Friday, July 9, 2010

Canvas Ships and Planes

His card read Ian Marshall: Fellow American Society of Marine Artists. But he was anything but American. He was British, yet self-effacingly so. An almost shy, impeccably mannered man in his early seventies who has the gift of portraying in watercolor and oil a variety of historical ships, often in their most memorable or even saddest moments such as last sailings. And not only ships but giant seaplanes – flying boats of all ages, designs and pedigree. Theirs was a short age, but he captures its glory in atmospheric detail. His vocation seems to be one of preserving not only visual memories, but also the stories behind those fleeting times: The age of steamships and the demise of the “huge, frightfully expensive but great fun” aircraft – ushering in bland modernity, affordability, and Equal Flights For All.

Ian Marshall is from the County of Fife, bonny Scotland, but so well traveled. He qualified as an architect at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and then went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania. He has worked all over the world, but primarily in Africa. Most recently he was offered his skills to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and even the World Bank. His paintings are, not to exaggerate, all over the western sea-going world. And no, I had not heard of Ian before today. (But then I am somewhat of a dunce in this field.)

I had the undeserved honor of meeting Ian, and his wonderful wife Jean, at Art Hampton, a tented affair in Sayers Park, Bridgehampton. A friend engineered this, thinking I would love to meet someone who shared a passion for ships, and in particular historical ships. British in the main, pardon the pun, but actually hulls of all nations. There among concentric circles, plates glued to canvas, muscular penises, Dutch masters’ original faces transplanted into… well, I’m not exactly sure, Warhol wannabees, rusted balls (“you can surely feel the tantric pain,”) a twelve foot tall surfboard skeg which, I was reliably informed, will swivel with the wind, and a Picasso. Really? At a mere $250,000 I have my doubts. I must return tomorrow and investigate.

And in the middle of all of this extraordinary scene stood this quiet and wonderful historian who, when approached, would gently describe memories of Kenya, Simonstown, India, Portsmouth, and navies, harbors (and clubs) unknown to most Americans. And do so, like his painting, with graphic detail. As if he had been there, as he had been for so many of his subjects, although (he politely reminded me) not the earlier ones!

I left Ian and Jean with gratitude, and a promise to return, and even getting an invitation to visit them at their Maine home. I hoped that I didn’t take up too much of his time, but did note that even in between our conversations few people dropped by. And then I painfully remembered that this was the Hamptons. And I looked at the visitors to that art tent.

They seemed like rusted balls and muscular penis people to me. And that says it all.

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