Maritime History: Mariners in the Artist's Eye

Tuesday, March 11, 2003

We couldn't say it never happens, but we doubt it is any too frequent: a fine artist, commission in hand and passion in heart, sets-up easel, mixes palette, and fervently depicts the people at work at the of Motor Vehicles department. Sure they're good people, and they uphold social order. Still, their setting, their actions, their challenges each day, do not seem the sort to engage the artist. This is the stuff for the Kodak Advantix.

Artists could spend hours reproducing a gesture that took a split second in life. This gives them time to think. What was the mood of that gesture, and its eventual effect? The artist expands time with those thoughts, having seen what came before, during, and after the instant depicted. The artist then recompresses events, freezing the continuum in one time and space - the one of the artist's choosing.

This is called "interpretation." It is sometimes called "license." By any definition, it combines toil and experience, feeling and recollection, eye and hand in focused collaboration. The subject must justify the effort. Does the DMV?

The worker-as-hero is a big thing in murals, for reasons political as well as artistic, some forever tied to the days of socialism. But ships and their handlers have been painted forever. The Egyptians did them. The realm of maritime art in the centuries since has grown vast, and defies any summation.

Still, we can choose our own time and space - say, 20th century, New York Harbor - and see what artists were up to then. And we find, once again, it's no one thing in particular. There are plenty of ways to interpret boats and the people aboard them. Without hardly trying, we bumped into three.

Steven Cryan, Naima Rauam, and John A. Noble have little in common, as individuals or as stylists. We can't even ask if they'd have admired one another, Noble having died 20 years ago. By his seventh decade, his life's work was massive and, in many circles, beloved. The other two artists, a generation younger at least, are still sculpting their body of work. And they're doing it differently, too.

Despite their differences, visible at a glance, the three share some points. Boats, for example, from freighter to rowboat, are always interesting, always noble, regardless of condition. Also, the people aboard them, beyond their direct deeds, make metaphors for the tribulations of anyone's life. Also, the world they inhabit is on a grand scale. And there's not a Queeg, a Bligh or an Ahab among them.

Steven Cryan

If the poles of 20th-century art ranged from German Expressionism to Pop, Steven Cryan's work would lean more at an angle toward Norman Rockwell. There's a nostalgia in his watercolors, and a folksy good humor. Any one of his skippers could be the brother-in-law of the small-town doctors, magistrates, and policemen who graced the old Saturday Evening Post. In their enchanted world, handling the bigger-than-life - or, at least, the big-as-a-tugboat - is a routine task that looks easy. When the guys finish whatever they're doing, they'll surely go on where the dispatcher sends them, and go on from there, until it's time to go home.

They're just working guys, who are lucky enough to do what they do. Their tugs are beauties, and usually classics - single-screw steamers like the railroads ran, painted so bright and so blemish-free that mere weeks would have passed since their launching. The guys down on the deck, up in the house, can afford to stop a moment, gaze out to the spectator and pose - they've got enough skill, and from that enough confidence, to stand at ease. In the world they inhabit, the worst thing they face is the taste of the coffee.

Cryan's boats and their people are literal in line, with the detail and snap of scale models. For he is, as a matter of fact, a scale modeler. Go to the right restaurant or museum in his town of Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and you'll find lots of his work. But it's as likely to be a model railroad layout as some sort of hanging. In his home, you won't see many seascapes on the walls. But downstairs, in its own room, lit-up in blue, is a world unto itself in sound and movement.

Freight trains in flurries adhere to their schedules, wheels squealing as they stop at each station, while an interurban commuter car glides in isolated splendor. There are tugs in the glass waterways of the layout too, but they, like the citizens, sit inanimate. "A locomotive like this can cost two thousand dollars," Cryan tells us, gesturing toward a favorite. Among his proudest commissions as a painter, the artist cites the cover of the Lionel catalog (for which he portrayed their first scale tugboat).

In the right hands, of course, a railroad layout becomes sculpture. Cryan's idealized settings are punctuated, on occasion, by macabre aberrations. Here, an embankment has eroded to expose naked legs from the cemetery above. There, a stegosaurus ambles along as if no more incongruous than a stray dog. And this is the genteel part of town. A T. Rex runs amuck on the next table. A kid hangs from water tank, taking a bit of a whap with each passing train. There are scrapyards and junkyards, at least one house had a fire, and one plastic person looked drunk.

Could Hieronymus Bosch be living in Plasticville USA? If so, he keeps out of the watercolors. The world Cryan paints is as optimistic as the star-studded harbor he did for McAllister, with the World Trade Center a beacon proud in the dusk. And maybe nostalgia is something we need more than ever now, as a refuge and emotional defense, as forces outside the frame have changed the painting's meaning. Days after it was finished, the real towers came down.

Naima Rauam

Where Steven Cryan's work is photo-realistic about what was, Naima Rauam's is impressionistic about what is. One artist chooses line as his arbiter of truth, the other chooses light as hers. Rauam's portrayals are no less accurate in posture and pose, but are seen through eyes squinted to generalize the scene. The trees can detract from the forest, after all, bogging-down the view. Naima Rauam's subject might be an expanse of nature, in which the mariner takes part.

Everyone agrees that the harbor is spectacular. Oh, it can turn sloppy, and sometimes even nasty, but that in a spectacular way, too. It's not much discussed, as the sun on the horizon turns the world red, or the lights of Manhattan dance on black waters. On the contrary, the wheelhouse can fall quite silent, except for the radios, as its occupants gaze out the windows.

