Seeking peace in a painting

“Spring Snow in the Maples,” 10X14, Poppy Balser

“Spring Snow in the Maples,” 10X14, Poppy Balser
The most-read post I’ve ever written was about how to fold a plastic shopping bag. Peoples’ reactions to my writing always surprise me. It’s one of the great joys about blogging—and about painting. You send your ideas out into the world, and they elicit responses you never dreamed of. And here you thought you were being perfectly clear.
When I wrote about going to Buffalo for a funeral last Thursday, it was a howl from my own darkness. I figured people would read it and move on. Instead, I’ve received a deluge of responses: on Facebook, by email, and in person. Stories of sons dying, friends dying, nephews dying. Stories about the child of a senior pastor, a daughter-in-law. Stories of near misses and years of soul-crushing worry.
“Passing Goat Island,” 7X11, Poppy Balser

“Passing Goat Island,” 7X11, Poppy Balser
About five years ago, I decided I would pay attention every murder in Rochester, NY. Two things became apparent. The first was that murder victims in my city were overwhelmingly black, male and young. The second was that society reacted much more strongly when the crime victim didn’t fit that demographic. Young gang-bangers, we tell ourselves, bring this on themselves. It is only when they miss and shoot a child or a grandmother that people make a fuss.
That is part of the black, urban, poor side of the drug war.* I’d totally missed the white, suburban, affluent side because we don’t call drug overdoses “murder,” and we don’t put them in the news. Often, we don’t even talk about the cause of death. But inner-city murders and suburban overdoses are flip sides of the same evil coin.
“Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour,” says 1 Peter 5:8.
“Hay Bales and Evergreens,” 7X11, Poppy Balser

“Hay Bales and Evergreens,” 7X11, Poppy Balser
As you can imagine, I drove home from Buffalo in a black mood. I’m seeking peace. And I found it in my mailbox last night, with four paintings by Nova Scotia artist Poppy Balser. (I’ve written about her before, here.) “To spread a little calm this week I thought I would share some of my paintings from this last year that I painted in particularly peaceful surroundings,” she wrote.
Why are these particular paintings so peaceful? Poppy painted them in tightly-controlled analogous color schemes—it was a blue day on the water, a green day in the fields, or a misty grey day in the winter. There are no notes of complementary color to engage us. Our minds are free to rest.
These paintings are a great example of color theory in action. If they make you feel less frantic this holiday season, they’ve just demonstrated one reason why art is so profoundly important to society. In fact, take one painting and call me in the morning. They’re more powerful than Xanax, and totally free of side effects.
“Farmyard Morning, 7X11,” Poppy Balser

“Farmyard Morning, 7X11,” Poppy Balser
*In 2000, the highest overdose rate was among black Americans aged 45-64. Today, it’s young white people. Non-whites actually use less heroin than in the past; the out-of-control epidemic is in white America.

A deadly inheritance

"Annunciation," by Carol L. Douglas. That phone call is like a nuclear bomb, only worse.

“Annunciation,” by Carol L. Douglas. That phone call is like a nuclear bomb, only worse.
The work I’d planned for today and tomorrow is off my slate. Instead, I’m driving back to Buffalo for a funeral. Our oldest friend’s youngest child died of a drug overdose on Tuesday night.
I’m not going to speculate on what happened. For one thing, I don’t know. But it’s a tragically common story in our age.
Parents like to believe they can protect their kids from making bad choices. To a degree that’s true, but it’s not totally true. I don’t know a single kid who never did anything monumentally stupid, including mine.
I’ve known three generations of this family. None of the usual bromides apply. When I say that the boy had “every advantage,” I’m not talking about just education or money; I’m talking about love, stability, heritage, and a sense of his place in the world.
"Female," (detail), by Carol L. Douglas. Drug addiction is like a death grip on your head, man.

