The Captains, Mates and Widows of Whaling Return to Sag Harbor
By Tessa Raebeck
Some of the subjects of Sabina Streeter’s portraits visited her Madison Street studio over the winter, while others haven’t been in the building for nearly 200 years.
In “Captains, Mates, and Widows,” opening Friday at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, Ms. Streeter used contemporary village residents, historical records and her imagination to create a series of mixed media portraits of the village’s prominent and lesser known figures during the peak years of the whaling industry. Artist Dan Rizzie curated the show and Carlos Lama has created an accompanying sound installation that recreates the howling winds and crashing waves of whaling.
Between 1829 and 1847, Sag Harbor was a capital of the whaling industry. As local men headed out to sea as cabin boys and captains—some of them never to return—their families made do at home, peering out from widows’ watches in hopes of seeing a ship on the horizon.
The building that houses Ms. Streeter’s studio was built in 1820 from reclaimed ship’s timber by shipbuilder Abraham Vail. It is the original residence of his son, whaling captain David P. Vail, who captained the ship “Sabina.” Little did he know an artist of the same name would be recreating his likeness in his home more than a century later.
The two-family building, which houses two apartments with identical layouts, was made so that whalers’ wives and children could keep each other company during the long months spent waiting for the men’s return from seas.
“It’s interesting, some of these characters were probably actually here in this building, because they must have socialized somehow,” Ms. Streeter said of her subjects.
One portrait features a young Captain Thomas Wickham Havens, drawn with a soft face and sensitive eyes, the ancestor of George Sterling, who wrote the poem, “The Ballad of the Swabs,” about his relative’s whaling past.
“The tale is of my grandsire and his good whaling-ship. Back to Sag Harbor faring from his eleventh trip,” starts the poem. It ends with the men “twice as hot as any there for home and wife and bed.”
Ms. Streeter portrayed Captain Wickham Havens in the same gray hues she used for his wife, Sarah Darling Havens. Captain Havens’ likeness is taken from a portrait in the whaling museum. Mrs. Havens’ comes from a small tintype.
Before oil tycoons, hedge fund barons and start-up tech financiers, there were whaling captains.
“These whalers were incredibly risk-willing,” said Ms. Streeter. “Most of these boats were like hedge funds—were venture capitalists, ’cause they had to be financed somehow, except they were hands-on.”
For cabin boys and other crewmembers, who came from across the world and on which there is little documentation, Ms. Streeter used her imagination to recreate their likenesses.
One portrait of an unknown cabin boy was done solely from imagination, but for a striking portrait of a harpooner done in bright orange hues, local restaurateur Dan Gasby posed for the artist. His wife and business partner, Barbara Smith, also sat for a portrait.
To recreate the likeness of Enoch Conklin, a privateer whose ship went down in 1814, his ancestor Ted Conklin, owner of The American Hotel, sat for Ms. Streeter.
Captain Jonas Winters, depicted by Ms. Streeter with a full, long beard and a hint of a smile, went on 11 voyages, during which he accumulated 24,500 barrels of oil and 244,000 pounds of bone.
According to an article by H.P. Horton that appeared in “Long Island Forum” in 1948, Sag Harbor Express Editor John H. Hunt asked the then-retired Captain Winters to write an autobiographical sketch covering his 25-year career as a whaler, which appeared in the newspaper on March 15, 1888.
Born in Sag Harbor, Mr. Winters ascended from a common sailor to a captain in a parallel rise to that of the village’s whaling industry. He sailed with men from Amagansett, East Hampton and Southampton, but his shipmates were mostly often from Sag Harbor.
“In these 11 voyages which comprise 22 years of active and ever changing life, occurrences transpired which would fill volumes with interesting and thrilling matter,” wrote Captain Winters. “Sunshine and storm, surprise and disappointment, joy and sadness, never found better illustrations than were obtained in the whale fishery which was Sag Harbor’s most important industry.”
“Captains, Mates and Widows,” will be on view at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum through September 25, with an opening reception on Friday, August 29, from 6 to 8 p.m. For more information, visit sabinastreeter.com.