Tyrannical discipline, cramped quarters, weevil-encrusted biscuits and occasional floggings are not the usual ingredients for an arts organization.
And the gold-cockaded admirals who ran the 19th-century British navy would have laughed themselves sick at the notion of an able-bodied seaman producing a canvas with more merit than a well-trimmed mainsail.
But against all odds, small artistic endeavors made from the threads, splinters and swatches available to sailors flourished in the dank forecastles and smelly holds of warships, perhaps testimony to a universal yearning to create.
The baroque beauty of scrimshaw, the marvels of woven rope work and the impossibilities of the ship in a bottle are well known, but another form is almost forgotten, the woolie. This summer, thanks to an eccentric art collector and an out-of-the-way museum, there is a remarkable opportunity on Maryland's Eastern Shore to glimpse this 'tween-decks genius.
There have been only a handful of exhibitions of woolies this century. But Donald Berezoski, an American collector and one of the world's foremost authorities on this naval folk art, has lent his collection of 42 woolies--one of the largest in private hands--to the Tawes Museum of the Crisfield Heritage Foundation.
Except for a few photos and diary references, practically nothing is known of the sailors who made them.
For Berezoski, 57, a native Washingtonian with homes in Florida and Calvert County, that's part of the charm.
"This is art by poor kids from farms and cities in England who joined the Royal Navy as a way out of hard times," he says. "They ended up on the front line of history, some of them, and this little art by them is all that remains. The ships are gone; the men, too. We've got history books and a few of these things."
Berezoski's collection covers the principal themes and techniques used in the embroidery of woolies by British and some American seamen from about 1830 until 1880, when the growing popularity of photography and the arrival of steamships killed the art form.
John Paul, director of the Crisfield museum and a descendant of John Paul Jones (the Revolutionary War hero added "Jones" to the name when he fled England as a young man), arranged the exhibition.
"As soon as I saw one, I knew we had to show this collection," Paul says.
Sailors began their woolies with a piece of canvas or cotton, which served as the backing. With a pencil or charcoal, a design would be sketched on the front, then embroidered in colorful wool yarn--hence the name.
Most are portraits of ships, either sailing ships or ships combining steam and sail, always shown broadside and often with all sails set.
Berezoski's woolies include quilting techniques called trapunto, a way to pull out sails in high relief, as well as the classic chain stitch and later the long stitch, which required less wool.
Woolies can be elaborate or simple. Some include small photos. Others incorporate bits of tortoise shell, mirrored-glass windows, beads and other scraps from aboard ship.
"Every sailor kept needles and thread and other sewing supplies, things they needed to fix their hammocks, sew torn sails, and work on everyday things in their life on board ship," says J. Welles Henderson, who founded Philadelphia's Independent Seaport Museum in 1960. "After the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812 with America ended, the Royal Navy enjoyed relative peace until about the 1870s. Few warships were built, and with a glut of sailors, wages dropped while inactivity stretched on until steam engines and iron hulls swept away forever the physical reality and on-board cultures of sailing ships."
But before the change, sailors whiled away the time creating a range of woolies depicting the ships they served on at sea. Only a few thousand are thought to exist today.
Experts say there isn't a single book or academic treatment devoted to the subject.
"Woolies are poor-folk art, guys taking scraps of wool, pulling things apart and using needle and thread to create something to remember their days at sea," says Michele Tolini of Sotheby's auction house in New York. "They came back with the men from sea and ended up hung on walls. In time, it was closets and attics, and eventually to junk shops and antique sales as the generations died off. Almost all of them are British, although there are some American woolies as well," she says.
"They're not part of popular culture. You don't have to be wealthy to buy them. You can pick them up for as little as $1,000, and the highest I've seen was $5,000. We sell a few at Sotheby's quarterly Americana sales, and you find them at the Winter Antiques Show at the [7th Regiment] Armory. But it's art for those who know, not the masses.
"I find them intriguing because this is men creating embroidery in the 19th century, when we don't have men doing these things. It was a female craft at the time. You think of the Victorian society locked in gender roles, and here are these tattooed ruffians creating fanciful embroidery," Tolini says.
"It's sentimental art," offers Henderson. "Woolies are mannered and stylized, kind of tough guys expressing themselves with thread. One woolie has a photo of a sailor sewn into the thing on one side. On the other side is a photo of an elderly woman. Midship, running down a banner, is the message 'What Is a Home Without a Mother.'
"They were," he says, "so lonely."
"Every woolie kind of tells a little story," Berezoski says. "They give you a sense of who the sailors were, and if you look close enough, maybe a little thread somehow connecting all of us."
Woolies: Embroidered Ship Portraits, the Maritime Artwork of the Past, from the collection of Donald Berezoski, June 11-Oct. 31 at the Tawes Museum of the Crisfield Heritage Foundation, Crisfield, Md. Adults, $2.50. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-3 p.m.; closed Sunday. Call 410-968-2501.
CAPTION: Tawes Museum Director John Paul displays backstitching of a woolie in the exhibition.
CAPTION: Seamen in the British Royal Navy created these 19th-century embroideries of the ships on which they sailed. "Woolies are poor-folk art," says Michele Tolini of Sotheby's auction house in New York, "guys taking scraps of wool . . . to create something to remember their days at sea."