A pod of public art

The scrimshaw-colored whale supports the artist, Maynard Silva. Photo by Susan Safford
The scrimshaw-colored whale supports the artist, Maynard Silva. Photo by Susan Safford

By Eleni Collins - August 10, 2006

Several unusual species of whales have "beached" themselves on the Vineyard this summer. The rare species found in a number of locations have most unique colorings, such as a floral-skinned whale, one covered in images of wooden schooners, and one with the title of the famous poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" inscribed on its back. They are not your typical, endangered whales. In fact, they are fiberglass replicas, made in part to stimulate the public's awareness of the delicate, local habitat where the real whales live.

The Cape and Islands Whale Trail is the largest public art display to be shown in the area, and is similar in style to the Cow Parade found in Boston, among other cities. The trail features more than 50 whales in towns including Hyannis, Provincetown, and Vineyard Haven, among many others. The whales are gathered loosely in "pods," like the five whales found on the Vineyard. When referring to actual whales in the ocean, pod is the term used to refer to a social group of whales, which may hunt and travel together, care for their young, and protect one another.

Washington Ledesma doing a mid-summer touch-up. Photo by Mae Deary
Washington Ledesma doing a mid-summer touch-up. Photo by Mae Deary

In addition to the pods found on the Cape, there are individual whales out on their own, such as the one found on Nantucket. The leviathans have been on display since Memorial Day weekend, and will stay in place until mid-September, when they will be auctioned off to raise money for the individual non-profit organizations named by each participating sponsor.

The auction, dubbed "All's Well That Ends Whale," will take place September 23 at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel in Hyannis. The public is encouraged to bid on the whales now online at www.capeandislandswhaletrail.com, and the highest online bid for each whale will start the live auction bidding in September.

"I Must Go Down to the Sea"

If you stop by the Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven and venture up to the second floor, you may notice a not-so-tiny art project looming about the shelves. You may also have noticed the diligently working Island artist, Dana Gaines, painting gorgeous blues around his wooden ship-themed whale, which was painted on-site. "I'd done some limited-edition prints of sailboats sailing along," Mr. Gaines explained when asked about his design. "I thought it would be a good topic for Vineyard Haven and all the wooden sailboats there. I thought I'd wrap it in boats."

Artist Peggy Zablotny takes a seat on her flowery right whale. Photo by Ben Scott
Artist Peggy Zablotny takes a seat on her flowery right whale. Photo by Ben Scott

Dressing these whales was no quick task for the artists. According to the Whale Trail committee, many whales took more than 100 hours to paint. "It became a seven-day-a-week exercise by the middle of May," Mr. Gaines said, explaining his efforts. "It took a long time to get the design penciled onto the surface. I kept changing things."

Mr. Gaines is a well-known Island artist and was asked by The Bunch of Grapes to paint a whale for them. His whale, "I Must Go Down to the Sea," will raise money for the bookstore's non-profit organization of choice, the YMCA of Martha's Vineyard, which is scheduled to open by 2009.

"Whale Cared For"

Island artist Washington Ledesma is concerned with the environment, and he is using his whale to address ecological problems. "The relationship with the Noah's ark is a kind of very subdued theme related to last year's Katrina event in New Orleans," Mr. Ledesma explains. "And with all the problems of global warming, we are in a very dangerous situation."

Ovid Ward stands behind his painted whale. Photo by Ben Scott
Ovid Ward stands behind his painted whale. Photo by Ben Scott

The blue background on his whale, which is found at down-Island Cronig's, represents our Island's plentiful ocean and blue skies. However, our oceans and skies are changing. "Whales are one of the most magnificent creatures," Mr. Ledesma comments. "However, another problem related to the whales is that they are continuing to be hunted in countries such as Japan and Norway."

Born in Uruguay, Mr. Ledesma moved from there to the United States in 1973. "I realized this place is very similar to the east coast of Uruguay," said Mr. Ledesma when asked about the appeal of the Island. "It's the same ocean, and it's a connection. There's 12,000 miles difference, but it's very connected."

"Whale Cared For," Mr. Ledesma's whale, acts as a spokesman for his concerns with the environment. "I have these concepts covering every inch of the whale's surface," he says in his South American accent. "I have the whole complete enchilada."

Dana Gaines and his whale among the bookshelves at the Bunch of Grapes. Photo by Ben Scott
Dana Gaines and his whale among the bookshelves at the Bunch of Grapes. Photo by Ben Scott

Mr. Ledesma's whale is sponsored by Cronig's Market, and will benefit the Martha's Vineyard Hospital.

