17 July 2019

Minerva McCrimmon (study)

Minerva McCrimmon (study)
20" x 16", oil on wood panel,
2019, private collection.

When Krista and I moved to Prince Edward County in 2010, we were very interested in its history, feeling we could explore and celebrate it through our artwork in various ways. I won't get into all the historical work we've done, but I'll say that, over the years, we've gathered more than a few books to help educate us. One of these books is "The New Improved Legendary Guide to Prince Edward County" by Janet Kellough, and it was in this slim, spiral-bound text (that everybody seems to get upon arrival in PEC) that I first became aware of Minerva McCrimmon and her big heroic act in April 1880. There isn't much information on her actual life, but the story from well over a century ago is really all I needed for this project.

I liked the story a lot –especially because she was so young– and I kept revisiting the tale to see if I could come up with a way to paint her portrait or adequately illustrate the event (much the way I illustrated another fascinating County story concerning a Mrs. Irwin during World War One). I pored over my existing photo reference of friends and co-workers that I'd used (and continue to use) in my paintings, but no one seemed to fit or looked young enough.

There are four paragraphs in total in the Kellough book concerning Minerva (spanning pages 66 & 67): the first one doesn't mention her, but informs us that many women signed on to ships as the cook, occasionally taking the wheel during storms while the men dealt with the sails; the second paragraph tells us that no one could steer the schooner David Andrews straighter than Minerva; the third paragraph tells the relevant story:

"...on April 13th, 1880 the David Andrews drove into the reef three miles below Oswego, New York in a blinding snowstorm. The lifesaving crew was already responding to other vessels in distress, but they managed to shoot a line across to the David Andrews. The only way ashore was by riding across this line on a bosun's chair. The crew was petrified. Minerva went first, to show them it could be done, and then she returned to the ship. One by one she escorted the crew, including her father, safely to shore;"

...and in the last one we're told that "soon after" she married Henry Whattam (but their marriage record says she and Henry were married on February 10, 1880, two months before the storm incident), and died a short time later at the age of 21. That's the only mention of her age in this book, but some sources place her age at the time of the ship's grounding at 17, while others say she was 19.

Penciled and prepped.

Months ago I was approached to be part of a group of portrait artists who would create a portrait of a notable woman from Prince Edward County history during a fundraising event for our local museums. Naturally, my thoughts turned to Minerva and I immediately began composing a "symbolic" portrait since there's no photographic record of her. The final portrait of Minerva herself is based on a photo of a young woman I bought from a stock house (I again revisited my existing model refs, but I still felt none of them fit or looked young enough).

The parameters of the fundraising event at the Wellington Heritage Museum changed a bit since the initial invitation, but now were that we would create these portraits on a 20" x 16" canvas (or wood panel, in my case) and that they would be completed in exactly 60 minutes. People would pay to watch us paint, and then, afterward, they would bid on the portraits in a silent auction.

I don't mind taking a calculated risk in front of people, so how well or poorly I painted during the hour would be just a look into my process or whatever, and not a great concern to me. But, knowing the portraits would then be up for auction, I wanted to maximize the potential for the museums to raise money from my painting by doing the best possible work I could in an hour –and that meant coming prepared, so I started with the penciled image above, acrylic ground also already in place.

Repaint begins.

Having only an hour in which to paint this portrait, I deliberately designed it to have a limited palette, sticking closely to blues to evoke both icy cold and serene calm. I knew from the get-go that this would serve as a study for a larger piece based on the exact same reference illustration I created in Photoshop; I'd be able to really get in there with the detail work on her face, the ship's intricate rigging and sails, and all those water effects, both calm and stormy. I'm happy that this fun fundraising event lit a fire under me to finally (nine years after I first "met" Minerva) come up with an image that I feel does both her and her story proper justice.

I felt lucky to get a 20-minute extension during the night of the fundraising event and felt satisfied to have achieved what I did in that short a period (in the photo above only the clouds and calm waters have been repainted, the rest is as it was after 80 minutes' work). Then we were told that the auction would take place at a later date and that we could take our portraits home to work on them some more if we wanted to. Well, sure: of course I'd like to take it home and take my time to get it closer to my initial vision for the portrait. The repaint benefits from increased contrast and I did a better job on the stormy water effect, but I didn't do any new work on her face at all, feeling the rendering, as is, would suffice for this study.

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