Stories of the ocean are saturated by fog and brine, haunted by ghost ships and lost sweethearts, and ruled by rugged islanders and valiant captains. Before the many Maine lighthouses were automated, keepers lit the towers, guarding the rocky Maine coast and islands. As waves stoked by tempests washed over their homes, they held their ground and became witness to great shipwrecks, and sometimes, rescues.
These passed-down stories are what French artisan Anne-Emmanuelle Marpeau desires most — historical events at sea that she can filter through her own imagination and rebuild with careful hands. And Maine is one of her favorite places to uncover these stories and retell them in her renowned dioramas, or shadowboxes.
A collection of her Maine shadowboxes embarked on a floating exhibition “Such is a Sailor’s Fortune” this August as they were loaded on the Sunbeam V, a ship operated by the Seacoast Mission, and hit the seas to travel to a constellation of Maine islands.
The exhibition is now anchored at the Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, where it will be on display through Sept. 18.
Marpeau lives in Brittany, France, on a peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, a place not so different from the Maine coast. She is now traveling in Europe and was unavailable for comment.
“She’s been traveling to Maine for the past 20 years periodically, and picks up on stories of the coast from the 1800s forward,” said Jacob Dowling, owner of Dowling Walsh Gallery.
Marpeau spent the summer of 2009 on Great Cranberry Island as part of the Heliker-LaHotan Foundation’s residency program for artists. And last summer, the museum hosted the exhibit “Inside the Box: The Marine Art of Anne-Emmanuelle Marpeau,” but this year was her first time bringing her finished works to the islands that are the source of her inspiration.
Visitors boarded the vessel to view the exhibit at each destination, and some stops included workshops on diorama building and an onshore reception with slide shows of local scenes from the Penobscot Marine Museum’s vast photographic collections.
Her exhibit aboard the Sunbeam V was a part of the Penobscot Marine Museum’s “Art Afloat: Tales of Maritime Maine” and visited Northeast Harbor, Isle Au Haut, North Haven, Islesboro, Stonington, Swan’s Island and Great Cranberry Island from Aug. 16-19 before ending at the Dowling Walsh Gallery.
Art collectors already have purchased every shadowbox in the exhibit except for one piece, “Such is a Sailor’s Fortune,” which costs $24,000. The artwork mostly went to year-round Maine residents or people who own summer homes in the state.
“Such is a Sailor’s Fortune,” depicts the remarkable wreck of the Royal Tar on Oct. 25, 1838. The steamer was carrying a menagerie of animals from Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, to Boston that sank near Bluff Head, Maine. Marpeau depicts the disaster with a whimsical underwater scene. Wrecked sail ships settle on the bottom of the ocean. A mermaid rides an elephant wading through blue seaweed, and tigers burst from circus wagons floating down from the wrecked steamer.
Though much of Marpeau’s dioramas are rooted in her imagination, many of the details are historically accurate, from the style of boats she constructs of cloth and wood, to the clothing draped over tiny figurines.
Many of the shadowboxes are accompanied by a story, quotation or poem, Marpeau’s way of explaining the event while still leaving much to the viewers imagination as they peer through the glass front of the box, many the size of small windows.
With her piece, “Hendricks Head Light,” she quotes Joseph Conrad in the “Mirror of the Sea”: “Nobody can say with what thoughts, with what regrets, with what words on their lips that they died. But there is something fine in the sudden passing away of these hearts from the extremity of struggle and stress and tremendous uproar — from the vast, unrestful rage of the surface to the profound peace of the depths, sleeping untroubled since the beginning of ages.”
In the box, a sailboat, surrounded by gulls, plummets from the sky, crumpling on the waves. Marpeau created the fall by reconstructing the vessel five times, at various stages of its wreck. As the progression arcs to the waves beneath, a whale leaps up into the sky, almost brushing a compass that doubles as a full moon.
Underneath the flying humpback whale, Hendricks Head Lighthouse stands as it was in 1859. A rescue team gathered in gray slickers and black hats. A woman scoops up a lost baby from the wreckage. Marpeau’s vision of this particular disaster is much less whimsical than the ruin of the Royal Tar. She draws a viewer’s eye to the tragic beauty of every detail of the story.
“They’re amazing,” said Dowling, who has been collecting Marpeau’s work for seven years. “You can really get into them and into another world.”
Many of the historical events Marpeau chose are tragic, but she also captures the joys of island life and the celebratory event of launching a newly constructed ship. In “Wheaton Island,” she illustrates the secluded love of two protectors, Lizzie and John Matelock, stationed on the small island in 1905. They constructed a boat shop from the lumber they took from the abandoned granite sheds of other islands.
In the shadowbox, Lizzie leans over one side of a white boat just emerging from their boat shop, her hair lifted by the wind, and John leans over the other side, his hand touching hers.
“They lived in two rooms over the shop,” Marpeau wrote. “And their life was beautiful.”
The floating art show was supported by a joint grant from the Maine Humanities Council and the Maine Arts Commission and sponsored by the Penobscot Marine Museum. The Dowling Walsh Gallery is located at 357 Main St. in Rockland. For information, visit dowlingwalsh.com or call 597-0084.