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Mystic Seaport Museum Exhibition to Focus on the Art of the Sailor

Sailor Made: Folk Art of the Sea Dives Deep into the Museum’s Collection to Explore the Rich and Surprising Creativity of the American Seafarer 

Mystic, Conn. (August 28, 2020) — When sailors went to sea in the 19th century, they faced difficult working conditions, cramped personal space onboard ship, and voyages that at times could stretch for months or even years. Sailor Made: Folk Art of the Sea, a new exhibition opening September 18 in the Museum’s C.D. Mallory Building, explores the art that emerged out of this working world, reflecting sailors’ connections to shipboard life, their thoughts about culture on shore, and the souvenirs they created to remember and share the experiences of their travels.

The second of four new exhibitions funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, Sailor Made highlights more than 200 objects from the Museum’s collection, many of which have long been hidden from public view. Each artifact has its own story, and through the work of exhibition curator Mirelle Luecke, Ph.D., much new information has been uncovered about the objects in the show.

“When stuck in the difficult, dangerous, and sometimes monotonous environment of the ship, sailors used art to express themselves. The designs they inscribed on scrimshaw, the types of household items they made, and the ways they used different materials were all intentions, and tell us something about the sailors themselves, their experiences, and the world they lived in,” said Luecke.

These stories show how creating art enabled sailors to differentiate their labor and leisure time in the otherwise all-consuming work environment of the ship.

To do this sailors turned to art, carving scrimshaw, drawing in journals, sewing intricate embroidery, and creating intricate knot-work, to name but a few of the media on display. Highlights include:

  • Personal items that spoke to sailor-makers professional life and skills, such as knives, needle cases, clothing, and elaborate macramé bags
  • Household items such as bowls and boxes fashioned out of exotic materials
  • A child’s hammock decorated with scenes from the circumnavigation voyage of the USS Columbia, made by one shipmate for another
  • Examples of tattoo flash (sample drawings from which sailors could choose their tattoo)
  • Numerous pieces of scrimshaw, including engraved teeth, jagging wheels, bodkins, and a knitting swift
  • A coatrack constructed of narwhal tusks
  • A cribbage board in the shape of the nuclear submarine USS Hartford

As self-taught artists, sailors engaged with the working world of the ship, imagined their ideal lives on shore, and created objects to commemorate their experiences at sea. This exhibition is a view into the world of the 19th-century sailor, with a few modern examples to show how those impulses and activities continue today in some naval and merchant mariners.

The exhibition is made possible by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to support the curation and development of four new collections installations and related programming at Mystic Seaport Museum. These projects will provide new perspectives on the art and ensure the continued preservation and refinement of the collections while also promoting public access.

Access to Sailor Made is included in the Museum’s general admission.

Media Contact

Dan McFadden
Director of Communications
Mystic Seaport Museum

About Mystic Seaport Museum

Mystic Seaport Museum, founded in 1929, is the nation’s leading maritime museum. In addition to providing a multitude of immersive experiences, the Museum also houses a collection of more than two million artifacts that include more than 500 historic vessels and one of the largest collections of maritime photography. Mystic Seaport Museum is located one mile south of Exit 90 off I-95 in Mystic, CT. For more information, please visit www.mysticseaport.org/ and follow Mystic Seaport Museum on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.