Objektet och Museet: Restoring a Past, Charting a Future

In May, I was in my hometown of Mystic, Connecticut to do research on a large family clothing collection. My mother was an excellent data collector, textile expert and general company when she wasn’t engaged in her work on another huge preservation project: Mystic Seaport Museum is in the process of restoring the Charles W. Morgan, “the last surviving wooden whaling ship from the days of sail”, with the aim of sailing her in 2014.

"Fall in the H.B. duPont Preservation Shipyard" by illustrator and textile designer April Kelly for "Restoring a Past", 2012. Copyright April Kelly, 2012.

This restoration is fascinating from a material culture perspective, generating discussions about authenticity (by the end of the project, 15-18% of the original ship will remain), use of collections (should historic ships be sailed, kept in the water, kept in climate-controlled spaces?), and the responsibilities of the “last” or “only” of a certain type of object.

It has also inspired many other exciting projects, including a somewhat accidental collaboration with Dalvero Academy, a private art school in Brooklyn, New York. The artistic work that emerged from the partnership is on show at Mystic Seaport, in an exhibition called, “Restoring a Past – Charting a Future”.

Gallery view of the exhibition, held in the Stillman Building at Mystic Seaport. Photo: Susan Funk.

What I found so engaging about this exhibition is two-fold: first, that the work essentially revolves around or can be tied back to one object in the museum’s collections. Second, that the object chosen is legendary, storied, and has been interpreted and reinterpreted by museum staff throughout the past seventy years. This exhibition seems to slide the ship out from between the bookends of maritime glory and the contested history of American whaling and examines the academic narrative in a highly visual way. Taking a different tack, in maritime terms.

"Clothing of the nineteenth century" and other work by Jennifer Kiamzon, 2012. Photo: Susan Funk.

More than one artist connected with the textile and sartorial aspects of whaling, seafaring, and the nineteenth century, showing fine line drawings of corseted silhouettes from the 1870s and works in embroidery. But I was most interested in the work of Rosa Lee, who found a multitude of “red threads” (as they say here in Sweden) between whaling, clothing, textile production, Connecticut mills, Melville, and more. I spoke with her about her work at the opening, and later I was able to ask her a few questions about her work on this show.

"Sewing straight lines for sails led to the invention of the sewing machine". Illustration of Mystic Seaport's Demonstration Squad working in the rigging, as well as sailmakers at work in the Sail Loft. Copyright Rosa Lee 2012.

Arianna Funk (AF): The Dalvero Academy values field visits and conducts them around the world. Can you speak about your experience at Mystic Seaport Museum?

Rosa Lee (RL): I’ve traveled to many places with the Dalvero Academy to reportage under many conditions. We’ve been to Paris to draw in the front lines of the Tour de France crowds and trained at Disney World drawing under the beating hot sun, humidity and hurricane storms. Recently we’ve been to Washington D.C., Seattle and San Francisco California. The school’s name, Dalvero Academy, is derived from the Italian word “dal vero” – from the truth or direct observation, and “academy”- an institution of higher learning, research, or honorary membership. The philosophy of the school is based on these ideas, to make art in any medium we choose, with a basis in reportage, to draw from observation, literally or figuratively on location and research.

On the first trip to Mystic Seaport Museum in January 2009 we didn’t know what to expect. There was a snowstorm in the weather forecast for that weekend and we were hoping for that. Our teachers, Veronica Lawlor and Margaret Hurst, took us there with the intention of documenting the restoration of the last wooden whaling ship in the world, Charles W. Morgan, through drawing and the assignment to create a Cinderella stamp for it. Armed with our drawing pads, and tools, we entered the museum and New England January cold to discover the Morgan and Mystic Seaport Museum to be as incredible as we had imagined. The history, information, and knowledge of the staff were inspiring.

As you can imagine, we were the only visitors at the museum on that cold day and a very conspicuous group. The staff couldn’t help but notice this strange group of people drawing in the cold around the grounds of the museum. Finally, on a coffee break at the bakery to warm up, one of the artists and our teachers were approached by Quentin Snedeker, director of the Morgan restoration. From that meeting the seeds for the show were planted. Mystic Seaport Museum has been extremely helpful, welcoming, and accommodating to the needs of twenty-four artists and over two hundred pieces of art to exhibit.

