Painting by the shore, an artist gets a clear picture of the life of a commercial fisherman - 27 East

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Painting by the shore, an artist gets a clear picture of the life of a commercial fisherman

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author on Aug 25, 2009

The vessels sit silently with wavelets lapping at their sides. Paint can be faded in spots; rust overtaking outriggers and net gear. Sitting dockside is Beth Rundquist. Since the spring, Ms. Rundquist has been visiting the Southampton Town commercial dock by the Shinnecock Inlet in Hampton Bays and painting the fishing boats docked there.

Since she first spotted them, the impressionistic painter has had a tough time tearing herself away from their rugged presence, practical designs and the history suggested by their weatherworn appearance.

“These aren’t boats made for pleasure or for sport fishing,” she said. “These boats aren’t shiny and perfect. They’re worn from use. I think there’s something about the fact that they’re practical and made to be used that attracts my eye.”

There was also something about this particular dock that reminded her of boats she painted on a tiny island off the coast of Maine. Ms. Rundquist recently moved to Southampton and wanted to get reacquainted with the East End.

A friend directed her to the Ponquogue Bridge and the commercial dock a short stretch from the popular Ponquogue Beach. The nearby wetlands and sparkling waters appealed to the landscape painter in her. But when all was said and done, it was the fishing boats that beckoned. She set up her easel and began to work.

“There’s so much here to paint,” she said. “The working boats and their masts and rigging are interesting. They have energy and depth. There’s history and a life there. They’re real—it’s not just a pretty picture. The dock is a community and these boats are part of it.”

The more she kept painting, the more frequently fishermen wandered over to peek at her canvases.

“There have been other painters here,” said fisherman Robert Gregor of Hampton Bays. “She was persistent. I’d go out fishing and she’d still be there, painting my boat, when I returned. She’d say, ‘I hoped you’d come back. I wanted to see the boat again’… She was cool. She’d hang out with us on the boats. She was just a down-to-earth person.”

Over the weeks, the men began to talk about their boats, their occupation, and how their lives were changing. Ms. Rundquist listened to their stories. The opinions of the men who worked on the water typically contrasted with the popular environmental message that limits and quotas are necessary to protect the ocean’s fish populations from overfishing, she said.

The men mostly spoke of fishing regulations meant to preserve the environment that they said are killing their livelihood and unsettling the ecological balance. They leveled complaints that fishing limits based on information gathered by scientists were skewed because of future grant funding concerns or misinformation born from a lack of practical knowledge.

A passion for the sea was expressed by all who spoke, Ms. Rundquist said. Bonds were formed. All the while, she continued to paint.

“To me, the area was so rich visually,” Ms. Rundquist said. “It was an added bonus that they talked to me. I don’t know too much about the regulations—just what I’ve heard or read in the news. They work on the water and they care about the environment and I figured they know what they’re talking about. I felt their plight. They talked and I listened.”

The fishermen also told stories about the boats. Like the Shinnecock, owned by James “J.J.” Hand, which had been owned and run by his family for 30 years, Ms. Rundquist said. Gazing at the battered black boat, she explained it was about to be hauled away and scrapped. She felt it important to paint the vessel before it disappeared into history.

Listening to their accounts helped switch the paintings from dockscapes to portraits that capture lives. The paintings are not romanticized. They are not paint dripping in sorrow for a rugged occupation that sometimes clashes with popular culture in the same way that hunting does.

Instead, Ms. Rundquist has worked to capture the visual beauty of boats with a hard-won history and the dignity that comes from perseverance. Part of this comes from understanding the mechanics of the boat parts and how they work together to pull fish from the sea, she said.

“I spend a lot of time understanding the function of the different parts of the boat and noticing the details,” she said. “Understanding the mechanical functions means I can paint the boats so they’re consistent with how the visual lines would actually appear.”

Ms. Rundquist’s transformation of boats into portraits is consistent with her passion as a painter. Trained as a classical realist and a modern impressionist, Ms. Rundquist brings the eyes and sensibility of a portrait painter and landscape artist to her recent series of commercial boats.

“My passion is the figure and people,” she said. “The boats are so beautiful because they’re used. So I decided to paint them. I’ll probably go back to the figure when I’m finished with this series.”

Ms. Rundquist has studied art at the Repin Academy in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Long Island City School of Sculpture in Queens, New York, and took painting classes on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine.

Some of the pieces in the commercial fishing boats series were exhibited at Gallery B in Sag Harbor in June and July. Some paintings still remain there. Locally, Ms. Rundquist has had multiple solo shows at the Grenning Gallery in Sag Harbor and has exhibited in group shows at Hampton Road Gallery in Southampton and Lizan Tops in East Hampton, which has since closed.

She has also shown her work in galleries in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Her work can be viewed online at www.bethrundquist.com.

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