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'Ghost Ship'

Matthew Olds' installation at the Seaport Museum

“Ghost Ship,” painting by Matthew Olds. Photo credit: Gabi Clayton

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A multi-media art installation by painter Matthew Olds at the Foss Waterway Seaport Museum takes a contemporary look at the ages-old fascination with wrecks at sea.

"When thinking about maritime history, the very real threat of losing a vessel one way or another may tip the balance between triumph and defeat," said Olds. "This theme has a deep cultural history in art, music and culture which I would like to build upon. The finished artwork won't be dark or menacing in character, but more a space that is both interesting and safe to ponder while looking at it both above and below the waterline."

The artist promises that his installation, called "Ghost Ship," will evolve over the three months it will be on view in the museum. When I visited the museum on a Saturday afternoon, I was told that Olds had spent the previous day working on it and was not finished, so what I saw was a work in progress.

A drawing on the wall that has a lot in common with architectural renderings is a plan for the installation that was apparently drawn before any of the work began. It shows half of a ship sinking into the floor (the sea) as seen from various points of view and a painting on the wall depicting a ship wreck with the ship broken in half and sinking. Notes on the drawing indicate there will be two paintings on the wall, but on this Saturday there was only one, an excellent, mural-size painting of the sinking ship in tones of blue, white and black, with touches of brown. There is little left of the boat but for a skeletal frame. Everything is painted with carefully applied dashes of color that radiate explosively from the center. The feeling of disaster is almost overwhelming; it is like a slightly abstracted J.M.W. Turner seascape.

The sculptural installation is the wooden frame of the back half of the ship installed at a severe angle to the floor as if sinking. Inside is a black-mirrored surface that reflects the inside of the ship as well as the network of exposed beams in the museum building. The mirror creates the kind of disorienting perspective one might expect to see if inside the sinking ship. I do not know if it is going to be painted or if anything else is to be added to it, but it is quite a powerful installation in its present state.

The press release describes the installation this way:

"Tacking away from the doomed Romanticism of 19th-century artists who were obsessed with the sea and its perils, Olds ventures in a new direction with his sculptural installation. "Ghost Ship" is not a galleon but a contemporary vessel, and the artwork combines 2-D photographs and 3-D sculpture in a way that invites visitors to peer into the mystery of the half-sunken boat, exploring through both sight and touch. The Seaport Museum offers the ideal setting for this work: the 100-year-old renovated warehouse is filled with vintage maritime collections that surround the "Ghost Ship" with a veritable treasure trove of objects."

Note: there were no photographs yet installed when I visited.

In addition to "Ghost Ship," the Seaport Museum now features an exhibition of a giant humpback whale skeleton that was recently installed by students from Stadium High School. The skeleton hangs from the building's trusses. Primary sponsors for the project are Jan and Mike Adams and Jan's dad, Tom Baer; Tacoma Public Schools; and Bill and Mandy Cichanski. Students who put it together are: Josh Arcena, Dawson Bell, Kieran Chen-Johnson, Polina Chowdhury, Stephanie DeLeon, Kieran Desmarais, Michael Finch, Cassie Lynch, Elizabeth McInnis, Bianca Ponnekanti, Madison Rodriguez, Johanna Steele, Kenna Taylor, and Madison Whittaker.  

"Ghost Ship," 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, through March 1, $6-$10, free to members and children under 5, Foss Waterway Seaport Museum, 705 Dock Street, Tacoma, 253.272.2750,

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