“Female,” (detail), by Carol L. Douglas.
If you’re my age, you probably think of recreational drugs as pretty harmless. Back in the 1970s, many of us experimented with them. True, most of us aging hippies have—more or less—our faculties intact, but we’ve left a big mess behind.
We are fools when we look back on our youthful foibles through John Lennon-framed rose-colored glasses. Drugs are a curse on our children’s and grandchildren’s generations. Deaths from opioids and their synthetic analogues have skyrocketed, according to the DEA. Heroin deaths increased 248% from 2010 to 2014. Heroin is more potent and less expensive than ever. Even pot is no longer the mild, friendly drug we once knew.
In the 1970s, the annual drug overdose death rate was fewer than 2 deaths per 100,000 people. In 2014, it was 15 deaths per hundred thousand people. As a cause of accidental death, it is now second only to car crashes.
And that’s just the user side of the problem. On the other side is the violent drug war in our cities that disproportionately claim young black men.
When the Bible talks about “visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation,” it isn’t talking about transferring punishment (Scripture says that can’t happen). This boy’s parents never touched drugs themselves. They were so focused on their studies that they sat out the Swinging Seventies, making them a little puzzling to have at parties.
That verse says that sin itself, unless repudiated, will keep on reappearing. Our generation’s casual attitude toward drugs has morphed into a scourge ravaging our young people. Both the middle-class kids who overdose and the ghetto kids caught up drug violence are its victims.
When I argue for a closed border, it’s not to keep undocumented migrants out of the US; it’s to seal off the major heroin routes into the US. But even that won’t work as long as there’s demand.
"Chris in Pink," by Carol L. Douglas.

“Chris in Pink,” by Carol L. Douglas.
Since my own misspent youth, my generation has cheerfully torn away at the underpinnings of our culture. Marriage, work, faith and family have all been tossed into the great maw. They’ve been replaced by self-actualization and sensualism. Is it possible that this leaves our descendants feeling unnecessary, marginalized and devoid of purpose?
To a degree, parents can counter those messages, but the larger culture has a profound influence on our kids. That’s why there are so many upright old ladies in urban churches mourning the loss of their sons and grandsons in the drug war.
For now, kiss your children and tell them you love them. One never knows what one’s tomorrow will bring. And pray. Pray like crazy.
As for me, in the words of my former gangbanger friend, I feel like punching them drug-dealing m—rf—rs in the throat. Nobody expects a left hook from a little old lady.

Artist faces mountain of student debt

Abstraction, by Carol L. Douglas. Art can be done with nothing more than charcoal and newsprint.

Abstraction, by Carol L. Douglas. Art can be done with nothing more than charcoal and newsprint.
Alex Katz is famous for having destroyed about a thousand of his own paintings while he tried to solidify his style. “There didn’t seem much reason to keep them. The positive thing was what I got out of the painting, not the paintings.” That was on top of an already-prestigious art education at Cooper-Union and Skowhegan.
That was in the 1950s and it runs deeply counter to our current zeitgeist. Today most artists document every stage of every painting on social media. I’m a product of my times and I like the way we work today. However, I did think about Katz recently while counseling a younger artist.
I’ve known G. since she was doing her master’s in art education at a private (and pricey) school in Rochester. She worked as my figure model. For her, grad school was a terrible career move. It didn’t translate into a job. Combined with her undergraduate bills, her loans ballooned to more than a quarter of a million dollars.
"Submission," by Carol L. Douglas. G. modeled for this when she was an impecunious grad student.

“Submission,” by Carol L. Douglas. G. modeled for this when she was an impecunious grad student.
In response, she took the path of least resistance: becoming an economic non-entity. That was one thing when she was a carefree sprite, but now that she has a husband and a child, she wants to work legitimately. She will find this close to impossible in a nation with no secrets. There is a big hole in her work history from when she stopped working in the formal economy. In this age where new employees are subject to credit checks, her overwhelming debt makes her a non-starter.
(I’m seldom nostalgic, but there was something to be said for the past, when a person could hop a train and leave his youthful indiscretions behind. Today our histories are tattooed into some kind of master database. We can never escape them. Even the supposedly-judgmental God of the Bible is far more merciful than that.)
This is, of course, a personal disaster for G. In a way, it’s also a perfect opportunity. She has explored Etsy as a means to making money, but hasn’t had a lightning-bolt idea. Why not take the Alex Katz route and make art as a process of self-discovery? Art can be made with nothing more than a block of wood and a sharp knife. She has both, and lots more. I suggested that she produce and destroy many works. When she finds what she is looking for, doors will open; they always do.
A maquette from the days when I still had time to experiment. Not being able to make money in art is in some ways a great liberation.

