ROCKLAND — At the Farnsworth Art Museum, visitors confront mayhem, chaos and fear in “Art of Disaster,” an exhibition of mostly paintings and prints that chronicles 200 years of wars, fires, shipwrecks and the threat of nuclear annihilation and terrorism that has been present in contemporary life since the mid-20th century.

It’s a difficult, daunting exhibition that reminds viewers how fleeting life can be, and how quickly things can change.

Farnsworth registrar Angela Waldron organized “Art of Disaster” largely around her familiarity with the museum’s permanent collection, from which most of the exhibition derives. She’s a native Mainer, whose experience on the coast is shaped by the tragedies of shipwrecks, hurricanes and fishermen lost at sea.

Calamities, natural and otherwise, are part of life, she says – and throughout millennia “it is the collision of nature and human action that has provided the richest fodder for some of the world’s most memorable disasters, starting with the great flood, the earliest known documented disaster.”

“The Art of Disaster” explores flood, fire, earthquake and drought, and tells stories of drownings, explosions and harrowing rescues. The exhibition is on view through April 23.

It began with research on ship portraits that Waldron was doing in the museum’s storage area. She was surprised to learn just how many vessels met their fate at sea, even though ships were built to withstand hazardous weather and survive the worst. “But what really struck me was that ships could repeatedly survive the most severe weather conditions, but in the end, all it could take would be the right combination of events, like a raging storm combined with human error that resulted in a ship’s final demise,” she said.


The best example is the famous Royal Tar, a paddle wheeler steamer underway from New Brunswick to Boston, by way of Portland. On this voyage, it carried circus animals, including elephants, camels and horses. The load was so large, the ship’s crew removed some of the life boats before setting out.

Off the coast of Vinalhaven, one of the boilers ran out of water because of human error. The ship caught fire, and 31 people died either from the fire or by drowning. So did nearly all the animals.

The story has been captured many times, including by Maine children’s author Chris Van Dusen in his book “The Circus Ship.” The disaster has also been rendered in art.

Midcoast artist Annie Bailey created a “crankie” depicting the wreck. The crank box, or moving panorama, is a storytelling art form left over from the 19th century, before movies. It’s a long illustrated scroll wound onto two spools, which are loaded into a box that is open on one side for viewing. As the scroll advances, the story unfolds. Bailey’s crankie tells the story of the shipwreck, although visitors are not allowed to advance the scroll during the exhibition.

Another image of the wreck comes from Chris Clarke, a Vinalhaven printmaker. He the paper etching “The Legend of the Royal Tar” in 2010 at Engine House Press, his Vinalhaven print studio. Waldron heard about the print, asked to see it and while visiting his studio also saw “10048,” a 2002 etching of the fallen World Trade Center. The print’s title references the building’s ZIP code. Clarke was living in Staten Island and had his studio on Broom Street in Manhattan, close to where the buildings came down.

Augustus Buhler, "Shipwreck off Cape Ann"

Augustus Buhler, “Shipwreck off Cape Ann”

The painting that gave rise to the show is Augustus Buhler’s “Shipwreck off Cape Ann,” an oil painting from 1908. It depicts the Feb. 28, 1902, rescue of the crew from the stranded British tramp steamer Wilster. While the action takes place in the background, it is the crowd in the foreground that provides us a front-row seat to the disaster.


“In that painting, one has all the tragic elements of disaster at play – the pathos, the tension, the anxiety, the weather,” Waldron said. “This happened to be a rare success story, that despite the odds and the total wreck of the steamer, through the incredible bravery of the rescue team and the ship’s crew all hands on deck were successfully rescued.”

The centerpiece of the show is Waldo Peirce’s famous oil painting “The Fire at East Orrington” that shows a farmhouse engulfed in flames, with family and neighbors standing by helplessly. Peirce painted the fire on site in 1940, as he raced with the fire trucks to the farmhouse. Peirce followed the rural tradition of rushing to a scene of an accident or fire. When he heard the sirens, he grabbed his paints – and painted himself into the chaotic scene as the fire tears through milk room and ell.

Leonard Baskin’s woodcut “Hydrogen Man” shows the harrowing effects of radiation on the human body. He made the print in response to the detonation of a hydrogen bomb by the United States in the Marshall Islands in 1954.

And finally, there is Jose Orozco’s haunting lithograph, “Group of Hanging People.” Orozco pursued themes of injustice and the tragedies of war in his mural work. “Group of Hanging People” is his response to the Mexican revolution, where thousands of people died.

People have been responding well to the exhibition, which opened in early October. Admissions are up 20 percent at the museum for the year, said communications manager David Troup. “Art of Disaster” has been especially popular with school groups, perhaps because of the thrill factor.

Disaster shapes our lives, our world view and the stories we tell, she said. People remember very clearly events around disasters, which shape stories for generations. Art is part of the storytelling.

Waldron thinks this exhibition is popular because it serves as art therapy. It’s cathartic, capturing moments in time and standing as a tribute, or memorial, to victims.

Art also can offers hope and assurance that perhaps we will learn from our mistakes, and not let such disasters happen again.

“Throughout the ages, art depicting disaster has provided the observer (with) the voyeuristic thrill of the depths of despair without having to experience it firsthand,” she said. “Disaster has shown that it is egalitarian in principle – it can indiscriminately strike regardless of who you are, where you are, or where you live, but in reality, it also illustrates just how very subjective disaster is.”

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