Connected \\ April 9, 2021
Sea Shanties and the Environment: PEMcast episode 21, Part 2
We continue Episode 21 of the PEMcast with Part 2, an episode dedicated to PEM’s new Climate and Environment Initiative.
The episode features Mary Malloy, a classically trained musician and performer who taught American maritime history and culture at The Sea Semester program out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Malloy has spent her career looking at how historic sea voyages affected the islands of the South Pacific. A recent exhibition at PEM examines similar themes. Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks uses the shipwreck as a warning for our planet. We hear from Rockman who says we’re currently living inside one of his paintings with the COVID 19 pandemic.
Alexis Rockman, The Sinking of the Brig Helen, 2017. Oil on dibond. Courtesy of David Roth and Heifara Rutgers, New York.
The team interviews Alexis Rockman. Photo by Kristen Levesque
Photo by Dinah Cardin
Janey Winchell, Director of PEM’s Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center explains the museum’s mission for ecological justice as we take a walk on Salem’s Derby Wharf.
“There's both the environmental impact that people are concerned about, to places like Derby Wharf. And then there's the historic structures, of which Salem has a rich complement of historic properties,” says Winchell. “There's concern about what's going to happen to those places, with sea level rise and intensive storms.”
Speaking of storms, we take a few moments to remember the Perfect Storm that sank the Andera Gail, taking Gloucester fishermen with her, 30 years ago.
Photo by Dinah Cardin
Photo by Dinah Cardin
The episode then takes us through an exhibition coming this May to PEM, In American Waters. The exhibition explores how artists, for more than 200 years, have been inspired to capture the beauty, violence, poetry and transformative power of the sea in American life. Visitors will be transported across time and water on the wave of a diverse range of modern and historical artists including Georgia O’Keeffe, Kay WalkingStick, Jacob Lawrence and Amy Sherald. In the episode, our Maritime Curator, Dan Finamore, shares about the universal kinesthetic experience of the sea, shared by us all.
Kay WalkingStick, New Hampshire Coast, 2020. Oil on panel. Collection of the artist. ©Kay WalkingStick. Courtesy of the Artist. Photography by Rich Schultz.
Thanks for listening. Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks is on view through May 31. In American Waters begins May 29. For more on these exhibitions or to learn more about our climate and environment initiative, go to pem.org. This show was produced for the Peabody Essex Museum by me, Dinah Cardin, and it was edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. The PEMcast is generously supported by The George S. Parker fund. The waves you hear on this episode were recorded off the coast of Maine by sound designer and composer Marcus Thorne Bagalà.
In keeping with our themes of maritime and song, this summer look for a return visit from Scottish Turner prize winning performance artist Susan Philipsz. Some of you may remember her 2011 site specific sound performance in PEM’s East India Marine Hall, involving a beautiful woman, a handsome devil and a ship on a stormy sea.
© 2011 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver
Dinah: This is the second part of a two-part episode of the PEMcast. If you missed Part 1, go back and listen. It’s all about sea shanties and will have you singing along. In Part 1, master chantyman David Coffin and I stood over the stormy Atlantic in Gloucester, Massachusetts as he made a connection between sea shanties and renewable sources of energy.
David: There's a direct tie to alternative sources of energy ....Oil came from whales only at that point...should we be pulling all the oil out of the earth or you know, should we be thinking of other sources of energy. There are an infinite number of renewable sources out here and we should be tapping into those so there's a very close tie in.
Dinah: Welcome to the PEMcast, conversations and stories for the culturally curious. From the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, I’m Dinah Cardin. In this episode, we look at a story that has taken place outside our windows for hundreds of years. The connection between maritime life and the environment. Join us as we look at two maritime exhibitions at PEM and at the museum’s brand new climate and environment initiative. Let’s begin by going back to the 1980s when Mary Malloy, featured in Part 1 of this episode, was an educator at PEM, singing maritime music with fifth graders and adults alike.
Mary: I remember the moment that my life sort of turned a corner and that was very early in my job there and I was wandering around in the old East Hall up on the mezzanine and I just came face to face with this Haida mask, a fabulous mask of a woman's face. I'm from the northwest, I grew up in Spokane, and went to college in Seattle, and I was much influenced by northwest coast art. All my life I thought it just had a fabulous appeal to it. And it was the curious discovery of this thing in Salem that made me wonder, how did this thing from the northwest end up in Salem, Massachusetts, as early as 1822, which is when it was brought back and given to the museum.
Dinah: That curiosity has led Mary around the world. While sailing and teaching in the Pacific with the Sea Semester program out of Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Mary led the college students in sea shanties.
Mary: As I began to go to sea myself, I found more and more that I was interested in what had transpired in the waters where the ships were traveling, and especially as the program moved out to the South Pacific.
Dinah: Mary teamed up with an ocean scientist and a captain. They began looking at the impact historic sea voyages had on the cultures and ecosystems of these small islands.