A maquette from the days when I still had time to experiment. Not being able to make money in art is in some ways a great liberation.
I’m the last person to recommend that anyone drop out of the formal economy. But the need to be a productive member of society outweighs our requirement to follow rules.
A few brief mentions:
A reader pointed out to me that several studies have shown that some men do not change their underwear daily. Market research firm Mintel found that “one in every five males do not change their underwear on a daily basis.” UK retailer Marks & Spencer pegged that at around a third of men. And Clorox found that one in every eight guys wear their underwear multiple times between washings.
I’m not sure what she thinks I can do about it.
Remember my post about Britain scrapping the A-Level in Art History? There was such a public outcry that the course has been reinstated. As we were in the middle of an election here, I missed the news about how they mounted their protest. I can’t see art historians rioting at the Palace of Westminster; they’d be much too careful of the furnishings. But I’m sure glad they succeeded.

When learning is hard

"Dinghies, Monhegan," was finally added to my website this week.

“Dinghies, Monhegan,” was finally added to my website this week.
I knew a little girl who hated to read. Her mother labored to find books that interested her enough to overcome her dislike. This grew harder as she got older, because things on Deborah’s reading level were often an insult to her intelligence.
I urgently needed to add my drive across Canada, and my shipyard paintings to my website. Website maintenance is my most hated job, and I drag myself kicking and screaming into doing it. I used to use an expensive editing package, but I didn’t understand how it worked. Then my daughter—who builds and maintains complex websites for a living—redesigned my website using Visual Studio Express. I could make simple changes of text, but anything more complicated was beyond me.
"Marshes along the Ottawa River" was added to my website.

“Marshes along the Ottawa River” was added to my website.
Over the years, I’ve gotten a little bit better. As long as I’ve got the existing site as a template, I can clone bits here and there and get an approximation of what I want. Still, I’m always focused on the mechanics, and the content is secondary. When I look at my website, I’m disappointed in its lack of elegance.
This process, I thought, must feel a lot like learning to read feels to a kid like Deborah. The coding/decoding is so much slower than one’s thinking that the brain loses the thread.
In addition to not understanding what I was doing, I’d developed an emotional block. I’d failed at it before. I expect to fail again. Just sitting down to work on it gave me the heebie-jeebies.
And then, suddenly, the picture started to shift. Back in the day, graphic designers sometimes used metacharacters to fix badly-formatted documents. I began to see parallels between these and HTML commands. Tiny bits of text would stop swirling around the page long enough to resolve into an intelligible sequence. I wouldn’t call myself fluent by any means, but I can at least make the changes I need.
"Winch (American Eagle)" was added to my website.

“Winch (American Eagle)” was added to my website.
We like doing what we’re good at; we hate doing things that are very difficult. I would never have persevered with the website if I’d had anyone to hand it over to, but I’m glad I did. I don’t know whether I’ll ever end up enjoying it, but it’s less excruciating than it used to be. There’s a life lesson in there for me.
I’ve lost track of Deborah, but I hope she ended up in the same place.

Reflecting on the Oakland fire

"High Falls, Rochester," by Carol L. Douglas

“High Falls, Rochester,” by Carol L. Douglas
Years ago, I rented studio space in a converted warehouse dedicated to artists. For the most part its tenants were serious mid-career professionals who worked there by day and lived elsewhere by night. However, there were also squatters, artists who lived there illegally.
The presence of these squatters was an open secret. The fire department visited regularly to try to flush them out, but the squatters had a sixth sense. In the entire time I rented there, the woman living in the space next to mine was never caught. She worked, which meant she was never around during the day when inspections are carried out.