Part of the mission of the Cape and Island's Whale Trail is to educate the public of the diminishing population of the Northern right whale, found in the waters off the Cape and Islands. Massachusetts Bay and Cape Cod Bay are listed as "critical habitats" by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) web site. A critical habitat is a specific area found inside or outside of the geographical area that is occupied by the species, which is seen to be essential to conservation of the species. According to the Whale Trail committee, there are approximately 350 Northern right whales alive on the planet today.

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner"

Maynard Silva is used to painting large objects. Specializing in sign painting, painting a whale for the whale trail was not a daunting job. "Compared to a Trippy Barnes truck, this was nothing," the artist comments.

Mr. Silva agreed to paint a whale without knowing the extent of the project he was getting himself into. "My attitude is if someone asks me to paint something I say, 'sure.' Then they asked me, 'do you have a pick-up truck?'"

Under the assumption he was painting a realistic right whale, Mr. Silva was surprised when asked what his theme was going to be. He thought up a quick answer. "I told them I'm going to varnish it so it looks like old-fashioned scrimshaw and paint scenes from the Ancient Mariner poem," Mr. Silva explained. "I thought this would scare them off and they would ask a real artist, and they said, 'Oh, that's great!'"

It took less than a week for Mr. Silva to paint his whale, which is sponsored by the New England Fast Ferry. That includes the time spent researching Gustave Dore on his illustrations in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," scenes from which cover the rather eerie-looking whale.

He worked on the actual painting and varnishing at Maciel Marine, with varnish donated by the Martha's Vineyard Shipyard.

Although it did not take much time, Maynard did have some trouble with the project. "The thing that was difficult was giving the whale a flow and a certain rhythm on it," said Mr. Silva. "I had to make it so you see things that keep drawing you to keep moving around it." He succeeded, for there is not one angle from which you can view the whale and see all of his details at once.

Calling himself "just an old sign painter," Mr. Silva was surprised to be involved alongside the other Island artists. "I know Washington (Ledesma) and he is a profound thinker," said Mr. Silva. "I'm not being humble. I'm not really an artist, I'm a sign-maker."

The whale is located on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven, next to the offices of The Times. Sail Martha's Vineyard is the chosen non-profit organization.

"A Whale of a Garden"

Peggy Zablotny got very close, literally, to her whale as she went through the process of designing and applying her design onto the whale. "At first I figured, 'I'll work on it outside.' The funny thing that happened is that we had so much rain at that time," Ms. Zablotny explains as she described the process. "Bob Crane from Crane Appliance (the whale's sponsor) asked what he could do to help. He offered me a show room, and I thought for a few minutes, and I asked, 'could you possibly get it into my house?'" As a result, Peggy and her husband, Steve, technical director and set designer at the Vineyard Playhouse, lived their lives around this bulky whale in the middle of their living room. "If Bob didn't ask what he could do, I would still be working on it."

Her medium, printmaking, is a different process than paint. She used her flower collage prints and put them onto exterior grade vinyl, instead of paper, which she usually uses. The background was designed on a grid, then cut out and applied to the whale with heat and pressure. The larger flowers were then cut out and applied by the same process on top of the background.

Ms. Zablotny's whale stands out among its home surroundings in front of Crane Appliance-Sound and Vision in Tisbury. It is surrounded by a white picket fence, the perfect accessory for a whale that is blanketed in printed flowers. "It needed an environment," she says. "They were going to put it on the concrete pad and I thought to add the fence." With help from Crane Appliance, a carpenter, and her husband, the fence was put around the whale as an addition to the artistic element. Her whale will be auctioned off for the benefit of the Martha's Vineyard Boys and Girls Club/Big Brother Big Sister of Martha's Vineyard.

"Vineyard Vines Whale"

Judging by their logo, it is no surprise that the Vineyard Vines clothing company would want a whale of their own. Storeowners Shep and Ian Murray chose to sponsor the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Martha's Vineyard with a whale that resembles the little pink sperm whales that adorn their popular ties, polo shirts, and flip-flops.

Painted by Island artist Ovid Ward, the whale resonates with true Edgartown character and resembles a stately gentleman dressed for a summer cocktail party. Colored with a classic navy body, the whale wears a light pink, popped collar, polo tee shirt, and khaki shorts complete with a light blue belt adorned with miniature whales.

Though the design was not as elaborate as some of the other whales on the trail, there is no wonder why Shep asked Mr. Ward specifically to paint this one. Mr. Ward is an artist dedicated to marine scenes in both sculpture and paint. With numerous paintings of catboats, harbors, and racing sailboats, he also sculpted a full-sized whale's fluke, or tail, that emerges out of the grass just as if it were about to disappear under water. The tail is located just outside of the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown, near the Chappaquiddick ferry landing.

Completed in just about a week in early June at Mr. Ward's Edgartown studio, the whale now resides in Nevin Square, close to the Vineyard Vines store. Until the September auction, Shep and Ian can keep a close eye on their beloved whale.