Mary: And for the South Pacific, it was possible to really look at sustainability in a way that's difficult in our, you know, large, massive continental environment in which we live, so that you can take a small island, like Tahiti, for instance, and see how it went from a population of about 200,000 at the time, Captain Cook first arrived there in the late 18th century, and then crashed due to diseases and then grew again so that it’s now about the same population it was. But everything is changed about the distribution of where people live, what they grow. It went from being completely sustainable to not being sustainable now and dependent on imports, including food imports.
Dinah: Mary is writing a book. She’s using source materials in the Phillips Library at PEM. These include shipboard documents. Her book looks at things introduced to the islands by visiting sailors, things like disease. But also that which was extracted from the Pacific: Objects and artifacts, sandalwood, sea otters and whales.
Mary: But I'm looking not just at the sort of environmental impact of taking out one of the great super predators, entirely eliminating them from the ocean ecosystem, but also, what the impact was of all of those, you know, 19,000 voyages heading out and huge crowds of men.
Dinah: If Mary writes about the hand of man interfering with nature. Then artist Alexis Rockman paints it.
Rockman: Oh, wow. Thank you. What do you guys do when you’re thirsty? I could drink out of the tap, which is what I always do. This bottle is going to end up in some poor sea turtle’s stomach and killing him. I think as an artist, it’s not that effective to be an activist. I do my best to bring attention to issues that I care about and that includes racial justice, ecological justice.
Dinah: Alexis Rockman Shipwrecks is on view until May 31. His paintings are displayed in the oldest part of the museum, East India Marine Hall, where the founders of the museum would display things brought back from ship voyages around the world.
Rockman: What is more apt a metaphor than a shipwreck for our hopes, dreams and fears of what the future holds for us and also the idea of the voices that are not really heard from in these shipwrecks: stowaways, the agricultural animals, pets, all sorts of other perspectives on history that aren’t often considered when we tell our stories about how we think about ourselves in relationship to other civilizations.
Dinah: When asked what it would be like to be inside one of his paintings, Rockman didn’t miss a beat.
Rockman: Inside? You are inside one right now. That's what COVID is.
Dinah: The subject matter of the artist’s work is climate change, pollution, species extinction.
Rockman: I’ve always been fascinated by what lives in the puddle in the ditch. I can be on a romantic walk with my wife and I’m looking in the sewer to see if anything is living down there. I’ve always been fascinated by that. It’s been a lifelong interest.
Dinah: These paintings are a warning. One painting called The Things They Carried includes animals that brought disease, including the bat that may have caused COVID 19. But Rockman says, this isn’t the fault of the bats.
Alexis: No, it's always people's fault. We’re unwitting and unwilling pawns in this post-colonial capitalist buzz saw that's shredding the planet.
Dinah: Rockman’s inspiration for this exhibition is historic maritime paintings, sometimes straight from PEM’s collection.
Rockman: Well, let me be clear. I'm fascinated and obsessed with history, but I don't bow at the altar of history. I have a tremendous enthusiasm and respect for history, but I also have a very sort of disrespectful, omnivorous gaze.
Dan: He's really reflecting more on global trade generally and the impact of these shipwrecks as a metaphor for what can and has gone wrong on the world and on the climate.
Dinah: This is PEM’s maritime curator Dan Finamore.
Dan: The ship is often actually in the background and the part he has spent most of his time presenting in detail and featuring artistically is the animals that are also impacted by the shipwreck: the jellyfish, the birds that might have been sailors souvenirs, the rats that are fleeing the ship and then also the flotsam that’s coming off the ship, the trade goods that we know to be the product of this global trade.
Dinah: Our concern about the effects of this human forward motion has spurred PEM to launch a new climate and environment initiative.
[Sound of geese]
Dinah: On a bright sunny day as Canada geese jumped off of Salem’s Derby Wharf, into a harbor being pulled by the tug of a full moon, I met up with Jane Winchell, Director of PEM's Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center.
[Sound of boots on gravelly wharf]
Janey : We’ve been working into this over a long time. Understanding nature and the environment and our place in it goes back to the founding of the institution.
Dinah: Janey is referring to the early collecting of natural specimens around Essex County and the world that formed PEM’s natural history collection. Giant clams, ostrich eggs, all manner of flora and fauna. Natural curiosities were some of the first objects donated by the museum’s founding sea captains.
Janey: So with the founding of the Art & Nature Center back in 2003, we started really exploring some ideas relating to the environment as something we are part of. And not just something to be studied. We can't separate ourselves from this living system.
Dinah: The museum will work with groups like Salem Sound Coastwatch and offer lectures and programming, as well as upcoming exhibitions, like Alexis Rockman, who brings a stronger focus to the climate and environment crises, says Janey. But with an underlying intention to foster hope.
Janey: As we're moving forward, we really need to be thinking with vision and ideas for possibilities that are not grounded, necessarily, in the usual way of doing things. That makes this moment exciting and full of potential.