A clothing designer rented the space on the other side of my studio for her inventory; her workshop was in the next space over. Garment manufacture is a dusty and flammable business. My own studio had shelves full of oil-based solvents and varnishes. We were on the top floor, and the rafters of our 19thcentury building were soaked in creosote, which would drop in fat strings through the still air of hot summer days. Even with sprinklers (which we had), a fire would have been disastrous.
I have been reading about Oakland’s tragic fire in an artist’s collective. There is always a fringe of people in every art community whose major life work appears to be being “arty.” Their spaces are chaotic and, since they’re not great respecters of rules, their stuff often spills out into public areas. Their over-sized personalities make them charismatic, and they draw others into their orbit. It doesn’t surprise me that a pair of middle-aged poseurs thoughtlessly led so many young people to their deaths.
"View from my studio window, North Rochester," by Carol L. Douglas

“View from my studio window, North Rochester,” by Carol L. Douglas
Many artists are terrifically poor. With that comes social isolation. When you’re already paying rent for a studio, it is tempting to move a futon into a corner, add a cook top and refrigerator, and then sort of drift into living there, especially when your friends are doing the same thing.
That is so dangerous. The same building codes that protect people in residential units also raise the cost of building and maintaining those units, but you get what you pay for.
In a nutshell, young artists, if you’re thinking of squatting in your studio, don’t. And if you’re invited to an after-hours party in a collective building, think carefully about whether the space is safe.
Anyways, you have work to do. Being an artist is not a lifestyle; it’s a job. Art poseurs make real artists look shallow and unrealistic. Their talk is just so much hot air. Your real future lies in producing consistent work and finding venues in which to sell it.

Bucksport Cyber Gallery

“Rattlesnake Falls (version 2),” John Killmaster

“Rattlesnake Falls (version 2),” John Killmaster
One of the nicest things about social media is how much art I see. In particular, I love a feature in my Facebook newsfeed: Keith Linwood Stover’s The Cyber Art Show.
Stover is from Bucksport, ME. He started The Cyber Art Show as a Facebook page; today it’s a freestanding website with a few thousand Facebook followers.
“Snows above Lucky Peak,” John Killmaster

“Snows above Lucky Peak,” John Killmaster
he Cyber Art Show features landscape painting by mid-market artists. Its painters are usually still in the striving-and-discovery mode. They’re exploratory rather than polished. That makes The Cyber Art Show’s online gallery much more interesting than those that just trot out the masters.
This week The Cyber Art Show featured a painter who astonished me: retired art professor John Killmaster of Boise (ID) State University. Killmaster combines a Group of Seven sensibility with uproarious energy and a remarkable flair for composition. The result is kind of like rolling down Mt. Battie’s cliff side wrapped in a picnic blanket.
“Early Spring, Just North of Boise, Idaho,” John Killmaster

“Early Spring, Just North of Boise, Idaho,” John Killmaster
“My interest as an artist is to be witness to the gifts of life and vision; to capture not only that which my eye confronts, but to record my interaction both visually and emotionally, with the world around me,” Killmaster wrote. He certainly succeeds in that.
Killmaster holds an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. He began teaching at Boise State in 1970. Now retired, he is a member of Boise Open Studios and teaches in his studio in Middleton, ID. In addition to painting, he is known as a large-scale mural enamellist.
“Below the Glaciers,” John Killmaster

“Below the Glaciers,” John Killmaster
I regret I never had Killmaster as a teacher, but I can spend some time this weekend studying his compositions and the way he uses color to push the viewer through the chaos. For all the criticism of the internet as a purveyor of fact, it has freed up access to art. I would never have known about John Killmaster had it not been for The Cyber Art Show. I particularly like the idea that Keith Linwood Stover reached out from Bucksport to Boise to teach a Rockport artist something new.

Soon-to-be famous woman artist

Indiana Statehouse, by Karen Pence.

