Opening The Art of Seeing Whales

.Entry begun on Tuesday, July 24, at 5 am

It’s 5 am and I’ve been awake since 4, so I may as well begin this entry. I came home from the trip with sinus congestion, and the sulfa drug my doctor gave me was not able to eliminate it, so I went on an antibiotic yesterday.

The opening reception for The Art of Seeing Whales was scheduled from 6 to 8 on the evening of Tuesday, July 1. After people gathered for drinks and light appetizers near the whale skeletons hanging high above the Jacobs Family Gallery, I gave a gallery talk in the exhibition space. We had an excellent crowd that was very attentive, and it was a pleasure to discuss these works in such a beautifully installed gallery. This was the first time I had been wired for two different audio-video recordings while giving a talk. One camera was from the local public access television station. The other was with David Shaerf, a professor from Oakland University near Detroit, whom I had previously met at a Moby-Dick Marathon when be was beginning a project of documenting the influence of Moby-Dick on contemporary culture. On this visit to New Bedford he had arranged to do interviews with a number of my MSCP colleagues. In the Midwest he had already scheduled interviews with Matt Kish in Dayton, Ohio, and Beth Schultz in Lawrence, Kansas.

Still from David Shaerf's video of gallery talk

Still from David Shaerf’s video of gallery talk

Because I had been very busy immediately before and after the voyage on the Morgan, I did not have a prepared text for this gallery talk. And, in general, when giving a gallery talk or an illustrated lecture with images, I prefer to speak from the images themselves rather than from a text I have written earlier. I did write out some notes for the talk on the front and back of a page of my legal pad, including the names of the three Inuit artists that I wanted to say correctly. In addition to highlighting the exhibition itself, I had decided to begin with a brief summary of the MSCP in New Bedford, beginning with the first visit Beth Schultz and I made in the summer of 1998. This provided a context for integrating the Schultz and Archive artworks along with those from the Museum’s historical collection. It also allowed me to address the current cultural moment in New Bedford in the context of our twice-annual visits during the last fifteen years. At one point I found myself saying that this was one of the happiest days of my life—speaking at this exhibition, in this gallery, in this Whaling Museum, a few days after having sailed into New Bedford on the Charles W. Morgan.   This is probably not something I would have said if I had written out a prepared speech.

Still from David Scaerf’s video during the gallery talk

Still from David Shaerf’s video during the gallery talk

Christina had suggested that I give the talk standing on the steps in the corner of the room housing the Holistic Harmony and Infant and Child sections. That would allow the audience to see me–and me to see more of the audience and exhibition–as I spoke. Nathaniel Philbrick, by quoting the passage about the “women of New Bedford” in his keynote address on Saturday, gave me a perfect segue into the introductory panel for the show with Piercefield’s Women of New Bedford directly above it. Even in this crowded room, the audience could easily see the contrast between Van de Velde’s 1617 Dutch oil painting and Xiaoguang Qiao’s 2009 paper cut out inside the entry of the show, in themselves a world of difference in how the whale has been perceived, and represented, across space and time.

Still from David Scaerf’s video during the gallery talk

Still from David Shaerf’s video during the gallery talk

One of the biggest questions about curating this show was how well it would work, visually and imaginatively, to mix historical paintings from the Whaling Museum with the work of contemporary Moby-Dick artists form the Schultz and Archive collections. I was delighted in the way this had worked out on the long wall on which Christina and her staff had installed the lives of the whalers in “The Perils in Between” followed by the fate of the whale in “Cutting the Whale.”  The visual rhythm between the grand historical portraits in oil on canvas in ornate frames and the contemporary works in mixed media on paper was fresh and illuminating. The installation flowed together in one continuous run from the Bradford history painting of a whale ship setting out, through the red velvet portrait of Captain Francis F. Smith processing the whale, to Milloff’s and Kish’s contemporary take on the cutting-in.

Jim Campomar looking in display case with "Cutting-In" section behind him

Jim Campomar looking in display case with “Cutting-In” section behind him

At the end of the room from which I was speaking, Zellig’s large drawing of the whale’s eye (Will He Perish?) held the attention as fully as it had when my students and I first saw it at the student exhibition in Rockford, Illinois, in 1997. The “Mother and Infant” section, augmented by the mother and infant whales in Piercefield’s Women of New Bedford, spoke strongly to our relation with whales as fellow mammals that had been one of the recurrent themes of the papers delivered at the Sympoisum. Lee Heald, the program officer of the Whaling Museum who had so strongly encouraged the early collaborative projects that resulted in the MSCP, attended the opening. After my talk she told me something I had not known about the portrait of Louisa Seabury Cushman and her child. The mother in the portrait is wearing tokens of mourning, suggesting that this painting may have been a memento mori after the child had died, which would explain some of the special emotion it carries. Peggi Medieros had mentioned Louisa Seabury Cushman in one of her essays in the special issue of the Standard-Times, noting that all three of her children had died as infants, leaving her and her whaling-captain husband childless.

The eye of Zellig’s whale drawing audience in still from Shaerf’s video

Eyes of the audience drawn to the eye of Zellig’s whale in still from Shaerf’s video

After speaking about the “Cutting the Whale” and the “Mother and Infant” sections, pivoting on Klauba’s painting of the nursing whales deep in the water under the carnage, it was somewhat of a relief to move on to the positive celebration of whales—and our relation to them—in Celia Smith’s Moby-Dick; in The Great Hunter by Nanogak, Kaodloak, and Kanayok; and in contemporary works by Aileen Callahan, Richard Ellis, Kathleen Piercefield, and Vanessa Hodgkinson. I had spoken somewhat longer than I had planned, but there were still many questions and much discussion after the talk was over.

