Installing The Art of Seeing Whales

Entry begun as plane takes off from Philadelphia for Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky, Friday, July 4, 6:35 pm

[We were rocking pretty hard when as we landed through gusty winds on the Providence flight into Philadelphia. Though the sky here is now clear and blue with only a few light clouds, this plane was jerking hard from side to side before we got off the ground in Providence.  I know that wind is invisible, but I was surprised to find our takeoff more more jerky than trying to follow the Sirius.  This airplane feels like an Indy car on a dirt track.  I hope that big lumbering guy who squeezed into the cockpit knows what he is doing.]

Last Thursday morning, my feet more steady on the floor after a good night’s sleep, I got up to the Center Street Gallery of the Whaling Museum as soon as I could to see how the installation was going and make any final decisions. How great to be working with Christina, Melanie, Mike, Scott, Sarah, Jordan, and Juliette. This was the morning Melanie came in with the beautifully stenciled title of the show, and she and Scott and Sarah discussed exactly how high to put it over the 1617 Dutch painting and 2009 Chinese cut out that open the show. The font Christina chose is perfect: elegant yet easy to read. 

Exhibition title on opening wall

Exhibition title on opening wall

Mike’s idea of putting the Piercefield’s Women of New Bedford over the introductory wall panel has worked out equally well, though it is a little high and catches a bit of glare.

Melanie Correia with introductory panel and The Women of New Bedford

Melanie Correia with introductory panel and The Women of New Bedford

Several sections of the show were looking good but needed adjustments to make the most of them. The first narrative section, following the rhythm of a typical whaling voyage out of a harbor, into the sea, and back again in its aftermath (subtitled “The Perils in Between”) had one work too many for the available space.  So Christina had reluctantly removed the despondent depiction of a truncated Nantucket sleigh ride, a decision with which I entirely agreed. We would now remove that entry from the text we had drafted for the wall panel. J. S. Ryder’s A Perilous Ride would have to wait for some future ehxibition.

Getting "The Perils in Between" on the wall

Getting “The Perils in Between” on the wall

The next section, subtitled “Cutting the Whale,” was being beautifully hung, all six works popping off the wall and off each other in just the way I hoped they would.  The visceral force the Kish and Christodoulou Ahabs relate equally well to the historical portrait of Captain Francis F. Smith, and the inset scene of the cuttnig-in in his portrait relates extremely well to three more modern cutting-in depictions.

Squaring up the Cutting-In Section

Squaring up the Cutting-In Section

Back in the far corner, Zellig’s Will he Perish? was far from the Dutch and Chinese works at the other end of the gallery, but that made her large whale’s eye staring right back at the viewer even more dramatic and effective. I had not planned it that way, but seeing the eye of the whale right next to our three “Mother and Infant” works is also very powerful. When I first saw the “Mother and Infant” hang I had wondered if Klauba’s The Pod could go above, rather than below, the drawing of the mother and infant right whale from Western Australia (because the Klauba is relatively dark and could be more clearly seen in the higher, brighter light). We tried this change, but the installers felt to it disturbed the balance of the three works in relation to each other, so we returned the Klauba to its original spot.

Mother and Infant section next to Zellig's eye

Mother and Infant section next to Zellig’s eye

            The duo of Celia Smith’s Moby-Dick and The Great Hunter by Nanogak, Kaodloak, and Kanayok in the back at the far left was even better than I had imagined.

The Great Hunter by Nanogak, Kaodloak, and Kanoyok above Mary Smith's Moby-Dick

The Great Hunter by Nanogak, Kaodloak, and Kanoyok above Mary Smith’s Moby-Dick

When I had come in on the day before I took the ferry to Oak Bluff, we had been trying to decide which of the old 17th-century maps depicting whales as monsters would look best in one of the niches next to a window. But that was when Christina had mentioned that the absence of Callahan’s charcoal drawing of the Skin’s Path had been an oversight, not a curatorial decision. We decided that if we did use the Callahan, it would occupy that space very well on its own, which certainly turned out to be the case. After the decision to include it, I wrote a wall label for it under the heading “Seeing the Whale Up Close.”

