by John Stratton
How do you understand where, and when, you are? First, you look back. Then you look forward, And then—much more difficult—you teach yourself to see. First with your eyes, then with your heart.
Stonington Borough artist Chris Duncklee, 49, grew up in the world that he paints, and he brings his past forward to us: for our eyes, the world of wooden fishing draggers that were Stonington landmarks for a hundred years; and, for our hearts, the images of the people who built them, sailed them, and fished them as a livelihood and a way of life.
Visual art, like all the arts, is based on memory, says Chris, whose Dad, Les, a “Mystic boy,” became the founder of Duncklee Cooling and Heating in Stonington, and whose Mom, Julie, grew up in the then- Portuguese neighborhood “south of the cannons.” Chris watched the draggers leave the docks in the harbor as a kid, when he was introduced to the waterfront by his grandfather, Ernie Biron, a shipwright at Stonington Boat Works, and his grandmother, Filamena “Vavo” Biron, in the Borough.
“My crib overlooked Sandy Point,” he said, “and that blue water is burned into my mind as clear as day.”
As he grew older, Chris recalls, “We kids would play on the docks and around the boats. I’d visit the Boat Works, ask questions. I learned about the art of Ellery Thompson, who became my mentor, my hero. I drew boats and I read his books over and over. The old wooden draggers captivated me. Each one seems to have its own soul.”
As he grew up, Chris built boat models with his grandfather and did sketches with the oversight of his artist-aunt, Gert Geyer, and his Mom’s best friend, Ann Brown. They, like Thompson, taught him that “at least 50 percent of learning to paint is learning to see, and every day I still learn to see. The painting part is easy if you know how to see.”
Ellery was born in Mystic in 1899, and passed away in 1986. Another influence, Chris points out, is Maxfield Parrish (1870-1966), the New Hampshire-based artist-illustrator. “It looks like the light is coming right out of the canvas,” Chris says.
Chris in fact now lives part-time in Hillsboro, New Hampshire, where he’s constructed an off-the-grid, hewn-frame, post-and-beam home with energy systems he learned about from his Dad, and hand-built with the shipwright’s tools of his grandfather. It is a state-of-the-art home for an artist’s studio.
His carefully detailed research evokes those old days, said Chris. He’s especially proud of a model of the dragger New England, which was passed on to him by the late 12-term Selectman Jim Spellman, who stood firm in the preservation of the Borough’s docks and fishery. New England shows her spirit in the painting on the cover of this issue! Chris notes that he likes to build model draggers with his son, Louis “Goob” Nordlund, who is 12 now. “We use the same blueprints that my grandfather used at the Boat Works,” he smiles.
The memories are at the core: the sound of the diesels, the look of the horizon, the unstated worry in bad weather, the unstated pride of the return. Traditions are built into the wooden vessels, the draggers and their sisters large or small under sail or oar in the Town of Stonington.
“Art’s an essential link to the past,” Chris reminds us. “Art can bring out the sound of diesels heading out at dawn, the look and feel of a lobster pound, the projects in a boatyard and boats on the ways, and a time when everyone knew each other, when every grownup was an ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’ keeping watch over the eager kids who came to look.”
To learn more, search “Wooden Fishing Draggers from Stonington CT and New England” on Facebook or contact him firstname.lastname@example.org