"Sometimes, the most fleeting moment sparks the most interesting subject," Ms. Rauam told us in her studio, the only non-fish-related tenant in the Fulton Fish Market. "It might be a reflection from the water, or the light between clouds. I'll remember it when I'm painting, and embellish or expand on reality, take bits and pieces and recompose them. When I see something fleetingly, the imagination latches on to it and kicks in overtime, because I'll never see it again." These swift glimpses and their segue into impression, rather than literal fact, are common sights from a boat underway. Any deckhand can tell you.

But for all its soft edges, this is no cotton candy. "The guys are rough working men, very strong and brave," said Ms. Rauam, "almost foolhardy the way they take so much for granted, without sense of danger. They're sort of born to do work like that - jumping to barges, scaling up ladders, working tight ropes - they've got to be extremely confidant, smart and decisive. The slightest doubt could cost a limb or a life." All beneath billowing clouds and uncharted colors.

"Watercolor is so well suited to evoke the airy and fluid characteristics of the harbor," the artist tells us. "'Although the subjects I deal with are all hard-edge and usually massive, there is a quality about them of elusiveness. Exposure to the elements weathers the paint and lettering, and all the bumping of barges, tugs, pilings and docks softens edges. Time leaves its mark. The human element and the water as well are delicately rendered. Air and light flow over this subject very splendidly in watercolor"

The human element, we surmise from Ms. Rauam, is composed of mostly unsung heros. "They're just working guys. They don't get the glamour or attention of other professions - policemen or firemen - they don't get the garlands or get carried on the shoulders of the public. And yet they have moved cars, they have moved oil - they make our lives a functioning possibility."

John A. Noble

If Steve Cryan's work can be called literal, and Naima Rauam's impressionistic, John Noble's work could be called literally impressionistic. His lines are correct in every regard, executed with a draughtsman's eye. But it's also the witness's eye. Noble sailed on deepwater, before honing his art. He watched a generation of ships - the last of the big wooden sailing ships, hundreds of them, Post World War I - prosper, grow old, decay. The metaphors abound, as he and the men around him did the same. Even a blueprint, showing what he finally beheld, would have been moody.

But Noble did pencil, charcoal, lithographs for his most famous works. All blacks and grays. That's moody too, and the artist's own choice. It's no less a real world, for its absence of color. It's the world seen when the light is too low for the color receptors in our eyes. John Noble's seas may sometimes be bright - even when stormy - but at all times of day, are seen through the eyes used at night.

The men and the vessels of Cryan and Rauam are heroic in purpose and achievement. Those of Noble are too, but he goes further. They're heroic in destruction and obscurity, as well. The splintered mast of the Molfetta, described as a "mess left behind" by the gods, got its own stand-alone litho and, besides that, a supporting role in the artist's self-portrait. Elsewhere, a bargeman, deep in the bowels of a freezing hulk, mans a recalcitrant pump. "There is nobody else aboard," Noble wrote. "More leaking hulls, of which he is also the pumpman, surround this barge, also old and deserted. He is the watchman not of the dead but of the dying."

The guardians of John Noble's work and legacy maintain his writings alongside is pictures. The audiovisual discloses a poet in both mediums. "Then the cranking starts," he continues, "and he cranks and cranks. The gas engine sputters, but start it will not because of the cold or whatever. When it finally catches, it is just too almighty late, for the pump has lost its prime ... The small silver bell that sometimes hides in a young girl's laughter - the popping of champagne corks - the crinkle of new $50 bills - I know not the range of your auditory tastes. These give but surface pleasures. The sucking of the pump when the bilges are dry is ultimately the most sacred and beautiful sound on earth to him whose ear has been tuned to it by fear and weariness."

As Others See Us

When John Noble died in 1983, he was already a celebrity in some quarters, a legend on Staten Island, where he lived in a studio built from old ships, set on a barge in the Kill. This original structure rises like a shrine in one of the handsomely restored rooms at Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island, where many engaging exhibits highlight the artist's work, his tools, and his world. They held a black-party reception there in February, which the artist, by all accounts, would have found as a china shop. Erin Urban, a keeper of the flame since the artist's death and author of two books on John Noble - including the beautiful and moving "Hulls and Hulks in the Tide of Time" - also curates the floating gallery aboard the Staten Island ferryboat John A. Noble.

Each of these artists has been written-up, reviewed, profiled, and admired in gallery showings. But the test of their testimony on their subjects is measured by their acceptance by mariners themselves. Naima Rauam's commissions, for example, have come from at least two well-known harbor entities, Steers and Weeks.

Works of John Noble, over a rich lifetime of achievements, were commissioned by, among others, Moran Transportation Co., Dalzell Towing Co., Atlantic, Gulf & Pacific Co., J. Rich Steers Co., International Elevating Co., Shipbuilding Division of Bethlehem Steel Co., and Bergen Point Iron Works.

Works of Steven Cryan have been commissioned by McAllister, Moran, Reinaur, and Red Star. His illustrations appear in the Michael Krieger book "Where Rails Meet the Sea," a detailed and insightful examination of the relationships between the railroad and maritime industries from the 19th century onward - a fascinating read not only for transportation aficionados, but for students of socio-economic history in general. The most recent book to carry extensive Cryan illustrations is "Tugboats," by Jim Shaw.

Which is the true mariner's world? The one of routine and everything shipshape? The one of sensory riches and glimpses of memory? The one of solemn mortality? They're all true, on different days. Find three artists, they'll give you three days. The three given here share many points of view, about the nobility of things and the nature of hard work. It's the observer's eye, not the artist's, that decides which of their truths, if any, is highest.

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