New film captures Old Whaling Church mural

The film captures artist Margot Datz at work. — Photo courtesy of marthasvineyar

A new film short, “The Edgartown Whaling Church Mural Restoration,” has just been released by Dan Martino of Martha’s Vineyard Productions. The eight-minute film depicts how Edgartown muralist Margot Datz recreated the architectural image that decorated the central interior wall of the church in the 19th century.

The mural represents Stage I in a project commissioned by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, which acquired the Methodist church in 1980 and has been restoring it since. Stage II, which begins in 2014, will recreate the murals found on the side and back walls. A possible future project will be to restore the painting under the building’s tin ceiling.

Mr. Martino first learned about the mural project from an article in the M.V. Times last year. “I thought, if I don’t document this, nobody else will,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “We were there from day one.” He called up M.V. Preservation Trust executive director Chris Scott and Ms. Datz and learned they had been thinking about the need to film the project. “Great minds think alike,” Mr. Martino said. “It was a team effort.” The M.V. Center for the Visual Arts helped fund the project.

Both Mr. Scott and Ms. Datz are interviewed in the film, which Mr. Martino hopes eventually to expand in length to a half hour or more. Mr. Scott explains how the church, designed by Fredrick Baylies, incorporated trompe l’oeil (French for “fool-the-eye”) murals by Carl Wendt on its interior walls. The architect and muralist worked together from the beginning, and conceived the murals as a way to visually expand and embellish the building. Consisting of organic materials like fish oil and milk, the murals deteriorated and were painted over by the 20th century.

In the film, Mr. Scott explains that the mural is not overtly religious, but its depiction of an arch with a portal that the viewer is invited to pass through into a light-filled room represents a form of religious symbolism common in such mid-19th century churches. From an allegorical perspective, the mural depicts the passage from the life we’re in now into the afterlife.

An 1870 photograph, which Mr. Scott theorizes was taken expressly to document the already deteriorating mural, alerted the M.V. Preservation Trust to its existence and guided Ms. Datz in her recreation of the mural. Enlisting help from her daughter, Scarlet Blair, who did fill-in painting, and her brother, Steve Datz, who worked on layout, Ms. Datz and her team spent three months completing more than three miles of lines and architectural detail. That work was preceded by extensive research on Ms. Datz’s part. And Jonathan Polleys of Edgartown Hardware was the “man at the paint keyboard,” mixing the 13 Benjamin Moore shades of gray that Ms. Datz used to create the tonal banding in the mural.

In the film, Ms. Datz gives a brief explanation of the technique used in the mural, which, by separating the colors into separate bands, allows the viewer to blend them. She expanded on her comments in a telephone interview this week.

“The photograph was so terrible we had to work from other murals,” Ms. Datz said. She had already seen murals in churches in Nantucket and Provincetown, and she piggybacked on research done by the Nantucket Preservation Trust, which had a larger budget, on the already completed Nantucket mural. “That’s where I got the original gray, the ‘mother color,'” she said. She and Mr. Scott visited other churches with restored murals, including one in Lee. “I have a feeling these churches are sleeping all over the country,” she said.

Ms. Datz calls the 1840s a fascinating period of history when the country was moving into a whole new global awareness. “It was a time of exploding possibilities. This painting was a very modern way of paying tribute to classicism,” she continued. “I think it had Greek and Roman underpinnings. To this day, that church has its own modern feeling.”

Watch “The Old Whaling Church Mural Restoration” online.