Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy.

With a load of iron ore - 26,000 tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early


Opening stanzas, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, by Gordon Lightfoot


I've mentioned before my grandmother's influence in my becoming an artist. She dabbled a little with painting and I have at least one of her pieces -- There Is None So Blind As Him Who Will Not See -- inexpert in execution, but thoughtful and thought provoking.

Grandma Sandy had a friend who really could paint. We always called her Mrs. Crumpett. The pieces I saw were superb renditions of ocean waves crashing on a rocky New England coast. My grandmother owned a couple of them. As a young art student enamored with Picasso and Dali, realistic depictions of oceans didn't impress me that much at the time.

Fast forward 35 years.

I find it impossible to be anything but impressed by the realists in our midst. It's a skill that was painstakingly cultivated. With the advent of the camera and photography, art was liberated from the need to be tied to reality reproduction. Do we need a picture of the king? There are a dozen photojournalists who will document anything and everything for you.

Yesterday on the plane I read that Napoleon was a supporter of the arts and maintained a staff of artists. If you don't support them out of season, you certainly won't find the talent you want when you do finally wish for a life sized portrait of yourself. As busy as he was (for the duration of his reign he was at war except for 14 months) he still found time to strike a pose now and then.

So we come full circle to events like the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. Lake Superior is the largest freshwater body in the world, but its Northern climate makes it a hostile environment for a portion of the year. The thousand foot ore boats and transportation of other goods begins in spring and ends in late fall. The fisherman here respect her power, however, and know that the lake's calm can quickly turn deadly. So there is always an uneasy apprehension on the lake for even the most stalwart seamen here.

It seems strange that in 1975, when the ship and its crew of 29 went down, our Apollo spacecraft had already left the moon six years earlier. We may believe we can conquer space, but the wreck of the Fitzgerald is a grim reminder that nature still has her furies.

This is where the artist comes in. When the Edmund Fitzgerald went down, rescue boats were sent to find survivors who might be still somewhere in that terrible storm. There were no cameras snapping pictures or photojournalists putting their necks on the line that night. Doris Sampson made it her passion, therefore, to capture the frightening tension of that experience through art. The result is a series of paintings depicting the lost ship and the attempt at rescue.

I visited with Doris in her West Duluth studio a couple months ago and have been mulling how to best introduce others to her work. She is a superb draftsperson who has creatively poured herself into her work for many decades. When the opportunity arises I will undoubtedly try to visit again. The next best thing to being there is visit her online studio. There is a lot more here than you might initially imagine, because Ms. Sampson not only an imagination, but the talent to do something with it. Enjoy.

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