Chris Duncklee brings seascapes to canvas
Heaving seas, brave fishermen, and smoky naval battles, are not images commonly associated with land-locked Hillsborough, New Hampshire. Yet, resident Christopher Duncklee, who goes by Chris, brings these images to the town with a passion and precision matched by few artists. Now, after thirty-five years of practice, his hard work is becoming more recognized in the painting and maritime worlds.
Chris’ paintings usually feature the wooden bottom-dragger fishing boats that his grandfather built. When speaking with Chris about painting these ships, it becomes clear as to why he chose them as his main subjects. “I like to make it come alive again,” he says, “it’s a kind of tribute to the men who worked on [them],” he said. When he wants to paint a ship, he doesn’t merely paint a picture. Rather, he paints a story. “When I paint a boat, I get to know it. I talk to the old men that worked on it and get the picture in my head.”
Chris even began a Facebook page, “https://www.facebook.com/WoodenFishingDraggersFromStoningtonCtAndNewEngland,” where people can share pictures and stories of old draggers. This helps Chris to get the information that allows him to create the image he wants.
While learning more about the life of a boat, Chris starts his painting project by looking at the blueprints of the ship itself. Next, He says, “I build a scale model of the draggers about two to three feet long,” he explained. “Then stick them in a big box of sand which I shape into waves the way I want.”
Not only must he be a ship painter, but he must be a ship builder as well. It may take a year or more of constant work for Chris to finish a painting. He never gives up on it, saying, “I sleep in my studio. I live with my work.” But why should these painted boats be so important to him? “It’s the end of an era. It’s something that I loved,” he says. He grew up around the docks in Stonington CT, helping to bring in fish off of the boats, although his father forbade him from working aboard these ships at sea. Too many friends had been killed on the job. So instead of working on them, Chris painted them. When asked how he became interested, Chris said frankly, “I was born that way.” He expressed that seafaring is in his blood; although he also has strong Hillsborough roots as well. The Scottish side of Chris’ family came over in the 1630’s settling right here in New Hampshire. Great grandpa Duncklee moved to Mystic, CT in the early 1930s to work at Electric Boat, with is brother, Elmer. In the 1911, my mother’s family came here from the Azores looking for a better life settling in Fall River, MA. In 1953, my maternal grandparents moved to Stonington CT to build submarines, as well as the Stonington Draggers.
Chris identifies strongly with his Portuguese side, owing much of his love for the ocean to his fisherman ancestors. He names Captain Ellery Thompson, who wrote two books about the wooden draggers, as his mentor in painting. Although they were never especially close, Chris would talk with the old man whenever he could and looked up to him. Today, he says he still owes much of his inspiration to Thompson. He even has a sketch that the old sea captain drew tattooed on his right arm. But, as Chris said, the era of great wooden fishing boats has ended. Many of the old ports have replaced the fishing industry with tourism. Twenty-four years ago, this began to happen to Stonington, and rather than watch the old shipyards be replaced by seaside resorts he decided to move back to his Hillsborough roots. Here he has made a new home on his energy independent sheep farm, and runs a timber frame and barn restoration business. Still, he manages to add in a little maritime history, using the same shipwright tools his grandfather used to build boats on his restoration projects.
From this little town in New Hampshire, Chris works to maintain maritime history through his painting. He loves when they come together and “look like they’re moving.” In this way, perhaps the legacy of those brave fishermen and sailors will not slip silently beneath the waves, forgotten in time, but rather remain preserved in the minds of those who see and appreciate his work.
To learn more about Chris and his paintings, be sure to visit his Facebook page, “https://www.facebook.com/pages/Christopher-S-Duncklee/128510913836004/,” or his website at http://www.christophersduncklee.com/.
By Sarah Holdner, The Villager
©Christopher S. Duncklee