Margot Datz recreates an illusion in Old Whaling Church mural

Margot Datz in front of her canvas, the front wall of the Whaling Church. — Photo by Nis Kildegaard

Thanks to a single grainy photograph from almost a century and a half ago, a remarkable restoration project is underway this winter at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. Artist Margot Datz is recreating an architectural mural whose striking effect will be to convey the illusion of a classical arch behind the stage wall, leading to a light-struck room beyond.

For Ms. Datz, whose murals adorn the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, the former Hot Tin Roof, and both Island terminals of the Steamship Authority, this project is her magnum opus — the largest she’s ever undertaken in a career spanning more than three decades on the Vineyard. For Chris Scott, the mural represents one more checkmark on his “bucket list” of projects completed on his watch as executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust, owners of the Whaling Church.

The story of this project begins in 1840, when the wealthy whaling captains of Edgartown were making plans for the grandest church ever built on the Island, and when a 20-year-old artist named Carl Wendte came to America from Germany to establish himself as a muralist.

Between 1840 and his death from pneumonia eight years later, Wendte worked closely with architects to create grand, illusionistic murals in churches of the day. His murals at the Old South Church on Nantucket and the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Provincetown have both recently been restored.

The sea captains of Edgartown engaged architect Frederick Baylies to design a church whose lines and dimensions are a direct reference to the Parthenon, and Mr. Baylies worked with the artist Wendte to foster the magical illusion of even more expansive spaces inside.

We’ll probably never know what prompted a photographer to set his heavy camera in the church balcony and record the mural sometime around 1870. Muses Mr. Scott: “When this photo was taken, the mural was already 25, maybe 30 years old. Maybe the mural was already in trouble and they wanted to document it. Maybe it was just before they painted it over.

“Here’s a photographer who undoubtedly thought this was a beautiful thing to document — never knowing that this would be the very fragile link to the past that came down to us in the 21st century and allowed us to recreate it. Without that photograph, this mural would have been lost for all time.”

Mr. Scott has known about the mural since he joined the Trust in 1992. Ms. Datz learned about it a decade ago. “When Chris first showed me the photograph,” she recalls, “my jaw hit my chest. I could not believe that this church had been so richly embellished. Like everyone else, I had kind of surrendered to its beautiful austerity – when really the intention from the start was completely different.”

The Preservation Trust secured $25,000 from Edgartown’s Community Preservation Act funds and as much again in private donations for the restoration project. Mr. Scott and Ms. Datz traveled, in December, to Provincetown and Nantucket to view Wendte’s murals and meet with the people who restored them.

The style of all three murals is called trompe l’oeil, which is French for “fool the eye.” Says Ms. Datz, “This style of mural messes with your sense of space. It affects how you physically experience it.”

Having viewed Wendte’s artistry in person, Mr. Scott says, “You think, a shadow is a shadow is a shadow. Not necessarily. I’ll never look at things the same way again.”

After their field trips, Ms. Datz’s recreation of the Old Whaling Church mural continued with scrutiny of that single photograph. She enlarged it, studying every line and shaded contour, then created a line drawing two feet square. That linear rendering gave her what she calls “the bones of the project.”

Next, working with a palette of warm grays based on the color research done in Nantucket, Ms. Datz painted a four-foot-square tonal rendering which conveys the play of light and shadow in the final mural.

For the Nantucket restoration, says Mr. Scott, “They took paint samples; they did chemical samples, and they’ve been extraordinarily generous to share this information with us. We did not have to reinvent the wheel here — all this analysis has just been handed to us. It’s a tremendous help.”

John Anderson has set up sturdy scaffolding against the front wall, and Ms. Datz (with some help from her artist brother, Steve) has been clambering up and down for two weeks transferring first a precise grid, then the chalked lines of the mural onto the prepared surface. As the project advances in the weeks ahead, there’ll be lots more clambering as Ms. Datz works up-close to paint rendering onto the wall, then steps back to see how the illusion works from twenty and forty feet away.

Murals are a unique art form, says Ms. Datz, who shares this definition: “I don’t think something is a mural until you have to turn your head to see it. Otherwise you’re just looking at a big painting.”

Given the expanse of wall in the Old Whaling Church and the task of creating a mural so vast from one old photograph, this project could terrify an artist without Ms. Datz’s years of experience. “For some reason,” she says, “I feel really calm about this job. A big part of that, I think, is just time in the saddle.”

She explains: “Mural painting has offered me an opportunity to paint a hundred different ways. I’ve painted in every style, and I’ve experimented with different palettes — because I wanted each client to have something unique. What that has afforded me is 30 years of unending artistic expansion.”

Looking ahead, Ms. Datz isn’t worried about completing this project in time for Edgartown’s annual town meeting in April. “A project like this is a bit like Chinese cooking: there’s an intense amount of preparation, but if one prepares well, it comes together. Once I get my colors mixed and all of my notations down, things will start to move. People who come in will be saying, whoa – that wasn’t here last week.”

Chris Scott knows that the Preservation Trust, as caretakers of Island landmarks from the Flying Horses to the Grange Hall, has to focus first on essential maintenance. A leaky roof needs repair right now – but the years also bring opportunities for special projects that enhance the Island’s built landscape.

“This project is not only important culturally,” he says, “but so interesting from an intellectual and academic perspective.

“Putting this mural back in the Whaling Church is really important to do. It’s a piece of our cultural history.”