Aileen Callahan, Skin's Path, charcoal on paper, Elizabeth Schultz Collection, New Bedford Whaling Museum

Aileen Callahan, Skin’s Path, charcoal on paper, Elizabeth Schultz Collection, New Bedford Whaling Museum

The one decision about the next wall between the windows, “Seeing Whales as Inspiration,” was whether to include three or four works. The four we had selected worked well together thematically but they were a little too crowded for this vertical slice of a wall. We reluctantly took out Christodoulou’s Whiteness of the Whale III, creating a lyrical top-down progression from Ellis’s sketch for the White Whale mural, to Piercefield’s From the Headwaters of the Eternities, to Hodgkinson’s Squeeze of the Hand.  All three works remind us of the whale’s ancient history long before humans existed, flourishing in an ecological system from which human mammals have much to learn, and even revere.

 

Top down from Ellis to Piercefield to Hodgkinson

Top down from Ellis to Piercefield, to Hodgkinson

With the major decisions now having been made about the works on the wall, Melanie could now produce the wall texts while Mike was finalizing what went best in the back-to-back eight-foot-long display cases. Everything he had in each of the cases looked very good to me–a constellation of objects from four centuries and four continents in one lovely juxtaposition after another. But Mike is a perfectionist, and this was his final shot at critiquing and tweaking his display.

Mike Dyer contemplating one of two display cases

Mike Dyer contemplating one of two display cases

Mike is a master of mounts and of placement as well as of pictorial content.  I loved watching him raise one piece a little and lower another, move one of them forward and another a little back.  Some of these works now had their “tombstone” labels to help me know what they were,  He asked if I would like to see anything added to either case–which would require removing something already there.  Out of everything currently in the cases, he said one he could most easily spare was the powerful image by Rockwell Kent to which he had opened one volume of the three-volume set published in 1930.

One of the treasures in one of the glass cases

One of the treasures in one of the glass cases

Kish's Fleece and Daggoo in one of the cases

Kish’s Fleece and Daggoo in one of the cases

When Mike asked if we had something worthy of replacing the Rockwell Kent, I immediately thought of the twelve new Matt Kish drawings of the crew of the Pequod I had brought with me from northern Kentucky on Monday (the Melville Society Archive acquisitions for 2014). I brought out the handy little album book in which Kish had presented them.  I slowly paged through one after another so Mike and I could see which, if any, would be suitable additions to the current contents of the case. As soon as we got to Fleece, in which the cook of the Pequod, presents the “whale as a dish” requested by Stubb on a platter, Mike knew it belonged in the case. As we looked through the other drawings, we gravitated to Tashtego, for the contrast of his bright orange color, and Daggoo, for the harmony of its black and blue coloring with that of Fleece. Fleece’s whale and Daggoo’s blood red harpoon spoke well to the spirit and content of the rest of the show, on the walls as well as in the case, and the two fit together perfectly in the space vacated by the Kent. Both visually and symbolically, the two brand new Kishes “nailed” the two display cases in the best possible way. 

The next time I walked up Center Street to the high brick wall of the Museum, I would know that the exhibition up inside those upper windows would be nearly complete..

Outside wall of the Center Street Gallery of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Outside wall of the Center Street Gallery of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

I was happy to have gotten a photo of the trio who had done most of the heavy lifting, Melanie Correia, Scott Benson, and Sarah Kendall. 

Melanie Correa, Scott Benson, and Sarah Kendall after they had gotten most of the works up on the wall

Melanie Correia, Scott Benson, and Sarah Kendall after they had gotten most of the works up on the wall

[As I am completing the draft of this entry in my journal, our plane from Philadelphia is taxiing into the Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky airport exactly 22 hours later than I was scheduled to arrive from Charlotte the niight before.  I will discuss some of the circumstances surrounding the cancellation of the flight that would have brought through Charlotte in part 6 of this blog.]

