Oil and Ambergis
The Flensing
Beached II
Scrapping Out


Holly S. Murray

Several years ago I was awarded an Artist in Residence at the Nantucket School of Arts and Design. My initial proposal for the residency was to investigate the lives of woman who kept the island businesses alive during the height of the whaling industry (1750-1850). As I began my research, with the help of the Nantucket Historical Association, the project expanded in unsuspected ways. The work I produced became more about the plight of the whale and in a sense the plight of the sea presently. My work was influenced by several books by Nathaniel Philbrick, particularly In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. Another source of information was a very early account of island life called Miriam Coffin or The Whale Fishermen by Joseph C. Hart.
One cannot investigate whales without reading Moby Dick, a seminal piece of American literature. It was instructive; Melville had been on whaling ships as a seaman before he wrote Moby Dick and was very knowledgeable on the whole whaling industry. Much of the book is actually about the whale and life on the ship while looking for whales. I also studied the text from the diary of Susan Veeder. Veeder was the wife of a whaling captain who traveled the seas with the ship for several years. Her account describes the passion with which sea captains and investors in the whaling industry systematically hunted and decimated the spermaceti whale and other species of whale as well. The spermaceti was killed primarily for the oil contained in the head cavity. The oil was used to make candles for a highly profitable lighting industry creating vast wealth on a very small island. The spermaceti is still hunted for the ambergris contained in some whales in their lower intestines. This product has been highly prized predating record keeping. The ambergris is used in very expensive perfumes. As the spermaceti whale became nearly extinct, fossil fuels became the replacement for whale oil.

The global consumption of these natural resources to support mankind’s need for energy continues along the same vein today. As I continued my research, I witnessed an actual dissection of a juvenile humpback whale on Cape Cod. Part of the series includes paintings from that event. I am continually struck by our inability to acknowledge the long term consequences of our actions as many of the world’s species and resources become extinct. And thus I see this work as metaphor for the relentless consumption that continues in our world today.

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