Images of the whale by Ellis, Piercefield, Hodgkinson, and Callahan

Images of the whale by Ellis, Piercefield, Hodgkinson, and Callahan

Among those who had driven down for show today was a film producer from OceansLIVE in Provincetown, She liked how the subject of this show meshed with the video production that they would soon be making when the Morgan was scheduled to sail out among the whales at Stellwagen Bank off of Cape Cod. Jeff Levine, a collector of Moby-Dick art from Worcester, also drove down for the opening.  He came because of his interest in the subject, but also because he has a rich trove of rare materials pertaining to the Huston-Bradbury collaboration on the 1956 film that Jim Campomar from Argentina was very eager to see. They made arrangements for Jim to see the collection in which, among other things, he was thrilled to see unpublished original drawings that Huston and Bradbury each had made of the White Whale.

Jeff Levine (left) and Jim Campomar speaking with Wyn Keley in still from Shaerf viseo

Jeff Levine (left) and Jim Campomar speaking with Wyn Kelley in still from Shaerf viseo

The rest of the week passed quickly, as the Symposium continued up until I returned my rental car to the Providence airport. I was delighted when Molly Herron, one of the four composers in their early thirties who had premiered a Moby-Dick Oratorio in Brooklyn in February, arrived in time for the Symposium session that I chaired on Wednesday afternoon. I had suggested that the arrival of the Morgan with all its concomitant activities, in addition to seeing the Whaling Museum itself, might be of great interest to her as a reader and composer deeply interested in Moby-Dick, and she had found time to schedule a visit. Shortly before arriving, she had sent me a link with not only the CD but a video recording, the libretto, and the score of the premiere performance in February. I am hoping that future performances of that work might be arranged in New Bedford, and also as part of the programming surrounding the production of Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick in Cincinnati in 2016. I was glad to get a photo of Molly standing beneath the Whaling Museum’s skeletons of the female right whale and its fetus that had been preserved from the remains of a deadly ship strike in the Atlantic Ocean several years ago.

Composer Molly Herron under skeleton of right whale and fetus in Jacobs Family Gallery

Composer Molly Herron under skeleton of right whale and fetus in Jacobs Family Gallery

Before leaving town for the Providence airport, I got a chance to go to Crowell’s Gallery and see the new works that Vanessa Hodgkinson had painted in New Bedford between the arrival of our ship on Wednesday and her flight from Logan Airport on Sunday. Six works hung together on a single wall. The seventh was on an adjacent wall. The sunset (or sunrise) watercolor with the white whale beneath the water (Mocha Dick) was one of my favorites because of the Turnersque rendering of the seascape. I love her image with the whales filling the sails of the ship at the top center below (Catch of the Morgan, reproduced in my “Out of the Cradle” section) because of its ambiguity: the cetacean cargo can either be whales that have been captured or whales that have captured the ship. In other words, you could see them as fast-fish or as loose-fish.

Six new works by Vanessa Hodgkinson at Crowell’s Gallery, July 3, 2014

Six new works by Vanessa Hodgkinson at Crowell’s Gallery, July 3, 2014

The one painting on the adjacent wall had no similar ambiguity. Vanessa had filled its sea with reproductions of an image that nineteenth-whalers used in their log books for whales that had been seen and chased but not captured. These were all loose fish.  This is confirmed by the title of the work, Those Who Got Away II (which I learned three weeks after visiting the gallery).  Its companion piece, Those Who Got Away I, is just as beautifully rendered, and satisfying to the imagination.  All seven of the new works are in watercolor and ink on paper

The seventh new Hodgkinson work at Crowell’s Gallery

Vanesa Hodgkinson, Those Who Got Away II, 2014



Vanessa Hodgkinson, Those Who Got Away I, 2014

Vanessa Hodgkinson, Those Who Got Away I, 2014










On the way from Crowell’s Gallery to my rental car, I took my GoPro camera to The Art of Seeing Whales exhibition to see if I could capture good images of the works in the show without too much distortion from its fish-eye lens. I never really found out. After methodically going going hrough each section of the show, and uploading the file back home to see what I had, I found that the GoPro, like the iPhone, has a function that allows you to make the equivalent of a “selfie.” Instead of a filming a leisurely survey of every nuance of the show, I had accidentally filmed a close-up fish-eye of myself as I thought I was filming the show. I will have to try this again when I return to the Moby-Dick Marathon in January, after which the exhibition is scheduled to close, and be more careful of my settings. The image below gives a pretty good view of the part of the show that was behind me, but it’s not what I had in mind.

Unintentional “selfie” from the GoPro video in which I thought I was filming the show

Unintentional “selfie” from the GoPro video in which I thought I was filming the show

That last visit to the gallery, however, was not entirely lost. A grandmother had come into the gallery with her grandson (who you can see in the accidental selfie immediately above). Upon entering the room, he had paid close attention to the image of the cutting-in scene just inside the door. Then, at the other end of the room, he had literally embraced Klauba’s The Pod. The boy’s eyes were right up next to the image and his hands flat against the wall on either side. I asked his grandmother if I could ask him what he saw in the painting, and she encouraged me to do so. He said he did not want to talk much about the stuff up at the top “where they are hurting the whales,” but he loved the images of the mother and baby whales in the water below. We had hung this painting a little lower than I might have ideally liked, but it was just the right height for the heart of a six-year-old boy.

Klauba’s The Pod in the “Mother and Infant” section

Klauba’s The Pod in the “Mother and Infant” section


One thought on “Opening The Art of Seeing Whales

  1. Loved revisiting the exhibition Bob – really enjoying your blogs. You have written an impressive amount too. I have temporarily stopped mine as have been writing two print articles which have more pressing deadlines!

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