Indiana Statehouse, by Karen Pence.
Yesterday, a reader sent me this piece from the Washington Post, asking what the Trump administration means for the arts. I’ve written about the cringeworthy portrait of him by Ralph Wolfe Cowan that hangs in his home in Mar-a-Lago. However, his taste in art hardly matters. Politics doesn’t affect the arts directly; it makes or breaks us in how it runs the economy.
WaPo mentioned that incoming VP Mike Pence and his wife Karen have a strong history of supporting the arts. She has an undergraduate minor in art, she has taught art, worked as an artist, and championed art therapy.
That undergraduate minor was an afterthought. Her college, Butler University, required a declared minor. “I thought gosh, ‘I’d like to learn more about art,” she told the Indianapolis Star on the eve of Pence’s inauguration as governor of Indiana. “I pulled it out of the air.”
Mrs. Pence grew up outside of Indianapolis in a town called Broad Ripple. I’ve painted in Indiana, and I agree with her assessment that “Indiana is just a very special place. There are no other people like Hoosiers.”
When the Pences had children, Karen decided to take an art class. She chose watercolor because it dries fast. “I told Mike I need a night when you’re in charge and I just go have fun,” she said. “Then what happened was, I realized I can paint.”
Unlike Mrs. Pence, I’ve always painted, but work and kids got in the way. I picked up my brushes again when my youngest child was born, from the same need to escape the incessant demands of motherhood. I’d wager that isn’t uncommon.
Indiana First Lady Karen Pence takes in the 91st Annual Hoosier Salon Exhibition at the Indiana Historical Society, August 2015 (courtesy of

Indiana First Lady Karen Pence takes in the 91st Annual Hoosier Salon Exhibition at the Indiana Historical Society, August 2015. (Courtesy of
What followed for Karen Pence was a series of house portrait commissions: well-executed and deeply traditional. As a politician’s wife, she’s had the opportunity to champion art to a broader audience. In 2008, she became the honorary chair of the Art Therapy Committee at the Riley Hospital for Children. The Indiana First Lady’s Charitable Foundation, has, during her tenure, focused on children, families and the arts.
Karen Pence also ran an Etsy shop, selling something she called “towel charms.” It was suspended during the election, but not before it was broadly ridiculed.
Indiana First Lady Karen Pence working with students from Southside Elementary School on an art exchange program with Japanese students (courtesy of

Indiana First Lady Karen Pence working with students from Southside Elementary School on an art exchange program with Japanese students. (Courtesy of
Those who lampooned her towel charms as ‘useless’ have apparently spent no time at all on Etsy, where whimsy is the by-word that has created an $85.3 million a year business. While I certainly wouldn’t defend her towel charms as ‘art,’ I would note that art is intended to be useless. In fact, lack of purpose is the primary distinction between fine art and fine craft.
Do I think Karen Pence is a great artist? No, but I hardly see how that matters. Teacher, wife, mother, artist, operator of an Etsy shop: it’s the resume of many working artists.
As we ponder how to close the gender gap in the art world (here and here), I suggest that we quit apologizing for being women. It’s not like male artists don’t work other jobs at points in their careers (including child care). The bottom line is, no matter what lip service they give to feminism, many intellectuals don’t really like the things women actually do.

Speaking up

Being small has its disadvantages.

Being small has its disadvantages.
Yesterday I wrote about a survey confirming the gender gap in the art world. (Women in the arts earn 68¢ for every dollar earned by men.)  That sparked a lively conversation, which I’m sharing with you more or less verbatim:
“It’s interesting when there’s a group of painters set up and you notice passersby only going to engage the male painters, or they ask if he’s teaching a workshop.”
“I was asked to join a co-op. When I showed up, they were surprised; they thought I was a man. Last week Steve was helping me bring my work in and someone asked if I was helping him.”
“I was set up during International Paint-Out Day at Otter Cliffs about six feet from a man who was outfitted in his painter’s vest, high leather boots with his pants tucked in, and a big brimmed safari hat. I saw many vacationers strolling around the rocks, but most of them would just go and look at the guys’ easels. One couple just kind of walked around until they saw where we were standing and walked all the way from the shoreline up to his easel, and bought the painting. It was his first time out, and he was new at painting, but he looked the part and that’s all it took.”
I've taken to carrying a riding crop so that passers-by will know I'm the teacher. Just kidding.

