With his new series of watercolors, “Island Maritime Paintings,” Bill Hall continues to chart the history of Block Island’s boats, its community of fisherman, and the ways in which fishing has changed over the decades. They are on exhibit at the Jessie Edwards Studio on the second floor the Post Office building from August 23 to September 4. The opening reception is on Saturday, August 24, from 5 to 7 pm.
For Hall, the Double-Ender, or Cowhorn as it is also known, is the link, a “portal to imagined scenes from the past.” Nevertheless, these imagined scenes are grounded in reality. Hall’s sources include old photographs, stories passed down from his father and older genera-tions of Island fishing families, his own memories, and research in marine archives and other historical resources. Capturing the past is difficult enough, and in working in watercolor, Hall has, as he says, tried to “control the uncontrollable — water.” His strokes are delicate but strong and meticulous in defining the details of the boats, the old buildings, and the old fishing tech-niques. He uses watercolor paper with a smooth surface, which is good for detail, and sometimes coats it with sepia for a period feeling. Combining watercolor with an opaque medium such as gouache allows for more highlights and greater contrast between light and dark tones.
For over 250 years, Double Ender crews saw every change in maritime transportation to pass through the waters around Block Island. For example, “Double Ender and New Bedford Whaler, ‘Wanderer,’ 1820s” emphasizes both the durability and the fragility of the small fishing boat as it sails alongside the three-masted ocean-going schooner in deep waters off the coastline. “Changes on the Horizon, Sail Gives Way to Steam Power” shows a small fleet of Double En-ders of various sizes before sails gave way to the gas-powered engine. The impressive Clipper ship on the horizon brings home the changes under way. We can see it is powered by both coal and wind, with its graceful white sails billowing in the wind and the black smokestack in the cen-ter of the deck shows the use of coal to produce steam, its other source of power.
Several works show the sense of community among the fishing families of the island. It was rare for a fisherman to go out alone. Instead, they fished in groups for safety, especially in poor weather and difficult currents. “Three Double Enders Fishing” is a scene of three small boats cod fishing in the East Grounds on a grey, overcast day. The angle of their sails suggests a strong wind blowing off the coast. “Fog at Southeast Light House” dramatizes the treachery of navigating the bluffs in dense fog. In contrast, “Shore Day at Pole Harbor” shows a day of quiet industry in the 1870s, prior to the creation of the breakwater and mooring basins. In this scene, the fishermen outfit and repair their boats that are moored between poles to keep them upright at or just below the high water mark so that their overlapping planks remain wet and do not dry out and open up.
“Hand-lining, Old Harbor Point, 1860s” shows a Double Ender at anchor while the men use simple lines to fish for flounder, which was plentiful in the cove below the point which is now the site of St. Andrew’s Parish Center. As sword fishing became profitable around the 1930s, boats were outfitted with higher masts and pulpits for harpooning. “Block Island Trawlers Swordfishing — Late 1940s” shows two trawlers from different eras, both using the older tech-niques of harpoon-fishing and dory-tending that had been developed in the early days of whal-ing. “Dragger Swordfishing, 1950s” is a view of a dragger, the “Blanche II,” outfitted for sword fishing and named for the artist’s aunt, Blanche Dodge.
Hall has included a series of six watercolors depicting the evolution of Block Island ferry boats, some that may still be familiar to Islanders and visitors. They include “ISLAND BELLE Ferry Boat Leaving Old Harbor, 1920s,” SPRIGG CARROL Ferry Boat Boat and Ocean Clipper Dragger, 1940s,” “NELSECO II, Ferry Boat to Block Island, 1950s,” YANKEE Ferry Boat, Rainy Trip, 1950s,” the “QUONSET Ferry, Leaving Old Harbor, 1959”.