan, so we had to make all of the major decisions by this weekend. It is a wonderful challenge, and opportunity, to be integrating works from our Melville Society Archive with those of the New Bedford Whaling Museum and its recently acquired Elizabeth Schultz Collection. This enables us to illustrate the human process of “Seeing Whales Across Space and Time”—in the words of our opening section as currently conceived. Mike had the brilliant idea of juxtaposing an iconic Dutch painting by Esais van de Velde (Whale Stranding, 1617) with a newly acquired Chinese paper cut-out by Qiao Xiaoguang (The Story of Moby-Dick, 2010).

Esaias van de Velde, Whale Stranding, 1617, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Esaias van de Velde, Whale Stranding, 1617, New Bedford Whaling Museum

 

Qiao Xiaoguang, The Story of Moby-Dick, 2010, Schultz Collection, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Qiao Xiaoguang, The Story of Moby-Dick, 2010, Schultz Collection, New Bedford Whaling Museum

William Bradford, Clark's Point Lighthouse, Ne3w Bedford, New Bedford Whaling Museum

William Bradford, Clark’s Point Lighthouse, New Bedford, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Our next grouping, “Seeing the Whale: The Perils in Between,” evokes the course of a voyage through images of the departure from the home port, the action at sea, and the human aftermath. William Bradford’s Clark’s Point Light, New Bedford, could be any whale ship heading out in hope of a prosperous voyage. Peter Martin’s Melville the Man #1 (2013) imagines the author of Moby-Dick returning to New Bedford late in life and remembering the book about the White Whale he had written forty years later.

Peter Martin, Melville the Man # 1, 2013, Melville Society Archive

Peter Martin, Melville the Man # 1, 2013, Melville Society Archive

Our next grouping, “Seeing the Whale: Cutting In,” includes Isaac Sheffield’s Portrait of Captain Franklin F. Smith (posted earlier in “Stowing Down and Scanning the Horizon”) and Mark Milloff’s Stripping the Whale (posted under “Shawn, Vali, and Alison”). It will also include Matt Kish’s original drawing of the cutting-in scene he reproduced as page 295 of Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page (2010).

Matt Kish, drawing for pate 295 of Moby-Dick in Pictures, 2010, Melville Society Archives

Matt Kish, drawing for pate 295 of Moby-Dick in Pictures, 2010, Melville Society Archives

Our next grouping, “Seeing the Whale: Mother and Infant,” is inspired by the moment in Moby-Dick in which Ishmael, amidst the carnage of the “Grand Armada” chapter, looks deep into the water and sees mother and infant whales absorbed in their life-sustaining activity. George Klauba’s The Pod in one of several surprising images with which we will illustrate this theme.

George Klauba, The Pod, 2005, New Bedford Whaling Musewum

George Klauba, The Pod, 2005, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Our next two groupings will juxtapose images of whales as “Monster and Myth” with those of a more “Holistic Harmony.” One of the latter, entirely new to me, is The Great Hunter by the Inuit artists Nanogak, Kaodloak, and Kanayok.

Nanogak, Kaodloak, and Kanayok, The Great Hunter, 1995, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Nanogak, Kaodloak, and Kanayok, The Great Hunter, 1995, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Our last grouping, “Whales as Inspiration,” brings together several works which invite the viewer to “Model thyself after the whale!” (in Ishmael’s words from the “Blanket” chapter). Vanessa Hodgkinson’s Squeeze of the Hand (posted earlier in “A Little Lower Layer’) is one of these. So is Kathleen Piercefield’s From the Headwaters of the Eternities, inspired by Ishmael’s observation in chapter 105 of Moby-Dick that whales were swimming through the world’s waters long before humans existed.

Kathleen Piercefield, From the Haert of the Eternities, 2004, Schultz Collection, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Kathleen Piercefield, From the Headwaters of the Eternities, 2004, Schultz Collection, New Bedford Whaling Museum

It is a great pleasure to envision such a collection of images coming together. It will be even more wonderful to see them on the walls. I will meet with Christina and her assistant Melanie Correia next Monday afternoon in the gallery after flying from Cincinnati to Providence via Philadelphia and driving a rental car to New Bedford. With our proposed works actually in the space, we will see how everything fits and make any necessary adjustments. The next day I will be off on my whale ship adventure while they are beginning to install the show—in addition to everything else they and the entire town are doing to prepare for the arrival of the Charles W. Morgan.

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