Recreating history

Artist Margot Datz revitalizes the historical panels at the Flying Horses carousel.

You know artist Margot Datz’s murals at the two Steamship terminals: In Vineyard Haven, a schemata of a wavelet-spewed harbor, sailboats, docks, and puffy white clouds over a pastoral littoral; in Oak Bluffs, romantic scallops of windows disclosing blue summer skies and gulls on the wing. This well-known Island artist has also supplied us, most recently, with a Kelp Forest mural at the children’s library in Edgartown.

Datz, who lives off a country road in Edgartown, is also well known for mermaids strolling on beaches past joyous kids and sandcastles. Her mermaid fetish — if we can term something so exquisitely beautiful a fetish — was enshrined in her book, “A Survival Guide for Landlocked Mermaids,” which over the years has put so many of us in touch with our own inner mermaid.

My favorite Datz painting — well, it’s more of a grand design — is the phenomenal trompe l‘oeil embedded at the front altar of the Whaling Church. Trompe l’oeil, of course, means to fool the eye, a favorite bit of art-speak for any of us who’ve enjoyed a fake window enclosed in a gray clapboard cottage, such as the one you see if you glance left at the corner of Franklin and Spring Streets in Vineyard Haven.

Some years ago, Datz was called upon to enrich the imagery between the tall windows of the Whaling Church. Now, you can sit listening to Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major as your eyes feast on archways and courtyards leading to inner sanctum sanctorum that are not actually there. Or are they? The viewer’s imagination mingles with the artist’s to create a multiverse we can chillax in, for at least as long as the music plays, and we remain in our pews.

In 2016, Chris Scott of the Vineyard Trust reached out to Datz for a recreation of several badly damaged panels inside the central octagon of the Flying Horses carousel in Oak Bluffs. For all those of us who’ve been coming to, or living on, the Island for a spell, we know that this jewel of a carousel is the oldest still-in-operation merry-go-round in our country. Some 140 years, to be moderately exact.

Or not so exact. The carousel was moved to the Island from NYC in the 1880s, and how long it operated in that location is not precisely known. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1987, and it’s among only a handful of carousels that still offer brass rings extended from a high metal sleeve as the horses circle.

When the talented Ms. M was engaged to paint the panels, the scenes depicted had grown damaged by time and salt air. In the central octagonal core, comprised of eight rectangular panels, only one original restored panel was on display. A second original panel, highly damaged and torn, was archived. The rest of the panels had vanished. The artist was asked to recreate this second existing panel based upon whatever evidence could be sussed out.

The artist says, “I do not restore or remove paint. I recreated, from the stretcher up, the second of eight panels.” The originals, she learned, fostered a feeling of European or Hudson River school landscapes.

Investigations showed that earlier refurbishments also yielded a cowboys-and-Indians theme, another an Age of Aquarius motif. The latter materialized in the 1980s which, yes, to answer your question, followed on the heels of the Broadway musical “Hair,” which introduced virtually all Americans to an Aquarian astrological guide for our planet, and a fun song. “There are family members still on-Island whose dad painted them, and they were beautiful,” Datz says.

Fabled as are Margot Datz’s paintings locally, they’re so distinctively pretty, so easy to spot, and to hold our hands over our hearts as we pause to enjoy a chipmunk-with-a-chalice here, a mermaid seated before an underwater mirror there, this lady arty genius will undoubtedly sail out into the broader world as the next Ludwig Bemelmans, Maurice Sendak, and — our own — Roald Dahl — only two letters short from Datz, come to think of it.