The past becomes present in William T. Hall’s new exhibit of watercolors showing the island’s daily boating and fishing habits in earlier times. They will be on display from July 20 to August 1, 2018, with the opening reception on Saturday, July 21, from 5-7 pm at the Jessie Edwards Gallery on the second floor of the Post Office building.
Using classical watercolor techniques, Hall composes his scenes from a rich variety of sources — stories passed down from his father and older generations of Block Island fishing families, his own memories and experiences sword fishing, and research in marine archives and other historical references. “I want to create a mood, to tell a story of a particular era in the island’s history,” Hall said recently. Tinted with sepia, each scene is painted on Arche’s fine grain, cold-pressed watercolor paper. The details of the old working boats, and the topography of the island and structures are meticulously rendered and draw us into the action and spirit of the moment.
Hall feels that the Double Ender, originally developed by Island settlers, was at the heart of the strong community of fishermen, and they are the subject of many works in this exhibit. In “Life at North Light” we see, just as the solitary lighthouse keeper might have seen, a small fleet of Double Enders hard at work in the choppy waters off Sandy Point, attended by hungry swooping gulls and the solid presence of the lighthouse. “Preparing to Cross Sandy Point” shows one Double Ender navigating the tricky currents of the North Point with a shadowy 3-masted schooner in the background safely out at sea, while on the lighthouse beach, dories are being hauled ashore.
Fishing grounds off the South East coast were fertile with cod and flounder. “Double Enders on Easterly Grounds” shows a fleet fishing off the South East coast in these small, fecund spots, not to be found on charts, and whose coordinates were known and passed on through generations of fishing families. The Double Enders also ranged farther off Block Island and often encountered larger boats in the shipping lanes and approaches to Narragansett Bay. “The ‘Coronet’ Passing” captures a fleet of Double Enders saluting the schooner yacht “Coronet,” built in 1887, as it returned to Newport after sailing around the world. Similarly, “Three Cheers for AMERICA” shows Double Enders greeting the 1851 schooner yacht “America” on her return victory voyage after winning the Isle of Wight Royal Yacht Club Squadron Race.
Several works depict the trawler-styled swordfishing boats that became a staple of the fishing industry on the New England coast in the 1930s. “Block Island Swordfishing Trawler” is a detailed view of the special design and rigging needed for swordfishing, with its harpoon platform, tall spotting mast, and dories perched on the pilothouse and the stern. They are needed to go out and haul in a harpooned swordfish. “Launching a Dory to Tend the Keg” shows exactly that action as the crew of a trawler slips a dory into the water to go out to the keg marking the spot where the fish is to be pulled in. In “ ‘A to Z,’ Lost in the 1938 Hurricane,” Hall remembers Ray Warner’s fishing boat “A to Z” in its prime, having harpooned a swordfish and sending a dory to the keg to haul in the catch.
There are enough dangers at sea in the life of a fisherman, but Prohibition brought another level of risk and also another kind of boat into the fishing community. At 13 miles off the US coast, the island was in the center of the Prohibition trade. Small, fast boats called Rumrunners were used to store and deliver the goods. “Rum Row Off Block Island” and “A Rumrunner in Old Harbor, 1928” give us a sense of this dangerous era — for some a lucrative digression from fishing, for others a ruinous adventure.
“Flounder Bridge” and “Spring Mackerel Fishing, Payne’s Dock” recall a more benign activity that Hall remembers seeing in May of 1970. They show a communal ritual that marks the beginning of a season. Islanders met on the small bridge into New Harbor to catch flounder on their migration to the harbor near the Hog Pen. The fish were nabbed with a long handled eel spear from the bridge. On Payne’s Dock, islanders gathered with fishing poles to catch mackerel returning to feed on the abundant minnows in the water under the dock.