Beauty in context

"Buffalo Grain Elevators," oil and cold wax medium, by Carol L. Douglas

“Buffalo Grain Elevators,” oil and cold wax medium, by Carol L. Douglas

Last week I watched a tanker slowly moving along Penobscot Bay. It made me realize out how often beauty is contextual. Pulled up along the old Union Ship Canal in Buffalo, tankers and freighters were a natural, powerful part of the industrial apparatus of the nation. Off Sears Island, they look intrusive.

There are painters who won’t condescend to paint lighthouses, calling them kitschy. Of course, anything can be kitschy if badly executed.

The Great Lakes are the largest freshwater reservoir on Earth, containing 21% of the world’s surface fresh water by volume. They’re also tempestuous. The bottleneck of the Great Lakes maritime system is the 36-mile-long strait we call the Niagara River, which includes Niagara Falls. Since it moves the water from a vast part of our continent out to the Atlantic, its flow is considerable, averaging 204,800 cubic feet per second.

A system like this also has lighthouses, and I visited one of my favorites on Saturday. This is the venerable Buffalo Main Light at the mouth of the Niagara River. Built in 1833, it replaced an earlier 1818 light. Those were Buffalo’s boom days, when it was the heart of westward expansion.

Before marine radar, freighters in the fog were a real danger.  This one on Lake Huron in 1963. (

Before marine radar, freighters in the fog were a real danger. This one was on Lake Huron in 1963. (

Today the Erie Canal is bypassed by the Welland Canal, which allows ocean-going ships direct access to the Midwest. The Welland Canal acts like a funnel dropping big ships from all the other Great Lakes out through Port Colborne, Ontario. From here they set a straight course to the St. Lawrence River. This creates a ship highway in the middle of Lake Ontario. It’s unmarked but heavily traveled.

The artist visits a childhood chum, the Buffalo Main Light.

The artist visits a childhood chum, the Buffalo Main Light.

In my youth, recreational boaters had no marine radar. Sailors crossing the lake were intelligently wary of this line of ships, particularly in the fog. The boats were as big as buildings and slow to maneuver. Our little boat was below their line of sight. My father concentrated mightily to avoid them. “They could slice us in half and never even know they hit us,” he said. (It may have been an exaggeration, but it impressed me enough to sit still.) We were surrounded by endless slate-grey water and sky, the only sounds being the waves, the wind, and the ghost-horns of those boats.

Buffalo Main Light and South Pier Light, 1950 (United States Coast Guard). This was a working harbor at the time.

Buffalo was a working harbor in 1950. Here, the Main Light and South Pier Light. (United States Coast Guard).

We didn’t have sonar (although some people did), so my father relied on knowledge, channel markers and lighthouses. While the Great Lakes don’t have the underwater impediments that the Maine coast does, it is still very possible to hang yourself up. Coming into Buffalo, the Main Light and the water intake lights were my father’s guides back to safe harbor. When Lake Erie was kicking up her heels, there was nothing kitschy about that.

Please excuse the late post. I’m baby-wranglin’ again.

Carol Douglas

About Carol Douglas

Carol L. Douglas is a painter who lives, works and teaches in Rockport, ME. Her annual workshop will again be held on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park, from August 6-11, 2017. Visit for more information.