COLUMBIA — The job of every historian is to gather as much information as possible, then fill in the blanks.
Most do the filling with words. Mort Kunstler uses brush strokes.
Kunstler, recognized as one of the top chroniclers of historical scenes, will be at S.C. State Museum Saturday to present gallery talks and autograph books and other items. His South Carolina-based paintings include three displayed at Fort Sumter National Monument depicting the first battle of the Civil War and one depicting the launching of the CSS Hunley on the evening of Feb. 17, 1864.
Nobody photographed that secret mission. But Kunstlers The Final Mission, created for the Hunley Commission, remarkably captures a moment before the launch, thanks in part to the reams of words written about the first submarine to sink a ship in battle.
You start with what is obviously known, and you work from there, Kunstler said. When you have as much information as with the Hunley, it becomes an unending and exciting chore.
Kunstler doesnt mean chore in the negative sense: He thrives on the challenge of using his imagination to fill in those blanks and doing the research so there arent so many blanks.
Kunstler does it so well that he stays busy with commissions. While he does scenes from all periods, collectors scoop up his Civil War work. When on a book-signing trip at then-state Sen. Glenn McConnells memorabilia shop in Charleston, he first told McConnell he wasnt sure he had the time to take on the task of creating a commemorative painting for the Hunley Commission.
Then I took him out to Sullivans Island and said this is where the Hunley left from, and I told him the story, said McConnell, now the states lieutenant governor.
It was one man with a deep appreciation of history preaching to the historical choir. By the time the trip was complete, Kunstler had agreed to paint the Hunley launch scene.
I got so fascinated by it, just like him, Kunstler said.
That was just the start. Kunstler read everything he could on the Hunley and the mood in Charleston near the end of the war. He talked with experts. He made another trip to Charleston to get the right feel for the location, especially the angle for the gangplank leading from the dock to the sub. He spent a lot of time on the phone with McConnell.
I started getting calls, McConnell said. How did they get on? What do you think the dock looked like? How do you think they would gather on the dock?
He wanted to get every little detail right. We had re-created the faces of the crew (based on the few written descriptions and skeletal remains found after the Hunley was raised in 2000). Mort gave them living details. He brought them to life.
One of Kunstlers trips to Charleston happened to coincide with the ceremonial opening of a pocket watch found in the sub and belonging to Lt. George Dixon, commander of the crew. Kunstler felt he had to include the watch in the painting, but how could he do it?
Its impossible to show something that small any way except in a gesture, Kunstler said.
In the painting, a soldier is holding a lantern up to allow Dixon to check his watch to time the launch at the proper tide. The watch is a tiny speck on the full image, yet its the focus.
Meanwhile, a crew member is peering apprehensively into one of the subs conning towers. Others are busy checking lines and gear on the wooden dock. The face of a mysterious man in a top hat is hidden from view. A man in the background points to the harbor, where the Hunleys target, the USS Housatonic, was anchored.
Other details include the full moon behind scattered clouds and the basket of oysters in a boat in the foreground.
It try to tell as much as possible, Kunstler said. Every little thing is thought through.
He checked the phase of the moon that night, its location in the sky in reference to the launch, the type of lantern used, whether oysters were in season.
Painting the sub itself was both easy and difficult, Kunstler said. Easy because he knew almost exactly what it looked like; hard because he had little room for letting his imagination roam.
I was quite thrilled with the painting when we finished, Kunstler said, and even more thrilled when we went down there and signed (prints and books) for two days and realized how much money we made for the Hunley Commission.
He signed a print for McConnell, adding a comment: Thanks for Hunleytizing me.