Seaport resident artist Kevin Sampson looks back on time in Mystic
Though Kevin Sampson had completed many art residencies over his artistic career, he knew that going into the Mystic Seaport Museum’s first-ever artist residency would be slightly different from the rest. For one thing, he would live on a yacht at the museum over the three weeks spent there — “The chance of a lifetime,” as he put it. For another, he would be able to fish with friends in the evening (another aspect that appealed to his life-long interest in fishing) while also soaking in the river’s beautiful views. But perhaps the most important difference would be creating, from start to finish, an elaborate 12-foot skiff that would forever hold the stories of the Mystic Seaport.
How to do that exactly? A combination of scouring museum grounds, looking for anything to incorporate into the finished piece, and non-stop socializing with the hundreds of museum employees and patrons. Of those he met, Sampson would ask them to bring back a small sentimental object, something he could also include in the work. The reason? So he could include as much of the museum’s literal history into one overarching piece as possible.
Now in its finished state, the 12-foot skiff, adorned with items ranging from chicken bones to glittering jewelry, can be viewed at the museum’s C.D. Mallory building as part of its “Monument Man: Kevin Sampson in Residence” exhibition until Spring, 2019. And though museum patrons can see the boat, now named “The USS Kye Kye Kule” (pronounced chay chay coolay) in all its embellished glory, most of the myriad stories that have been incorporated into the finished piece will remain secret, though a few have been explained.
Take, for example, a collection of door knobs that Sampson glued on towards the front of the boat. The knobs, he says, were collected after a recent hurricane in Haiti. Or, as another example, take the dragonfly pinned to the front, a piece that comes from the museum’s social media manager, Elissa Bass.
“She is a really powerful person with a very special story,” Sampson says. “So I had to make sure I put that in the front.”
“Every object has its own memory and magic, and I’m reclaiming these things,” he continues. “When I’m putting an object in there that belongs to somebody else, there is a story in there. And I believe in that magic, deep down.”
Twisting around the deck of the boat (which was also donated to Sampson from a different museum employee) are yards of rope. The same lines, Sampson says, that have helped pull and hold ships in port.
“There is a lot of power in that if you think about it,” he says.
And take, as the most prominent example, the small bits of wood donated from the original Amistad that Sampson was also sure to incorporate inside. Donated from Quentin Snediker, a senior watercraft curator at the museum, Sampson says the wood pieces were initially sourced from Sierra Leone.
“Quentin had a story for everything. And one of the most fascinating ones was how he described to me how the Amistad was built and what they went through to do that,” Sampson says. “It so intrigued me to hear about how the builders had to go to Africa several times just to get this wood. How they would stack this wood, but the rebels would find and burn it. Then how they had to go back to Sierra Leone to get more.”
As an African-American artist, though, Sampson says it was precisely this sort of history that he found fascinating, though challenging.
“When you are dealing with that kind of time period as an African American, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Oh, what would I have been doing during this time? What were my people doing during this time?’ So the history becomes very different to me,” he says. “I mean, the Amistad, I don’t know what I should say about it. Is it a happy ending? It is an interesting story. I never knew how I was supposed to feel about it.”
“I went (to the Seaport) with the assumption that I was going to find more ghosts, things like that, that it was a little more haunted,” he says. “In New Orleans, for example, you can really feel the spirits in the air. And in Mystic, it was kind of cool, because I really didn’t get that, which was interesting.”
Aside from his career in art, Sampson, who was raised by a prominent civil-rights activist and who met leaders such as Malcolm X and Ruby Dee as a child, worked as a police detective in Scotch Plains, N.J. Always naturally artistic, Sampson later became the first African American uniformed police sketch artist, giving him a unique platform to begin an art career.
That started to take off, he says, in the early ’90s, in the form of his sculpture monuments. His first piece, a memorial made for his cousin who died of AIDS in the late ’80s, was simply created by collecting materials from her backyard and assembling them. But the idea stuck, and Sampson continued to make dozens of similar pieces as a way, he says, to cope with the loss and tragedy associated with AIDS and the ongoing effects from the 1967 Newark riots happening throughout his community at the time.
Of the pieces on view at the Seaport, Sampson’s “USS Harriet Tubman,” which depicts a tugboat made up of thousands of scrap pieces found around Newark, memorializes the woman he describes as his childhood hero. “Engine Company 7,” also on view, remembers the lower Manhattan firefighters of Ladder 1, Engine 7, who survived the September 11th attack — people he would often socialize with while on the police force. The works, Sampson says, are always meant to remember a person or an event, but they are also intended to have spiritual undertones, as well.
“The USS Kye Kye Kule” just by first glance, seems to emanate such undertones — pure joy and creativity, a natural outpouring of what was offered to him during his stay at the museum.
“I think this is about somebody who comes from a different place but who also has a sort of similar history. That my vision is your vision. Deep down we are all the same. I can see like how you do,” Sampson says. “I think people make too much out of how different we are, and I think we are really a lot more similar. We are all Americans. We share a history. The good, the bad and the ugly.”
“This piece is an American story. And when you add in all the diversity, then it truly becomes a truly American story.”
If you go
WHAT: "Monument Man: Kevin Sampson in Residence"
WHERE: C. D. Mallory Building at Mystic Seaport, Greenmanville Avenue, Mystic
HOURS: Through spring 2019; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. everyday
ADMISSION: regular seaport admission is $28.95 adults; $26.95 for ages 65 and up and for college students with ID; $18.95 ages 4-14; free for kids 3 and under
CONTACT: (860) 572-0711, mysticseaport.org.
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