I’ve taken to carrying a riding crop so that passers-by will know I’m the teacher. Just kidding.
“That’s one of the reasons why I sign my paintings with only my last name. It doesn’t indicate my gender.”
“An artist friend painted a very large oil. She walked into the gallery as the sale of said painting was going on. The man buying it was introduced to her, and exclaimed, ‘A little girl like you painted this?’ And walked out of the gallery.”
“I won the top prize at a plein air event. My work sold adequately; about the same as it would have in a gallery. A few paintings later, the auctioneer was trying to gin up business, and said, ‘c’mon guys, So-and-So is a professionalartist.’”
“Back when I used to do a pretty full schedule of summer shows, I cannot tell you how often people assumed ‘JC’ was my husband. He’s tall; I’m small—bigger presence. It used to irk me that once he redirected them to me, they were always so surprised.”
“On too many occasions I’ve had to defend my right to use my initials as my business name and signature, always to male artists. At least one told me flat out that if I was truly proud of who I was and my work, I wouldn’t have to hide behind my initials.”
One of the best posses I ever rode with was this group of women at Adirondack Plein Air. From left, Mira Fink, Crista Pisano, me, Marlene Wiedenbaum, Laura Bianco, Kari Ganoung Ruiz and Tarryl Gabel.

One of the best posses I ever rode with was this group of women at Adirondack Plein Air. From left, Mira Fink, Crista Pisano, me, Marlene Wiedenbaum, Laura Bianco, Kari Ganoung Ruiz and Tarryl Gabel.
I’m going to add one more story of my own, about a gallerist who refused to even talk to a friend about representation, averring that “women can’t paint.”
Yesterday, Sue Baines, owner of The Kelpie Gallery, commented, “I think across the board, we need to be retrained, from female artists who apologetically price their work for less, to the art buyer/collector who undervalues a female artist’s work.”
How do we do that?

A tale of two pretties

“Bluewald,” 1989, by Cady Nolan, is the top-selling work by a living woman artist. It sold for $9.8 million at auction in Spring 2015. If you think that's a lot, compare it to $58.4 million for a Jeff Koons.

“Bluewald,” 1989, by Cady Nolan, is the top-selling work by a living woman artist. It sold for $9.8 million at auction in Spring 2015. If you think that’s a lot, compare it to $58.4 million for a Jeff Koons.
Artists are generally politically liberal. So why are they more backward than the rest of society in compensating women?
I’ve written about gender inequality in prices achieved by male and female artists. Now a large study confirms that the gender gap is alive and well for those holding art degrees. Women in the arts earn 68¢ for every dollar earned by men. That’s far worse than in the broader economy, where women can expect to earn 79¢ for every male-earned dollar.
The study used data from the 2011 Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP), which included almost 34,000 respondents, all of whom held degrees in the arts. Of this group, about half were not working directly in the arts sector. A quarter were creators themselves. Roughly speaking, it isn’t having an art degree that kills you economically; it’s having an art degree and being female that’s deadly.
Working for a non-profit organization is almost as much of a liability as being female, it turns out. That will earn you a $17K drop in salary if you’re male or a $7K drop if you’re female.
“Mirror Room (Pumpkin),” 1991, by Yayoi Kusama. She tops the list for living women in terms of the aggregate value of her work sold at auction: nearly $216 million at the end of 2015.

“Mirror Room (Pumpkin),” 1991, by Yayoi Kusama. She tops the list for living women artists in terms of the aggregate value of her work sold at auction: nearly $216 million at the end of 2015.
And if you’re thinking it would be better in other places than in the troglodytic United States, think again. A similar survey in the UK found similar results.
Artsy did an excellent analysis of the data, here, and it’s worth weeping over.
One reason women’s salaries lag in every industry is that women are far less likely to negotiate job offers than their male peers. I know two young women who took the wages they were offered at their current professional jobs. The first is a programmer; the second is a gallerist. In the case of the programmer, her employer—a heartless, multinational defense contractor—has since worked to reduce the gap, since her boss wants to retain her. In the case of the gallerist, the initial insult was compounded by violations of labor law such as asking her to train on her own time.
Spare me the liberal pieties about social justice, my art-industry friends, until you are willing to promote, support and compensate women equally with their male peers. What I really want for Christmas is to never read news like this again.

