‘Enormity,” an exhibition inspired by Nathaniel Philbrick’s book “In the Heart of the Sea,” will be shown Sept. 14-21 at the Attleboro Arts Museum, 86 Park St.

The exhibition is part of the 2019 NEA Big Read: Attleboro initiative and features works by students in the Wheaton College Department of Visual Art and History of Art.

An opening reception, which is also serving as the official kickoff to the Big Read, is set for 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 14, at the museum. Funded by The Ray Conniff Foundation, it will feature historical sea songs from musician David Coffin.

The reception is free and open to all. Reservations are requested, but not required; email office@attleboroartsmuseum.org or call 508-222-2644 x10.

Since 2007, the museum has been an active partner in the NEA Big Read, which encourages residents of a community to read the same book at the same time and enhance their shared experience through local arts and culture activities.

The “Enormity” exhibition features original 3D forms inspired by “In the Heart of the Sea,” for which Philbrick won a National Book Award. It tells the gripping tragedy of the 19th-century whaleship Essex that set sail from Nantucket, and was rammed by a whale. The incident inspired Herman Melville to write his epic novel “Moby Dick.”

The theme of “Enormity,” developed by AAM Executive Director and Chief Curator Mim Brooks Fawcett, is “a composite term for the massive conflicts that surface throughout story,” she said.

“The concept of enormity captured the direct actions of a 60-ton, vengeful whale — but also covered the profound struggles between moral code vs. survival,” Fawcett said.

Kelly Goff, a Wheaton associate professor of art and co-chair of the Department of Visual Art and the History of Art, approached Fawcett during the winter of 2018 with a request for a collaboration that would culminate in an exhibition of original student work.

Fawcett said she responded by challenging the students to conceptualize, create and exhibit artwork in response to the idea of enormity as demonstrated in the chapters of “In the Heart of the Sea.”

“After reading Philbrick’s text, Wheaton’s Sculpture II students focused on the ways that enormity is represented and how it manifests literally in terms of scale — like the size of the whale; the disproportionate size of whaling boats; the length of the sailors’ journey; the never-ending ocean around them,” Goff said.

“They also considered enormity figuratively as they learned of the extreme peril described in the book; hunger and starvation; the struggle to hold on to hope; and the emotional toll of survival.”

Exhibiting artist Maddy Cook-Comey’s piece, “Devoted Daughter,” points to the extended periods of time that the crew of a whale ship would be at sea and therefore absent in the lives of their children.

The work references one such child, Adelaide Joy, daughter of Essex Second Mate Mathew Joy. While her age at the time of the Essex’s departure was undocumented, in Cook-Comey’s piece, Adelaide Joy stands as a metaphor for the many children of whalers who grew up unsure if their fathers would return.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, young girls, typically between ages 5-12, practiced embroidery stitches on what are referred to as “samplers.” Often consisting of the alphabet, a verse, some decoration, and their names, they reflect the lives of their young creators. “Devoted Daughter” imagines the adolescent daughters of Nantucket whalers and their relationships to the men they may have barely known, yet with whom they shared a deep connection.

As Nathan Domingos, a senior at Wheaton, considered the concept of enormity with respect to “In the Heart of the Sea,” he knew that the whale and its hunters would be central to his work. As a person of Portuguese descent, Domingos felt an intimate connection to the iconography and mystique of whaling culture. His artwork addresses the relationship between the crew members of the Essex and the whales.

“Although the whaling crews are typically thought to be dominant over the whales they hunt, the story reveals that the power dynamic is truly in favor of the whale,” he said.

If you want to check out the exhibition, gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.

Coffin, who will be performing at the reception, descends from Nantucket whalermen and has an extensive collection of songs from the maritime tradition. Sea-chanteys, ballads and the songs of the sailors comprise his main repertoire.

In addition to performing at book readings with Philbrick when “In the Heart of the Sea’ was first published, he arranged and performed the music for the NBC documentary, the “Wreck of the Whale Ship Essex.”

More info: 508-222-2644, www.attleboroartsmuseum.org.

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