Drawing from the Deep

Drawing from the Deep

Students at the New Bedford Whaling Museum sketch oddities from the collection in handmade journals.

Students in a studio called Illuminating the Ocean Deep have been diving into the archives at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts “to contemplate the tenuous line between the pursuit of profit and the destruction of that which we hold most sacred," as Painting Critic Martin Smick MFA 09 PT puts it.

During one of several visits to the nearby museum, Collections Manager Jordan Berson leads students through basement corridors into one storage area after another, unlocking glass-door cabinets and sliding open oversized metal drawers to reveal whaling-related curiosities dating back to the 1800s.

“We have a lot of mistreated animals in our collection,” Berson remarks sadly as the group files past a musty polar bear rug. He goes on to show them porpoise jaws, dozens of examples of scrimshaw, a wide variety of whale teeth—even a fist-sized whale fetus in a jar. In addition to the whaling industry ephemera, the museum houses row upon row of antiques from other industries that once thrived in New Bedford, such as toy making and electronics.

Instead of snapping photos with their smartphones, students stop to sketch items of interest in handcrafted journals they made at the beginning of Wintersession while listening to selections from the Melville classic Moby Dick. With waxed thread used to bind the pages, the journals suggest whaling logs from centuries ago. “Drawing from direct observation of the artifacts is a driving force in our research,” explains Smick, who is teaching the course for the second time this year.

“You consider things differently when you can’t just take a picture,” says junior Jesse Sullivan 17 PT. “It feels like we’re going back in history. The class has really opened me up to thinking about how the museum’s artwork pertains to cultural artifacts and science. It’s all about how you interpret the artifacts.”

Students are drawing, painting and creating their own objects in response to the museum’s collection, while also pairing up to work on curatorial proposals for exhibitions that present their spin on the tragic relationship between humans and whales. “The whaling industry failed because it was unsustainable,” Smick notes, which is why the course fits well with RISD’s recently added interdisciplinary concentration in Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies. In the future, he hopes to expand the five-week class into a semester-long experience.

British author and filmmaker Philip Hoare joined students at the Whaling Museum and also spoke about mythological aspects of whales at a campus-wide lecture. He explained that his own obsession with whales began when he first set eyes on their gigantic skeletons as a boy visiting London’s Natural History Museum.

“This class is particularly cool for me as a Painting major because it has changed the direction of my research,” Sullivan notes. “I’ve learned that the best research for painting can be looking at objects other than paintings.”

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