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Sam Messer’s Animated Film at Wadsworth Atheneum

Sam Messer’s animated film “Denis the Pirate” is now showing at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Messer is well known in Norfolk as the director of the Yale Summer School of Art and for the drawing classes he offers in the summer.

The story of “Denis the Pirate” began over twenty years ago when the writer Denis Johnson (who won the National Book Award for his novel “Tree of Smoke”) told a bedtime story to Sam Messer’s daughter, Josephine. It’s a rollicking if bloodthirsty tale, with pirate Denis, supposedly Johnson’s great-great-great-great grandfather, wreaking a campaign of slaughter and terror across the Caribbean in the 18th century. Eventually, Denis is brought down, but not before sinking the entire British navy.

Messer and Johnson were old friends, having met at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown in 1981. They met up again in 1995 at an artists and writers residency program on the Caribbean island of Bequia—the location which inspired Johnson to create a story about a pirate, and which just might be resting on Denis’s sunken mountain of looted gold.

Messer started making etchings of scenes in the story about six years ago. Bit by bit the project grew—earlier versions of the film have been shown in Norfolk—until now it includes 1,700 etchings. Actor Liev Schreiber narrates the 11-minute film with suitable brio, and the soundtrack is by Sarah Neufeld (of Arcade Fire) and Colin Stetson.

Along with the film, the Wadsworth is exhibiting other paintings and sculptures of Messer’s as part of its MATRIX series. The exhibit will be up until Feb. 11, 2018. Free day passes to the Wadsworth are available from the Norfolk Library.

Etching by Sam Messer.

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