In praise of ships’ cooks

The American Eagle's stove.

The American Eagle’s stove.
A lot of my artist friends spent the weekend doing holiday painting sales. I’ve done this myself. Not everyone wants to go to the mall and brawl, but the idea of a National Day of Shopping is infectious. Selling paintings on Thanksgiving Weekend works.
However, I took the weekend off to celebrate in the Berkshires with family. Having taken no exercise and eaten way too well, I find myself going into the holiday home stretch six pounds heavier. I blame that on having a beautifully-appointed kitchen and way too many cooks.
Visitors often pronounce my kitchen in Maine poorly laid-out and equipped. There is only one work surface. It is near neither the stove nor refrigerator. I don’t care; it’s a light, bright space with running water and electricity. That makes it a great improvement over many people’s lot in life, and better than some places I’ve lived.
“Stewards of an Ocean Liner Above and Below Decks,” The Booklovers Magazine, May 1904.

“Stewards of an Ocean Liner Above and Below Decks,” The Booklovers Magazine, May 1904.
Last June I sailed on the American Eagle out of Rockland.  My purpose was painting, but I naturally gravitated—as most passengers seemed to—to the galley. As I made pies last Wednesday, my thoughts kept returning to how hard each task would be on board a boat. Imagine, for example, trying to put a raw pumpkin pie into a hot oven when the whole room is moving.
I have a thing for woodstoves, and the heart of the American Eagle’s galley is its Atlantic Fisherman woodstove, made in Nova Scotia. It has a rail and spring system to stop pots from flinging themselves off the stovetop in heavy weather. It also is connected to the boiler that supplies hot water to the showers.
Otherwise it works like a normal woodstove. It was fired up each morning at 4:30 by cook Matthew Weeks. In addition to regular meals for passengers and crew, he and Sarah Collins turned out pies and cakes.
Today my biggest concern is to keep my weight under control. At the time the Eagle was built, Americans were not worried about stoutness; they were concerned with acquiring, processing and storing enough food to power their highly-physical lifestyles. That was as true on boats as on land.
Pies have been known since antiquity, with both the Greeks and Romans having written recipes for their pastries. The medieval coffyn was a great way to make food in the most primitive conditions; it can be baked with a minimum of fuss and you can throw almost anything into it. Most importantly, it’s a convenience food; you can take it with you.
1870s galley stove on board the USS Constitution, Photo of the galley stove taken between 1897 and 1905 by Thomas E. Marr. (USS Constitution Museum)

1870s galley stove on board the USS Constitution, Photo of the galley stove taken between 1897 and 1905 by Thomas E. Marr. (USS Constitution Museum)
In our culture, it’s a minor miracle when one can actually make a pie from scratch, never mind that it’s done with a food processor, mixer, electric stove and refrigerator. Now imagine doing that in a cramped, rolling galley, with very little room to maneuver, and an oven in which you must control the temperature by tossing blocks of fuel in.
At least Sarah and Matthew don’t generally need to worry about scurvy.  Roughly 30 million people bobbed across the ocean to the Americas between 1836 and 1914, and all of them needed to eat on the way. To travel that route under sail took weeks, sometimes months. With the advent of the steamship, the time was steadily cut down. By the 1950s it was done in about a week.
My own grandfather came to this country in 1919 on the ocean liner S.S. Caserta, which had recently demobbed as a troop boat. It was capable of carrying 1200 passengers at a clip. Even at that size, the cooks were still working with woodstoves, using food and fuel they’d stowed before their voyage.
I tip my hat to the humble ships’ cooks who fed our ancestors. Without them, none of us would be here today.