 

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Bubbles at the Bow

Entry begun at Comfort Inn, Providence, Rhode Island, Friday, July 4, 7:15 pm

Evanescent bubbles, taut lines, wires, and chains

Evanescent bubbles, taut lines, wires, and chains

After I came up from the hold, and watched another tacking maneuver, we got word that Voyagers who wished to could take turns leaning over the bow to watch our ship cut through the water.  Actually, they advised us to kneel, not lean.  This was a mesmerizing experience I tried to catch with my iPhone and GoPro, but I also took Sean’s advice and made sure I gave plenty of direct attention to simply being present and fully engaged. Those two taut wires running out along the bowsprit above the two chains below them took on a new meaning when Joee Patterson, one of the female crew members, interrupted my reverie by walking out on the wire to make some adjustments to the sheets of the headsails..

Dana begins her high-wire act

Joee begins her high-wire act

This was one of many fleeting moments that passed during the day in a way that is impossible to recreate at the airport now a week after the fact, but whose residue still remains clear and fresh even before I get home to consult the three kinds of images I took on the trip in hopes of enriching this journal as I enter it into the blog: digital camera, iPhone, and GoPro.  Now that I am home, you can see Joee walking out on that one bare wire above the sea, tugging on two of the lines she will deploy in new positions, an act she executes with the grace of a ballet dancer and the fearlessness of a sherpa.  I was fortunate to catch her coming and going with my GoPro running, and have posted the live footage on YouTube..

Dana having a full-body experience

Joee having a full-body experience

 

Tossing the message in the bottle

Tossing the message in the bottle

Bubbles at the bow naturally evoke the message in the bottle that Sean Bercaw tossed from the Morgan. I think it was in the morning, soon after giving us safety instructions, that he first showed us the bottle with the message within. At some time in the afternoon he thought the timing was right to toss it over the side. I happened to have my GoPro handy and tried to catch it on the fly before it splashed into the sea. I’ll see when I get home if I caught the toss. A little later I asked Sean what message he had put in this one. In addition to the basics (a note identifying the ship, the time, and the place), he had also included that beautiful little letterpress sheet from Mystic’s nineteenth-century print shop, so that anyone who finds the bottle can have an appropriate sense of the uniqueness of the voyage.

Bubbles from the bottle

Bubbles from the bottle

 Having known Mike Dyer so well as head of the Research Library at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, it was a special treat to sail with him. He has a quirky sense of humor at times. For some reason he thought it was really funny when I came up on deck after breakfast, saw a container of lemonade next to the coffee Juls would be supplying all day, and blurted out, “Great. We’ll have lemonade all day.” Mike and I had many opportunities to chat during the voyage, but given how bookish we both can sometimes be, I am glad that we can both now say with Ishmael, together, “I have swam through libraries and sailed through oceans” (“Cetology”).

Peter Whittemore being interviewed by stowaway Ryan Leighton

Peter Whittemore being interviewed by stowaway Ryan Leighton

Peter Gansevoort Whittemore and I usually see each other about once a year, at the annual Moby-Dick Marathon at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in early January, when he is often a featured reader because of his impeccable genetic heritage. He had chosen not to come to the Marathon this year, not wanting to put every reporter again in the position of having to ask him the same obligatory questions, so it was a double pleasure to see him on this voyage. I enjoyed getting caught up with the recent history of the Gansevoort and Melville clans. Most of all, I loved being able to share this experience with one of the persons in the world most equipped to savor it. In the photo posted here, Peter is being interviewed by Ryan Leighton, the official “stowaway” of the voyage.  Peter’s column expressing what this voyage means to him (“Melville’s Spirit Calls as the Morgan Sails”) appeared in the New Bedford Standard-Times yesterday, July 3, the day I drove to the Providence airport in which I am again sitting today, writing this entry as I await a plane, this time to Philadelphia, not Charlotte, on the way to Cincinnati.