Dinah: Environmental justice, what Mary Mulloy was studying in the South Pacific, is social justice. And who gets hurt the most by environmental disasters?
Janey: Well, obviously, communities of color and other marginalized communities that are ending up in places where they don’t have the resources to go and put their house on stilts. And then there are indigenous communities that have lived on the coast or on islands that are literally being submerged. There's so many traditional practices, there's indigenous wisdom, that have profound relevancy for where we are because they date back in time and have been tested.
Janey: We can take this on knowing that we can be making a difference in our future. We are here. This is what has happened. We can’t deny that. Starting with the Alexis Rockman exhibition is really important because it's a moment of coming to terms with where are we? What has happened? We can't deny what we've done. And then that opens the opportunity for how do we want to go forward from here?
Dinah (tape): And here we are walking on a wharf that has been eroded.
Janey: Totally. We can see it right here. And it's something that Salem is very concerned about as a community. And then there's the historic structures that there's concern about what's gonna happen to those places, with sea level rise or with intensive storms. And what that brings.
Dinah: The timing of all of this coincides with another shipwreck, the 30th anniversary of the Andrea Gail, the ship featured in the beloved book and film The Perfect Storm.
Dan: The storm itself was highly visual. At the time no one talked about it as having been caused by climate change.
Dinah: Again, Dan Finamore.
Dan: The Andrea Gale was a very modest vessel on a very typical voyage and the notion that things could go so wrong and that disaster could be so complete was a source of amazing for the community in Gloucester.
Dinah: A voyage that faced what some scientists called the worst storm in a century. Sebastian Junger wrote in 1997 that a “mature hurricaine is by far the most powerful event on Earth.” One that could power the US for three or four years.
Dan: And more widely, of course, once the book and the film were circulated to everyone's amazement that people could put themselves in this kind of situation, and that we have so little control over our lives when confronted with such natural elements and disaster like this. It's a moment of pause. It’s like a reckoning in its way.
Dinah: Fishermen already faced challenges -- being away from their loved ones most of the time. Working in dangerous conditions like going overboard in a rogue wave or getting a huge hook through their hand. Going back to 1650, more than ten thousand Gloucester fishermen have died perusing their dangerous line of work.
Dinah: Here we are in Gloucester, next to the harbor. Children riding bicycles and playing and these fishermen are all remembered right here on the Gloucestermen Fishermen’s Memorial. Let us remember, honor and celebrate the fishermen who made their final voyage from this great port. We remain strengthened by character, inspired by their courage and proud to call them Gloucestermen.
Dinah: Our summer of maritime continues with an exhibition opening May 29. In American Waters offers a different kind of maritime exhibition that highlights the often overlooked part of maritime life -- the boats that carried immigrants from other lands and black Americans from the South. The experience of being on the water in America and TO America.
Dan: What we are really trying to do with this show is cast the net more broadly and incorporate works that are clearly infused with maritime themes, which don't necessarily depict a portrait of a ship of a particular moment in time, but to evoke the maritime experience in different ways.
Dinah: The co-organizer for In American Waters is Crystal Bridges of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Nestled in the Ozarks, the region is known for its springs, creeks, lakes and rivers. The White River, originating in the Boston Mountains of northwest Arkansas, ultimately feeds into the Mississippi, which flows to the Gulf of Mexico.
Dan: And there will be many people there who have never actually seen the ocean who will come to see the show. And I'm perfectly confident that the ocean will be just as evocative in these paintings, as it is for anybody who comes to see them in Salem. The experience of standing on the beach and looking out at the ocean, where the sky meets the sea and where the visible becomes invisible and where imagination really takes over.
Dinah: One of the works in the exhibition is by Amy Sherald, official portrait artist to First Lady Michelle Obama. Sherald continues the evolution of American marine painting with her 2019 work Precious Jewels by the Sea. It depicts four Black teenagers on a beach. Two boys stand tall with girls seated on their shoulders. The deep blue horizon is beyond. The artist described for our exhibition catalogue that she likes painting things we don’t always get to see in museums. It’s about creating American narratives.
Dinah: That’s our show. Thanks for listening. Alexis Rockman: Shipwrecks is on view through May 31. Beginning May 29th, look for In American Waters. For more on these exhibitions or to learn more about our climate and environment initiative, go to pem.org. This show was produced for the Peabody Essex Museum by me, Dinah Cardin, and it was edited and mixed by Perry Hallinan. The PEMcast is generously supported by The George S. Parker fund.
Dinah: In keeping with our themes of strong storms and song, this summer look for a return visit from Scottish Turner prize winning performance artist Susan Philipsz. We leave you with this clip from her 2011 sound performance in PEM’s East India Marine Hall, where Philipz sings eight overlapping versions of the same ballad by folklorist Frances Child. The song is about a beautiful woman, a handsome devil and a stormy sea. Seduced by the longing for her past, she and her demon lover embrace each other as the storm dashes their boat to bits on their way to the underworld.