Welcome to the Chubby Chatterbox Newsletter, where I’ll be posting favorites from the Chubby Chatterbox archives. In addition, my complete thriller Return of the Mary Celeste will soon be serialized here for those who have asked for something beyond a regular post.

My novel is based on a true event, arguably the greatest maritime mystery of all time. In 1872 the crew and passengers of Boston brigantine Mary Celeste abandoned their seaworthy ship and its valuable cargo, vanishing in the middle of the Atlantic. Speculation over their fate has never abated. History records that after the Mary Celeste tragedy no one from that fateful voyage was ever seen again. History is about to be rewritten…

Return of the Mary Celeste

Prologue

Tragedy struck the brigantine Mary Celeste on the morning of November 25, 1872. The hourly log was later recovered from the deserted vessel; At 8 a.m. the last notation was made. By 9 a.m. no one remained aboard to chalk the next entry.

Something had terrified Captain Benjamin Briggs and his crew, prompting the seasoned skipper to make a decision certain to affect not only himself, his ship and crew, but his family as well—his wife and two year old daughter were aboard Mary Celeste. Much ink has been spilled in fanciful and scientific attempts to explain the calamity that engulfed this perfectly seaworthy ship, yet all that is known for certain is this: in a matter of minutes Captain Briggs became convinced that the only way to save their lives was by ordering everyone into a hastily launched lifeboat. By giving the order to abandon ship, he also launched the greatest of all maritime mysteries.

On December 5, 1872, a month after leaving New York Harbor, Mary Celeste was found drifting on a calm and empty sea. The ship was in fine condition, perfectly intact with valuable cargo safely stored in her hold, but the crew and passengers had vanished. None were ever seen again.

Until now….

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John Doe

July 2, 2014

This painting harbors a secret. It looks conventional enough, a wealthy older man in a posh setting, an expensive Japanese screen in the background and an antique leather chair beneath him. He is easy in his own skin as he faces the sunset of his life, a scarf around his throat and a jaunty handkerchief in the pocket of his coat. He isn’t one to suffer fools easily but he appears friendly and probably has a good sense of humor. Or does he?

     

One of the benefits of being an artist is that it allows me to play God. The world might not obey my commands but when I paint anything is possible. I can defy gravity and place waterfalls where they couldn’t possibly exist, and I can set more than one sun in the sky to illuminate different areas of my composition. I have total control over my pictorial world. The power can make my head spin.

    

Many years ago I fantasized about becoming a renowned portrait painter. I loved the idea of bringing people to life through paint, exploring their personalities and revealing their subtle secrets. And no one had more secrets than the man in this painting.

    

Nothing beyond the face is accurate. He didn’t have a jaunty scarf at his throat, probably never owned an expensive Japanese screen and didn’t while away hours in the comfort of an antique leather chair.

    

How did this dishonest painting come into being? Without models to pose for me I’d taken to using photographs from the newspaper. I spotted a picture of this fellow in the human interest section. He was a homeless old gentleman picked up by the police and taken to a shelter. He was memory impaired and had no idea who he was or where he’d come from. The police were hoping someone would recognize him from the news clip. No one did.

    

John Doe’s photograph appeared sporadically in the paper for a month, when he died. I’d been following this story and had hoped someone would identify him. I’d even doodled a sketch from the newspaper clipping I’d come to know so well. It seemed a travesty that this man died without friends or loved ones at his side, his only possessions the rags he was wearing when found on the street.

     

I studied the grainy newspaper image with a magnifying glass, expanded my doodle and transferred it to an old canvas. Before long John Doe was looking back at me. The face was as accurate as I could make it under the circumstances. The rest was pure fantasy.

   

Critics tell us that art is truth. Maybe. It’s also possible that the human spirit is its own truth, with the power to triumph over reality. Was John Doe using me to speak for him when no one else could? Would he have approved of a picture that ennobled him in a way life hadn’t? All I know is that years after depicting him, John Doe’s smile seems to be more pronounced than when I signed this painting.

