Setting Sail with Megan Piontkowski’s “Feminist Ships”March 18, 2016
Now, in sailor’s clothing young Jane did go
Dressed like a sailor from top to toe.
These lines from the sea shanty “The Female Smuggler” end Feminist Ships, WSW’s newest artist’s book by Megan Piontkowski—but only if you can decipher them. They are written using maritime signal flags, which since the 19th century have been hung on the masts of ships to send messages to other vessels as they pass. Megan’s book begins with the full maritime flag alphabet, inviting the reader to turn the page, translate the message, and become a part of a new version of sailing history.
“Part of feminism is pointing out parts of history that, for some reason, we don’t think about,” says Megan. “We think of pirates and sailors as all being men, and that’s not the case.”
Although Megan, an Art-in-Ed Artist’s Book resident, grew up on the banks of the Cohansey River in New Jersey, it’s only recently that nautical imagery has manifested itself in her work. A few years ago for her installation Afterwit, she stitched together a series of maritime flags to spell out what she wished she had said to men in response to street harassment. Megan subverted the masculine connotations of sailing with a feminist statement, a practice she continues in Feminist Ships.
Feminist Ships, at its core, is a history lesson, celebrating the lives and achievements of women on the water. It begins chronologically, and fittingly, with an Inuit boat called the umiak, nicknamed the “women’s boat” because it was paddled by women to transport people and belongings. The book continues to move across centuries and around the world, including the ships of notorious female pirates like Grace O’Malley and Ching Shih; Molly Kool, the first licensed female sea captain in North America; Sisters Under Sail, a sailing education program for young girls; and Women on Waves, an organization that provides abortions and women’s healthcare in international waters exempt from restrictive laws. The last page features the rowboat built by writer Julia Holmes who takes solo expeditions retracing an ancestor’s journey from New York to New Orleans.
“These women are active,” says Megan. “They aren’t just pining away on the shore, waiting for their husbands to return.”
Feminist Ships is accordion bound and cased in a navy blue hard cover. Megan lightly sanded the book cloth to give it an aged look—like the book had spent years being corroded by the salty sea mist. Intimate, handwritten notes on the book’s pages allude to sailors’ personal log books. The loose cursive describes the female sailors and the illustrations of their ships, from a sailboat to a Chinese junk, from a canoe to an Irish galley.
Megan’s illustrative style renders her screen printed ships in flat, wiry line work on bright, colorful paper that extends the palette of her maritime signal flags. Every few pages, the color switches abruptly from charcoal, to intense blue, to stark white, to goldenrod, ending with a vivid red. These pages become a unified pictorial field as each boat’s bow or stern intrudes into another page. This implies an interconnected history which can be fully seen when the book is unfurled like a scroll. When completely laid out, the pages resemble a series of flags that belong hung amongst the sails of a ship, signaling new untold stories.
The idea that sailing is the exclusive domain of thick-bearded, ruthless pirates and burly male sailors in white and blue uniforms is false. Megan’s book begins to scratch the surface of women’s rich history on the water, and invites readers to question where else our narratives might be lacking.
“I want my work to get people talking about and rethinking what it means to be feminist,” Megan says, “and who can be a part of feminism.”
Megan Piontkowski is an artist and illustrator based in Brooklyn, NY. She has a BFA in Painting from Montclair State University and an MFA in Painting and Drawing from Brooklyn College. You can see more of Megan’s artwork on her website meganpiontkowski.com and her illustration work at meganpiontkowski-illustration.com. Get a behind-the-scenes look at Megan’s book’s production on our Flickr.