Artist's image of an industry's decline given to Martha's Vineyard Museum
An anonymous donor has enabled the Martha's Vineyard Museum to acquire an oversized painting titled "Strider's Surrender," showing a portion of the Menemsha-based commercial fishing vessel Quitsa Strider with a scrap of fraying white sailcloth caught in the rigging and fluttering in the wind. When artist Heather Neill read last fall that captain and owner Jonathan Mayhew had sold his federal offshore ground fishing permits, she was very moved and began a painting to show how important the loss is to Menemsha and the Island.
The white flag of surrender, Ms. Neill told The Times, represents not only Captain Mayhew's loss of his livelihood, but the decline of family commercial fishing on Martha's Vineyard. Moreover, the scrap itself is a piece of old sailcloth which has caught in the Strider's rigging, "and the Strider is unwilling to let it go." She sees the old, tattered material as a nod to fishing and commerce under sail, which family-owned fishing vessels such as the Strider may soon follow into oblivion.
Chris Morse, owner of the Granary Gallery, where the painting debuted last week, and current chairman of the board of the museum, concurred. "The white flag of surrender," he said, "reflects on not just the Quitsa Strider, but the decline of the North Atlantic fishery."
Interviewed this week by telephone, Captain Mayhew told The Times what he most regrets about the regulatory and licensing disaster that caused him to sell his permits: "We are not passing on to our young people the ability to earn a living from the fishery."
The painting, which is almost eight feet wide and more than four feet high, sold for $75,000. The donor, Mr. Morse reported, originally wanted to put together a group to buy the painting for the museum, but later decided to do it alone. Mr. Morse said that he believes the painting is an important historical document. The museum board, its directors, and the collections committee all agreed and voted to accept the gift. Mr. Morse, whose gallery sold the painting in a customary business transaction, stressed that all the proper acquisition channels were followed.
Even setting aside its value as a chronicle of history, "Strider's Surrender" is a stunning painting that draws the viewer into its world. Because it is a very large painting, it shows an extraordinary amount of detail, from a tiny fisherman in the background on the West Basin side of the channel and a cormorant perched on a distant spile, to a sign on the wheelhouse door so tiny one needs to stand close to read it. Every surface is cluttered with tools, ropes, chains, and the ordinary detritus of the fisherman's workaday world. With each glance one notices something new in the complicated scene, but over and over, one's eye is called back to the rag fluttering in the upper left corner, and the painting reveals that the rusty old working boat has a kind of nobility.
Courtesy of the Granary Gallery
That rag of frayed sail, which gives the whole painting motion and life, Ms. Neill painted several times, not getting it right until she took a scrap of canvas and tied it to a line strung up for the purpose in her back yard.
"I've been working on this painting for nearly 20 years," Ms. Neill told The Times. "I've been in love with the Strider ever since I first came to the Island. I love the rust and the battle scars. Give me the Strider over a fancy yacht any day."
Last fall, back in Pennsylvania, Ms. Neill moved to a larger studio with a larger easel, which allowed her to attempt larger paintings, and take greater risks. At the same time, she read about Captain Mayhew's permits in the Vineyard Gazette. "I was devastated to think that the Strider might be sold, and I wouldn't ever see her again," she said.
A part of history
While the Quitsa Strider is for sale, Captain Mayhew says that it isn't likely that anyone will buy her. Between the regulatory agencies and the price of diesel, it is nearly impossible for a small operator to fish on a regular basis and make any money.
Captain Mayhew has had a long, sad history with federal and state regulators. Although he fished for years for deep sea scallops, he cannot fish for them now because he has no license. A few years ago the first deep sea scallop licenses were awarded only to those boats that had been fishing in years when the stocks were low and when responsible fishermen, like the Mayhews, let the grounds alone and fished for other species elsewhere. His federal swordfishing license was lost when his application for renewal was misplaced, even though he continued to send in the required monthly reports throughout that winter. An appeal was denied. The New England Fisheries Management Council reduced to 44 the number of days he is permitted to fish, and counts trips to New Bedford for fuel and ice, even though he doesn't fish on the way there. Without a buyer for his boat and without the ability to make enough profitable trips, Captain Mayhew had to sell the federal licenses to a fishing conglomerate.
Although Mayhew family members have been fishermen for at least five generations, the Quitsa Strider is idle at the dock in Menemsha, right where Heather Neill first fell in love with her almost twenty years ago.
"Strider's Surrender," however, begins its voyage as a record of our times. According to Amy Houghton, the museum's director of development, it will hang for a few more days at the Granary Gallery and then become a part of an oral history exhibit that highlights Vineyard fishermen. After that, it will join the museum's art collection of more than 400 oils and watercolors, most dating to the 19th century.
Ms. Houghton commented in an email to The Times, "One of our goals with the art collection is to increase representation of contemporary artists.... As with any part of our collection, the painting is the vehicle through which we can tell the broader stories the Strider represents: the Mayhews, Menemsha, and fishing as a way of life to name a few."
Mr. Morse assumes that "Strider's Surrender" will be displayed prominently in the fall at the present Museum on School Street in Edgartown, and he predicts that a space for it will be incorporated into the design of the museum's new home.