By Dawn Watson
There’s more than meets the eye in Sabina Streeter’s mixed media portraits of iconic historic characters. Every image she creates represents decades of history, and hours upon hours of research into the lives of her subjects.
For her latest exhibition, “Sister Sailors & Sons of Sag Harbor,” opening at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum on Thursday, August 27, the artist has set her sights on quite a few interesting personalities from days of yore. The poetic interpretations for “Sister Sailors,” illustrated in charcoal and ink on paper, will include likenesses of war hero Captain David Hand, Whalers Church architect Minard Lafever; Captain Benjamin Hunting II, who built the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, and a number of pioneering whaling women. The 20-piece show is a continuation of Ms. Streeter’s 2014 exhibit, “Captains, Mates, + Widows,” also at the Whaling Museum.
History, especially local lore, has always fascinated the artist. Ms. Streeter’s interest in Sag Harbor’s past is fueled by the fact that she lives in what is considered one of the oldest homes in the village. The circa-1820 house on Madison Street was built by ship maker Abraham Vail for his son, whaling captain David Vail, the master of the ship “Sabina.”
“I’m very interested in history, particularly of Sag Harbor and the whaling industry, which is very underrepresented everywhere else in the history books,” Ms. Streeter explained during a visit to her home and studio. “I live in this historic house, originally built as a place to entertain whaling families, that feels like an extension of the book ‘Moby Dick.’ How could I not be interested.”
The subject matter for “Sister Sailors” is compelling, Ms. Streeter says. Delving deep into the lives of those she’s portraying on paper, the artist came across some gripping tales.
Take Captain Hand, for instance. The Revolutionary War hero, born in 1805 and buried in Oakland Cemetery after his death in 1849, is said to be the inspiration for James Fenimore Cooper’s Natty Bumppo character in his “Leatherstocking Tales” series of five novels based on early frontier life.
The Captain’s Church Street home—built in Southampton pre-1732 and later moved to its current location in 1840, according to the “Guide to Sag Harbor” by Henry Weisbery and Lisa Donneson—is practically next door to where Ms. Streeter has lived since 1998. But the literary factoid about him and her connection to Captain Hand’s property are merely tips of the iceberg, says Ms. Streeter.
The really juicy stuff about the man called “Slippery Dave,” named for his astonishing five escapes from British prison ships during wartime and before the age of 20, happened during his post-war years. After being discharged, the sailor made his mark as a whaling captain. During that time, which he spent on the East End, he married and buried a whopping total of five wives.
Intrigued by the Captain’s good fortune for outliving the former Susannah Sayre Stewart; her sister, Mary Sayre Stewart; Hannah Miller; Charlotte Havens and Hannah Sayre, Ms. Streeter set out to learn more about the Hands. The artist discovered that at least one of the Captain’s spouses, third wife Hannah, seemed to have alluded to the possibility of foul play. The epitaph on her tombstone at Oakland Cemetery reads:
“Behold, ye curious, living mortals passing by
How thick the partners of one husband lie
Vast and unsearchable the ways of God
Just, but severe his chastising rod”
It’s this type of story that urges Ms. Streeter on and takes her most recent artwork, named after Joan Druett’s book, “She was a Sister Sailor: Mary Brewster’s Whaling Journals, 1845-1851,” to a much deeper place says the artist. So much so that even as the opening date to the exhibition draws nearer, and with a few pieces still yet to be created, she can’t resist the siren call of additional research.
“The more I dig, the more I find,” she says.
Sabina Streeter’s “Sister Sailors & Sons of Sag Harbor” opens with a reception at the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum on Thursday, August 27, from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibition, curated by Dan Rizzie and featuring an original soundtrack by Carlos Lama, will also include text and biographies highlighting the historical background of the subjects. The show will hang through September 8. For additional information, visit www.sagharborwhalingmuseum.org and www.sabinastreeter.com.