 



Comments

26 Comments
Wow - this story is so thought-provoking. What an honor to offer dignity to this gentleman when the world withheld it from him. The only other thing that might have been included in the picture that life seemed to have missed for him - a soft and present woman posed beside him, her worn and wrinkled hand on his shoulder, or a couple of rumple-headed grandkids at his knee. Beautiful work with a beautiful story.
By: Carrie on July 2, 2014
Sometimes art isn't about presenting the truth as it is showing what we would like the truth to be.
By: PT Dilloway on July 2, 2014
I can see where your artistry could garner a lot of worldwide attention if you would paint of portrait of someone else like that and then give it to them (or maybe to a member of their estranged family)..
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on July 2, 2014
You have created a lovely painting. I remember when that gentleman was in the paper. I felt sorry for him and his family that did not even know where he was or that he had died.
By: Kathe W. on July 2, 2014
How sad that he died alone- you have given him honor and dignity in this portrait...not saying he didn't have it before, but he was forgotten to himself and you have immortalized him on canvas. You have a special gift.
By: Coloring Outside the Lines on July 2, 2014
Oops! I thought it was going to be a world leader from ancient times. I suspect he was at one time a successful man who was down on his luck or ravaged by dementia. Sad, but you did capture his former glory.
By: Cranky Old Man on July 2, 2014
In my humble opinion the artwork has its own voice. It's understood by the viewer in their own special way. As for your interpretation of the gentleman in the newspaper. His story could have been about anything. You provided him with an air of sophistication... and everyone deserves some dignity regardless of their status.
By: Daniel LaFrance on July 2, 2014
Love the image and the philosophy.
By: John on July 2, 2014
it made me sigh to think of his family never knowing what became of him.
By: TexWisGirl on July 2, 2014
And how do we know that he wasn't once a wealthy man? If he didn't know or remember, that doesn't mean it wasn't so. It may be a long story, but I think it's entirely possible. Art makes us see the potential and the possibilities.
By: Pixel Peeper on July 2, 2014
What a sad story. It's awful to think his family might be looking for him and they'll never know what happened. However, I got a completely different sense of him from the portrait. I think he looks angry, impatient, and kind of uncomfortable. The chair looks like one from a desk and I feel like he thinks posing for his portrait is a waste of time when he should be behind his desk, working and earning money. Art sure is open to different interpretations, huh?
By: Lexa Cain on July 2, 2014
You did that John Doe a great honor and service. Some how in the cosmic ripples that smile shines in gratitude. And what a warm and animated portrait style you have. Never too late you know....
By: Tom Cochrun on July 2, 2014
I never thought of that immense power artists have over how their subjects are portrayed. What a noble gesture trying to help find his family. It's sad he died alone. It's sad when ANYONE dies alone. :(
By: Scott Park on July 2, 2014
It makes me wonder if there is a way to have the painting done into a small brass plate (like i've seen done), and that attached to his grave marker. It would give him more dignity in death than he obviously had in that last season of his life.
By: mimi on July 2, 2014
This is so absolutely wonderful! What a difference you have made in the world, while you may not think so. I just love this story and I love the way you have portrayed this wayward soul.
By: Tabor on July 2, 2014
What a great story! I like hearing the background info on your paintings. Have you ever heard this Mary-Chapin Carpenter song? This made me think of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFyfY7D9LDE
By: The Bug on July 2, 2014
You certainly did him justice.
By: Val on July 2, 2014
I might be wrong but the eyes look vacant. I see nothing wrong with making a painting such as this. Much more has been thought about when someone like this man turns up with amnesia.
By: red on July 2, 2014
It seems to me that you and this gentleman gifted each other in different ways. Artist create a truth just as writers do. You do bothe very well.
By: Hilary on July 2, 2014
I think it's very nice that you painted poor John Doe. He is immortalized through your art. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on July 2, 2014
This man made quite an impression on you and you did him great service. Too bad neither he nor his family saw it. I pretty much got the same impression of him that Lexa did.That is the beauty of art, how it strikes the viewer. .
By: Akansas Patti on July 3, 2014
You've actualized your dream, Stephen! Always quality paintings with such great subjects!
By: Michael Manning on July 3, 2014
Wonderful painting and thought-provoking back story. And what a kind act for you to rescue him and drop him into a more affluent context. Great stuff!
By: Bryan Jones on July 4, 2014
A wealthy older man? I'd love to be one of those. I'm halfway there at least.
By: Al Penwasser on July 4, 2014
Everyone is seeing something different in this painting, and imagining something different about the man. I like that. You definitely have a talent.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on July 5, 2014
The "portrait" is incredible. The story is so moving.
By: Mitchell is Moving on July 15, 2014

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