Sam McDowell Donates Art to Local Historical Museums
"It’s a great spot to grow up," says Sam McDowell of Somers Point and Ocean City, where he and his eight sisters and brothers lived, went to school and worked on the beach and boardwalk. McDowell’s memories of the Jersey Shore are reflected in his art, copies of which were recently donated to the Somers Point and Ocean City Historical Societies and Bayside Center.
"I’ve been very lucky and feel I owe it to the people to tell them how nice it really is," McDowell said in a telephone conversation from his home in Carmel, California.
"I lived in Somers Point, and liked Ocean City very much, the high school, the beach patrol, it’s a great spot to grow up, so I wanted to give something back to the community."
Sam McDowell, who most people remember from the Smuggler’s Shop on the Ocean City boardwalk at 13th street, was born in Somers Point in 1929 (now 79), and worked as a lifeguard (1948-53 and 58-59) between a stint in the Air Force. He rowed with Tom Oves and Bob Harbough, both of whom own boardwalk grills. He had a whalers boat custom made that he rowed past the breakers every morning in Ocean City, then in Carmel and later in Bequa, an Island in the West Indies where he has a studio he lived seasonally for many years.
Working as an art teacher in Princeton, McDowell spent summers at his boardwalk shop from the 50s through the 70s, where he worked next to Iron Mike the antique diving suit, and sold nautical gifts, including scrimshaw, carvings on whalebone.
While whale bones are no longer legal tender, he began carving scrimshaw on faux ivory himself, and became a scrimshaw trader. At a party in Princeton he met then Senator John F. Kennedy, an avid scrimshaw collector who encouraged him to continue his scrimshaw art work, which are now highly prized collector’s items.
"I realized that I could make more money doing scrimshaw than I could teaching or working the Smuggler’s shop," explained McDowell, so putting everything else aside, he concentrated on the bone carvings and is now considered one of the foremost scrimshaw artists in the world.
Not just a rare, contemporary scrimshaw artists, McDowell has actually been whaling, having accompanied some natives from Bequa, where they are permitted to hunt four whales a year, as they have done for the past two centuries.
"I could row, so they let me go along with them," said McDowell, "and it was scary, because they do it exactly like they did it 200 years ago. They throw a harpoon into the whale and hope for the best," going on what they call a "Nantucket sleigh ride."
Although his scrimshaw earns the bread & butter, his other art work is also popular, and prized by collectors. Some of his paintings reflect his early life in Somers Point, including his family’s Sunny Avenue home that is still there.
Having recently made exact gicle prints of some of his paintings, McDowell gave two of them to each of the local museums, including Christmas Shopping on the Shore Fast Line and Decoration Day on Bay Avenue.
Christmas Shopping on the Shore Fast Line shows people getting off the trolley in Somers Point after Christmas shopping in Ocean City, some holding bags from Talese’s tailor shop and Stainton’s Department store.
Decoration Day, now Veterans Day, has people getting ready for the big parade that ends at the Somers Point beach where they laid wreaths in the water for those who died during wartime. There’s a schooner sailing on the bay with Ocean City in the background.
Accompanying each picture is an essay McDowell wrote explaining what he was trying to convey in the paintings. McDowell’s art is now hanging at the Ocean City Historical Museum and Bayside Center, and at the Somers Point Historical Museum, next to City Hall on Shore Road, which is open Saturdays (10AM – 1PM) and Tuesday evenings (7PM – 9PM) and Thursday mornings (10AM-1PM).
Sally Hastings, President of the Somers Point Historical Society, said "These pictures are really special because they capture a sense of family and community that we would like to preserve. We are very appreciative of all that the McDowell family has done for us. Although spread across the country, they have remained a close family and always remember their roots growing up here in Somers Point."