AF: What drew you to clothing/dress/apparel and its relationship to the Morgan, whaling, and the sea? Do you work often with sartorial themes, or was it unique to this project?

RL: I grew up in the sweatshops of Chinatown New York City where my mother used to work. I remember the buzz and hum of Singer sewing machines, the hiss of the steam presses as they removed wrinkles from garments, the blaring music or stories being told from the radio, the men and women chatting as they worked. I’ve always had an interest in fashion and apparel probably due to my childhood experiences, but this is the first time I created a piece of art using a sartorial theme. It’s given me a vehicle to make more art using what I’ve learned and created for the Mystic show.

As I drew and researched the Morgan I found that Charles W. Morgan owned 1/10 of Pocasset Cotton Mill in Fall River Massachusetts. The profits from his whaling ventures were reinvested into his other businesses, such as the cotton mill. With this little piece of information and the looms I discovered in another exhibit at Mystic Seaport Museum I started to make the connections from the Morgan, textiles/garment/weaving, industry, to my own history and interests.

"Weaving timbers to make a whaling ship", drawing by Rosa Lee, 2012. Copyright Rosa Lee, 2012.

AF: The use of baleen to make boning for corsets and other clothing objects is probably the most well-known connection between whaling and clothing. In your research, you found many others; can you talk about themes you feel were important to convey?

RL: It’s interesting how interwoven the history, culture and industry of whaling is to the textile and garment industries and the development of the economic/industrial power of the United States as we know it today. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville writes of the “loom of time, weaving away at the fates” and the “warp of necessity.”  Melville also devoted an entire chapter of that book (XLVII, “The Mat-Maker”) to weaving as a metaphor for whaling. He writes about how everything is “Interweavingly working together” on a whaling ship.

Profits from whaling ventures were reinvested to shape early American textiles industry, giving birth to the successful “Spindle City” of Fall River, Massachusetts. The height of the textile and garment manufacture in New England coincides with the end of whaling, and even today these industries play an important role in developing the industrial and economic strength of a nation.

When whaling ships went out to sea, one of the most important things they would stock was cloth, because it was not only cheap to buy but also had an adaptable value and was easy to store in hot damp places for long periods of time. Cloth could be used to barter with native peoples of other lands for goods or services when they made stops along their journey, and also for trade among the crew. Sailors would purchase cloth from the captain if they need some to repair/make their clothes or to barter with. Cloth was also sometimes used to pay the sailors their salaries.

The origin of the sewing machine is connected to the need to sew long, straight lines on sails and whale oil was used to lubricate the parts. This machine later became an absolute necessity in the mass production of garments.

Corset created by Rosa Lee for "Restoring a Past", 2012. Work copyright Rosa Lee, photo: Susan Funk, 2012.

AF: You presented a corset, one of few three-dimensional objects. Can you explain its role in your work for this show?

RL: As you mentioned earlier, the corset is one of the most well-known objects made from the results of hunting whales. It became a natural conclusion to create a corset as an analogy for my thoughts and ideas about the history of this ship.

The muslin represents the canvas sails of a ship and the fringe the baleen of the whale. The boning is not only the supporting structure for the corset but also the fledgling American textile and garment industries. The cord represents the ship’s ropes and its economic ties with the textiles industry. Harpoons that pierce the lives of whales are printed on the cloth, which material is similar to many of the textiles made in New England during that time. The leather is the skin of the whale. Tails are stamped on the corset, similar to the stamps captains would use in their log books of caught or escaped whales. The garment was pieced together with a sewing machine, developed to sew straight lines for sails.

I wanted the corset to talk about the relationships and connections I discovered on my journey through whaling and the American textile and garment industries. The corset expresses the beauty and tragedy of the whaling experience.


The exhibition, “Restoring a Past – Charting a Future”, the collaboration between Dalvero Academy and Mystic Seaport Museum, is open now in Mystic, Connecticut, and will close in the Fall of 2013.

Rosa Lee’s work can be found on her Eye Imagine blog, her portfolio, and the 1104 Studio.

April Kelly’s work (first image) can be found on the Brass Ring Studio Blog and website.

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