Ten-foot swells rocked their dive boat. Mold threatened their camera lenses. And spiders the size of dinner plates did not help their sleep...

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Ten-foot swells rocked their dive boat. Mold threatened their camera lenses. And spiders the size of dinner plates did not help their sleep.

But nothing that Michele Westmorland, of Mill Creek, and Karen Huntt, of Bellevue, encountered on a recent seven-week expedition to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands diminished their enthusiasm.

Following the forgotten footsteps of portrait artist Caroline Mytinger, the two photographers found descendants of the former “headhunters” whom Mytinger had painted with beauty and dignity in the late 1920s.

And as they gave away photographic prints of the stunningly detailed paintings, Westmorland and Huntt appreciated even more Mytinger’s dedication to capturing a way of life before it was lost — and their own conviction about how important it is to let people evolve.

“We all change,” says Westmorland, 55, who was making her 15th trip to the area.

“We don’t wear whalebone corsets anymore — nor do you expect to find tribal people wearing traditional dress on a daily basis.”

Early explorers and missionaries called the customs of keloid scarification and total body tattooing “disfigurement.” Tribes were encouraged to burn their elaborate headdresses. Today, they get criticized for not being authentic enough. (Some people even told Huntt and Westmorland not to bother with their expedition because there was nothing left of the real world.)

The two women admit that their first reaction at seeing young, tattooed women sporting Western icons was to think, “Oh, their own designs are so much more beautiful!”

But they object to the idea that a “sing sing” they experienced was not authentic because it’s now used to celebrate events other than headhunting. Or that a traditional pot has lost its meaning if it’s made to sell.

“If it keeps the culture alive, then so be it!” says Westmorland, to which Huntt adds, “They’re still reaching back directly to their past and using as much of it as they can to celebrate what’s important to them today.”

The project headed by Westmorland and Huntt is titled, “Headhunt Revisited: Charting Cultural Change in Melanesia.” It’s intended to result in a documentary film, book and joint exhibit of the modern photos and Mytinger’s paintings.

In taking 10,000 photos and 90 hours of film footage, expedition members found some people still living the traditional way and some trying hard to hold on.

In one village in the Solomon Islands, for instance, men were making a war canoe using information they found in the library, because their own history was two generations lost.

Showing up in remote villages unannounced with a camera crew, a historian and a local anthropologist, Westmorland had worried, “Would we be able to have a conversation with the headman without them having a real concern of what we were doing there?”

But people welcomed them warmly. For Huntt, 48, who was making her first trip to the area, that graciousness impressed her more than anything — even the size of the spiders.

“Every single place we went, they were very enthusiastic to know that other people cared enough about them and the way they lived to visit them,” she said.

Though they didn’t have Mytinger’s luxury of time to let people feel at ease, they had the advantage of the photos of her paintings, which opened doors immediately.

On remote Yela Island, the headman took one look at a photograph of Mytinger’s “Yela Fisherman” and pointed out the subject’s great-great-granddaughter, who was immediately recognizable, Westmorland says.

Elsewhere, Oala Mase, who’d done extensive genealogy on his family, was overwhelmed to see the print of his grandmother, Kori Tabora, the sorceress who posed for Mytinger’s “For the Dance” 70 years earlier.

“When we located him,” Westmorland recalls, “he had tears streaming down his face, saying, ‘I have been praying for years for somebody to come and tell me more of the story of my grandmother and this painting that I’ve heard about.’ “

Mytinger’s paintings were displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1930 and the Seattle Art Museum in 1935, but then they seemed to disappear.

Finally, after years of searching, Westmorland and Huntt discovered the paintings were in a huge warehouse belonging to the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology (University of California, Berkeley), which will launch the traveling exhibit in 2008.

The more they traveled, the more the two women appreciated what Mytinger accomplished, and the more they grew to share her passion.

“In Marovo Lagoon, the thick layer of humidity just rested on you like a brick,” Westmorland said. “You’re drenched and you’re dripping all over your camera equipment. Your lens is steamed up, and then you worry about mold growing in your lens.”

They returned to a crowded but air-conditioned dive boat almost every night. Mytinger had no such escape over her four-year trip.

“How did she keep her paint? How did she keep her canvas?” Westmorland asks. “No wonder she had trouble with her sketches, because the paper just disintegrated.”

The photographers and their film crew had other hurdles.

Their expedition will cost an estimated $670,000, which they’re still raising. Westmorland was stung by a nasty Portuguese man-of-war. Huntt, a former photographer who now works as a photo editor, renewed her love of taking pictures during the expedition, but almost lost the opportunity.

She fell on a wet hillside in week three, injuring her hand, which meant she had to learn to live with the pain and adjust her shooting style.

Had Huntt and Westmorland not brought Mytinger’s paintings to light, her legacy likely would have been lost, especially to the people of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

But two events helped the photographers feel their own legacy is already fulfilled.

As a gift to the national museum, the expedition commissioned a headdress almost identical to the one in Mytinger’s painting, “Heera,” now long lost. The master headdress maker put it on and “the painting just came alive,” Westmorland reports.

“This is their history. It’s another window to what is lost.”

And in Mailu, where the photographers found elderly Bo’o Sebi with full body tattoos, they sat with her under a thatched roof as she molded a pot and talked about the lost art of tattooing and the dying art of pottery.

The more intently they listened, the more children and young adults inched closer and closer to hear, using the photographers’ interest as a catalyst to pay attention to their elders.

“It may not go beyond that one day,” Huntt said. “But they hung on every word.”

Sherry Stripling is a former Seattle Times writer who now freelances: sherrystripling@hotmail.com

For more journal excerpts, visit www.headhuntrevisited.org. Michele Westmorland and Karen Huntt will post details of upcoming presentations and their progress on a book featuring their photos and Caroline Mytinger’s paintings.