Vanessa Hodgkinson descending from mainmast rigging

Vanessa Hodgkinson descending from mainmast rigging

One might have thought that Vanessa, Lesley, and I would have seen each other quite often during the voyage itself after the good time we had together the day before on Martha’s Vineyard. But this happened less than I expected. We were each necessarily somewhat self-absorbed in trying to achieve the goals we had set for each of our projects. Once the ship was under way, there were endless things to experience and try to understand about the ship itself and those who ran it. What I remember most about Lesley during the voyage is how eager she was to climb the rigging a second time after the exhilaration of her first ascent. I had hoped to go up the rigging on one mast while Vanessa was ascending that of another, so we could pantomime one of the masthead arias that Queequeg and Greenhorn sing in Heggie and Scheer’s Moby-Dick opera. But I’d gotten the call to climb the foremast rigging so quickly that I did not have time to see where she was. When I got back down from the foremast, I saw that she was herself descending the mainmast. We had been up at the same time without realizing it.

(I have just now arrived at the departure gate here at Providence for Philadelphia, when the gate attendant has announced that one of the crew members is not yet here but rather on a flight to Providence from Washington, DC, which will delay our departure for one hour only. I found when I got to the USAirways arrival counter why I could not get my boarding passes online after filling out all requirements this morning—the connecting flight from Philadelphia to Cincinnati had been postponed for one hour, then for an hour and fifty minutes, and now for two hours, the good news there being that the one-hour delay into Philadelphia will not not affect my connection to Cincinnati, if indeed I am going to have one.)

Matthew Bullard standing next to Steve White on morning of the sail

Matthew Bullard and Steve White standing on shore before the Morgan on the morning of the sail

Among my fellow Voyagers I was particularly drawn to Matthew Bullard, in part for his receptivity and innate stature as a person, but also because of his decision to leave a fine ancestral background in New Bedford to start a new life out west—the opposite of what I had done in leaving my Puget Sound roots to go to graduate school in New York and then spending the next forty-two years of my life, so far, in northern Kentucky. Matthew’s interest in sustainable energy on both the east and the west coasts would seem to be sustainable for him as both a young professional and as a father, so I am very interested in seeing how his career, and his western quest, will develop.  He is one of several fellow Voyagers who had shared some of my fears about sleeping in the forecastle (especially since he is 6’ 4”), but, like me, did not do that sharing until the ship was under way the next day.

Cassie with her gear

Cassie with her gear

Among the crew members I got to know, either by observation or in person, I’ve already mentioned Jens, Skip, Bill, Sean, Sam, Kip, Rocky, Foreteck, Ryan, Joee, Jen, Cassie, Dana, and Mary K.  Cassie Sleeper, the deckhand who first let us loose from the Sirius, is a Californian who has been sailing tall ships for at least nine years. She has a handy little marlin spike in her tool holster than not everyone has. Her boyfriend travels on his job too, which makes for nice reunions when they are off at the same time. Jen Dexter, like Foreteck, is a formidable force in hauling sails. When we had a chance to chat, I asked if some voyages are better than others and how this one on the Morgan stacked up. The worst ship she had every sailed on was one on which half of the crew were having sexual affairs, always hard for morale, and especially so considering the lack of privacy on board and the brazenness with which some shipmates carried on their intimate relations.

The randomness of conversations you have on a ship is one of the great pleasures. I had very much enjoyed getting to know my mother-rescuing seatmate on the flight from Philadelphia to Providence, but our proximity was possible only because we had been assigned adjacent seats (and neither of us had a chance to speak with anyone else during the duration of that flight). On the Morgan you might find yourself speaking with anyone at any time, depending on what happens to be going on and who happens to be nearby. Some of those conversations are as random and evanescent as the bubbles bursting from either side of the Morgan’s bow as it cuts through the water, each bubble soon to collapse its shape and release its little capsule of oxygen into the sustaining, all-engulfing sea.  “Healed of my hurt,” Melville wrote in “Pebbles,”: a late poem, “I laud the inhuman Sea.”

A few more bubbles and more bright light below the lines, the wires, and the chains

A few more bubbles and more bright light below the lines, wires, and chains