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Artist Paints Vivid, Realistic Picture of Hunley's - last mission

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Postby TMSmalley » Fri Jan 09, 2004 7:13 pm

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Artist Paints Vivid, Realistic Picture of Hunley's 'Final Mission'

By Linda Wheeler
Thursday, January 8, 2004; Page GZ21


The water was calm on the cold night of Feb. 17, 1864, when eight crew members slid inside the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley. They were outfitted with canteens, candles, a lantern and an explosive charge. The sub, after torpedoing and sinking a Union ship, never returned to dock.



Although the event was reported at the time, little was known about the sub until it was discovered in 1995 at the bottom of Charleston Harbor, in South Carolina, and pulled from the water in 2000. Inside were the crew members, still seated at their posts, preserved by thick mud.

What followed were stories about the methods used to stabilize the iron hull, the careful removal of bones and bits of clothing, the science of it all. What was missing was a sense of the sub, an experimental vessel at best, and the men who willingly encased themselves in it.

Civil War artist Mort Kunstler has changed that. Using the boat and forensic models of the men's faces -- as well as an inspection of the lantern, canteens and other artifacts found in the sub -- he has painted a realistic scene of the beginning of the last voyage.

There is the odd, cylindrical gray vessel with its two hatchways, tied to the dock. One man already inside holds a candle to guide the others. Lt. George Dixon, the commander, checks the time on his pocket watch by the light of a lantern. Around him, soldiers and sailors gather their equipment.

Kunstler, the official artist of the Hunley, has rewound the film to the last moments on the dock. "This was all very exciting," he said. "I tell stories with pictures, and I get to tell this one for the first time [and] authentically."

South Carolina state Sen. Glenn McConnell, chairman of the Hunley Commission, said the image is so powerful, "you can feel the cold, feel the color. You can identify with those men."

The painting will be unveiled Feb. 17 at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where the Hunley is being restored. On that date, 950 prints of "Final Mission" will go on sale for $200 each and another 950 with the Hunley Commission seal will sell for $250, according to the commission. Information about the prints can be found at www.hunley.org.

Money raised by the sales will help finance a burial ceremony for the crew March 17, McConnell said.

Kunstler said he saw the sub on a routine visit to Charleston in March. At the time he had no intention of becoming involved with the restoration project because he had plenty of work scheduled. But, as McConnell likes to say, he got "Hunley-ized."

"I became lost in the romance, intrigue and adventure of the entire story, and when Senator McConnell asked me if I would be interested in being the official artist for the H.L. Hunley, I jumped at the chance," Kunstler said.

On that trip, McConnell showed Kunstler where the Hunley was launched, at Battery Marshall on Sullivan's Island.

Even as the concrete-hard mud was being scraped from the sub, Kunstler said, every bit of new information was given to him. He knew the measurements, the interior space and how the men were positioned. He had seen the watch Dixon carried that night and an X-ray of the lantern. He found a similar lantern in a shop and used it for reference.

It was Dixon who most interested Kunstler. "He was a lady's man and might not have worn military garb," he said. "He was sort of flamboyant, so I drew him with a scarf tossed around his neck and a very nice vest. I took the basic facts and made it into something."

Among the artifacts found in the sub was a bent, $20 gold piece that Dixon's girlfriend, Queenie Bennett, had given him as a special gift when he left Mobile, Ala., for the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. During that battle, a bullet struck the coin, bounced off and saved Dixon's life. Afterward, he carried the bent coin as a good-luck charm.



Even with all the assistance Kunstler received from the commission, he said, he had to do extensive research on his own.

"The problems were almost insurmountable," he said. "I had to know if the tide was going out, the correct phase of the moon, gangplank arrangements, how it was tied, what bumpers they used. None of that was known."

He finished the 32-by-48-inch painting on the afternoon of Dec. 29.

"The painting is always the fun part," he said.
Tim Smalley
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