An Infamous Night
A heft of dark blue clouds, like fingers, begin to grip the sky – engulfing it and threatening to squash out the last semblance of the bright orange moon’s illumination. Despite the shrouded light from the background, this scene is fully illuminated.
Two stylized ships roll in the churning abstract waves. It’s a scene we might recognize, USS Monitor’s famous sinking on the night of December 31, 1862, but it’s depicted in a style so unique it makes us take a deeper second look, begging us to search further.
Art styles are funny things, more like venn diagrams or drops of watercolor that seep into each other, overlapping and mixing, sometimes forming something entirely new in the process. They’re not as linear or defined as the textbooks may make them seem. Sure, some movements paved the way for the next and some artists formed groups that adhered to a set of artistic standards or principles, but so many more simply painted what inspired them. And they painted it in whatever way they liked.
And in 1979, Robert Turner Ewell, painted this inspired work.
When first looking at it, though, one might have a sense of deja vu, especially if you’re particularly interested in or familiar with the story of USS Monitor. If we strip away the vivid color and stylization, we can see that this scene is replicated almost exactly from the January 24, 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly depicting the “Wreck of Iron-Clad Monitor”.
About the Artist
Robert Ewell was born and raised in Norfolk, VA, served in the Coast Guard, then later worked for many years at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. I had the opportunity to speak with his daughter, Linda, and she told me of her father’s expansive curiosity. About how he was an avid learner – fascinated by technology and history, but also about the joy he found in art and creating things with his own hands. As she described him, the unique elements of this piece really seemed to make so much sense, reflecting inspirations in Ewell’s life: history, industry, and creativity.
As we spoke, I asked “Why Monitor?” and Linda told me that it was likely her father’s connection to his home, to local history, and his particular interest in the Civil War that drew him to the subject matter. His lifelong study of history is very possibly what brought him to use the Harper’s Weekly woodblock print as his starting place. But it’s the style in which he painted this work that I find so compelling – a style that seems drawn from his interests and life experiences.
Art Reflects Life
Ewell was a burner and a welder at Norfolk Naval Shipyard for many years and he loved reading about industry and innovation so it’s likely that those influences were a source of inspiration for the highly mechanized feel of the work.
We see a riveted metal depiction of USS Monitor – an artistic liberty that emphasizes its “Ironclad” name. Heavy puffs of smoke rise from the ship, and they appear solid and almost metallic. The side-wheel on USS Rhode Island looks exceptionally gear-like on the grey ship, and the waves that both vessels are being tossed in seem like they, too, could be welded or fabricated. The scene is stagnant, and the heavy outlines bring a weight and separation that makes this work feel almost more sculptural than painterly.
So how do we classify this – the industrialism, color, and abstraction – what do we call this style? Pop Art, Psychedelic, or Steampunk? No, none of these fit quite right or truly encompass all of the aspects of this work. Folk Art comes close in that it’s a reflection of local culture, but this work, though drawing from many influences, is, itself, singular and unique, born from the spark of Ewell’s creativity.
His daughter told me of his artistic passion, how he loved to make things with his hands. He was an occasional artist and sold a number of pieces, but he never truly thought much of his work. She told me, though, how he just lit up when someone liked one of his pieces. And when inspiration struck, he created using a wide range of media from drawing and painting to woodcarving.
Monitor’s Inspiring Story
In the case of this work, it was Monitor’s story that sparked his creative flame. By 1979, when Ewell painted this work, the wreck of USS Monitor had been discovered, its resting place designated as the very first National Marine Sanctuary, and its famous red lantern recovered with a second expedition underway. And it seems the excitement surrounding Monitor’s story had been rediscovered as well.
But before there was a USS Monitor center, before the turret and many other artifacts were raised and brought here, Robert Ewell walked the galleries of The Mariners’. He brought his family too – Linda recounted coming here time and time again. She said he loved it here, and I think perhaps he wanted his children to experience that same spark of curiosity that drove him to seek further and to create.
The thing about Monitor’s story is that there are so many phases and facets of its life. It’s not only the story of a ship, or a battle, or a sinking, but it’s also the story of hope, of innovation, and people. It’s so many stories in one, and its multifaceted life, whether in its inception and duty, in its sinking and mystery, or in its discovery and recovery, has the ability to inspire connection.
And that’s what, I think, Ewell has shown us in this painting. He’s captured the thrill he finds in innovation mirrored in Monitor’s story, a tale of humanity possibly reflected from his own service, and a piece of his own local history that he studied avidly. In the boldness of this work, Ewell’s many connections to USS Monitor and its story shine, but in it too, he’s shared his inspirations and his story with us and he’s wrapped it all together in a way that is purely his own.
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