Gloucester's storied fishing heritage is once again showcased in a new work of art by Jeff Weaver, commissioned by a family's whose heritage is intimately tied to the industry.
The new oil painting, “Dorymates,” was unveiled at recent reception at Weaver’s studio on Rogers Street.
The large-scale painting on canvas has particular meaning for Schooner Adventure’s president John Morris. He commissioned the painting as homage to his grandfather, Steve Olsson, one of the two dorymen depicted.
The scene is set at first light on a frigid day in March 1935 as Olsson and Charles Daley of Newfoundland began setting their trawl on St. Peter’s Bank off Newfoundland.
"The dorymen, their morning’s work and the sea are the features of the foreground of the painting. Weaver has captured the moment of intense effort and isolation that all dorymen must have experienced as they plied their fishing gear out on the banks," noted Betsy Hoffman, Schooner Adventure's director of development and communications.
The viewer sees the schooner Oretha F. Spinney — the prototype for the schooner Adventure — sailing off into the background of the painting, foreshadowing the mysterious loss of the two men sometime later, said Hoffman. When the schooner returned at the end of the day, the dory and the men were nowhere to be found.
Weaver included many details of the tragic story recorded in the book written by Morris titled "Alone at Sea; Gloucester in the Age of the Dorymen."
"The positions of the two men in the dory, their physicality, the clothes they wore are all recorded in paint. Even the mittens worn by Steve Olsson are faithfully rendered, of which only one would be found along with the dory by the schooner the next day," wrote Hoffman in a press release.
'An extraordinary story'
During his research, Morris learned that Daley had eight or nine children and his grandfather, who came to the United States from Sweden in 1893, had five children.
"My grandfather was at sea three or four weeks and then home for three or four days and it was all family, family, family," Morris said. "Neither of these men saw their children get married, and Charles had 49 grandchildren he never met. Both these men were committed to their wives and their children, and are great representatives of the types of family men who went out on Gloucester dories."
But the schooner Oretha F. Spinney had another story to tell. It was sold the following fall, purchased by MGM and became the vessel used in the movie "Captains Courageous," noted Morris.
The artist worked six months on this painting.
"I only do one or two a year like this. I call these my 'fisherman’s paintings.' I do a lot of research when I do such a commission," Weaver said. "There has to be an emotional content there for me. It's an extraordinary story. There is a narrative aspect to the painting I do. Rembrandt was self-described as a narrative painter. You have to have something to say. A story such as you see here, sometimes it's not as definable, sometimes it is more abstract.”
About 50 people gathered on a steamy summer evening to witness the unveiling, including many descendants of the two dorymen and a group of Schooner Adventure supporters.
Many members of the Daley family traveled from Newfoundland to attend. Because of Morris’ research and subsequent book, the families of the two dorymates have forged an ongoing relationship that reflects the bond between their two ancestors, Hoffman said.
“Through John’s research we have learned a lot about our family," said Rose Daley. "We feel like cousins with the Morris family."
"My dad was 13 when he lost his dad and he never talked about it. I have two brothers who have followed in his footsteps and are professional fishermen, and I have nieces and nephews who hold officer positions on board ships. Our family has maintained our connection to the sea,." Rose Daley said.
The reception was organized by the board and staff of Schooner Adventure to honor the city's maritime heritage and the descendants of Gloucester schoonermen.
Central to the mission of Schooner Adventure is the preservation and continued operation of the Adventure as a community resource. To that end, Schooner Adventure has offered a program for the descendants of all Gloucester schooner fishermen since 2016. Over the past four seasons, more than 600 descendants have been welcomed aboard for free afternoon sails to experience firsthand how their ancestors lived and worked.
Hoffman said entire families of descendants have taken advantage of this service to gather together for some wonderful new memory-making in addition to learning about their own history. As a result of descendants coming forward to be included, there have been many great stories gathered.
A National Historic Landmark, the Adventure is a 122-foot historic wooden dory fishing schooner built in 1926 in Essex.
Docked at Maritime Gloucester’s Harriet Webster Pier, she continues to operate at sea, primarily along the New England coast, as a living monument to Massachusetts’ fishing heritage and flagship of a growing Gloucester schooner fleet, said Hoffman.
More information about the Schooner Adventure organization and the vessel is available at schooner-adventure.org.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-675-2706, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.