As a young artist developing his compositional style, James Fitzgerald saw a lovely sight one day while painting in Gloucester, Mass. in 1923. It was the schooner Elizabeth Howard. The artist, who would become known for his paintings of seagulls and capturing the spirit of everyday life, was so captivated by what he saw that he wanted–needed–to get aboard that ship.
Built in 1916 in East Boothbay, the “White Ghost,” as the Elizabeth Howard was known, was headed to the Grand Banks off Newfoundland to haul in halibut when Fitzgerald convinced the ship’s captain to take him on board for the trip.
Once on board, Fitzgerald drew portraits of the crew members in their oil skins on deck, uncoiling rope, relaxing with a pipe, sleeping-capturing a working shipboard life that was rapidly becoming extinct. At the time, the Elizabeth Howard was still powered by sail, but many schooners were moving to mechanized motors.
During the trip, a violent storm with winds over 120 miles per hour gave the crew and Fitzgerald quite a scare, so much so that the captain of the schooner walked away from his job once they made it back to Boston Harbor.
Two weeks into the next trip, the Elizabeth Howard broke in half in a storm off Nova Scotia. The entire crew was lost.
Almost 80 years later, the crew members of the Elizabeth Howard, and the schooner itself, live on in the work Fitzgerald created while he was on board the ill-fated ship. An exhibition of that work, “James Fitzgerald and the Elizabeth Howard,” is on view at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland.
The exhibition of 19 pieces is part of the Maine Drawing Project, a statewide visual arts initiative celebrating drawing. All but one of the works
is from the Farnsworth’s Fitzgerald collection. The other piece is on loan from the Monhegan Museum, which is the custodian of Fitzgerald’s former home and studio on the island.
“I think you can just tell by looking at the work that he was there,” said Angela Waldron, the Farnsworth’s registrar and the curator of the exhibit. “Actually there instead of just on the shore thinking about it. The motion-there’s a lot of action in very little space. I really think he manages to capture the mood.”
The intimacy Fitzgerald brought to his work was achieved by being there, existing in the same space with his subjects. Forty years after his death, it is this commitment to his work that is remembered on Monhegan Island, where he lived and worked for nearly 30 years in a home and studio built by his friend, Rockwell Kent, said Bob Stahl, associate director of the Monhegan Museum.
Part of Fitzgerald’s legacy on the island, said Stahl, is that he is one of the few artists who became part of the island community. What made a big impression on islanders, and still is remembered today, was his work ethic. Like many of the working folk on Monhegan, Fitzgerald was up with the sun. Just how much work he accomplished was evident when he died and the executors of his estate found hundreds upon hundreds of drawings and paintings in his studio.
“If you ask people on the island about Lynn Drexler or about James Fitzgerald, they talk about that-that these are people who were no nonsense about their art. They really committed themselves to it,” Stahl said.
“I think there is nothing that islanders respect more than a hard work ethic, whether it’s fishing, or it’s carpentry or artwork. I think if you have that work ethic, that’s what people really respond to.”
“James Fitzgerald and the Elizabeth Howard” is on exhibit at the Farnsworth Art Museum through June 26. Admission to the museum is $12; $10 for seniors and for students age 17 and older. Admission is free for youth age 16 and younger and for Rockland residents. Go to www.farnsworthmuseum.org for information.
James Fitzgerald’s home and studio are open to the public from 1 to 3 p.m. on Tuesdays and Saturdays and the Monhegan Museum is open daily from late June to late September. Go to www.monheganmuseum.org for information.