Masses of mosquitoes worked their way down her thin clad back and stabbed up at her from the bottom of a cane chair. A relentless sun beat...

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Masses of mosquitoes worked their way down her thin clad back and stabbed up at her from the bottom of a cane chair. A relentless sun beat down during the days; the sweltering black nights provided little relief.

Caroline Mytinger was a skilled portrait artist and amateur anthropologist who broke convention in the late 1920s by traveling to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands with almost no money, a tin of paints and a female companion.

For two years, she captured the beauty and dignity of a people who struck horror into the hearts of most Westerners because of their reputation for headhunting and occasional cannibalism.

Nearly 80 years later, two women from a vastly different generation but bitten by the same explorer bug have jumped at the chance to follow Mytinger’s footsteps after reading her descriptions of battling skin infections, flies and restless subjects.

“I can’t wait to get the camera back in my hands and get back to that beautiful country,” said Michele Westmorland, of Mill Creek, as she nears her departure next Saturday with fellow photographer Karen Huntt, of Bellevue.


“Headhunt Revisited”



The explorers
Michele Westmorland, of Mill Creek, is a freelance photographer who runs Westmorland Photography with her husband, Stuart. Since leaving a career in corporate real estate, she has led several tours of Papua New Guinea. This is her third expedition as a fellow of The Explorers Club.

Karen Huntt, of Bellevue, is a freelance photographer and photo editor with a degree in anthropology. She started as a newspaper photographer and is a former managing editor for Corbis Corp., and former photo editor for The National Geographic Society.

The Mytinger Project
Westmorland and Huntt will retrace the 1926-30 route of artist Caroline Mytinger, who painted and sketched portraits of people in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Jeff Streich, of First Light Films, in Portland, will produce and direct a documentary film. The expedition will carry the flag of The Explorers Club and the Society of Woman Geographers and Wings Trust, the project sponsor, which promotes women explorers. Visit www.headhuntrevisited.org for more information.

The goal
The project will donate high-quality photographs of Mytinger’s work, rich in ethnographic detail, to national museums in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and re-create a headdress. A scholarship fund will be established for a female art or anthropology student in Papua New Guinea. There will be a book, including photos and paintings, a documentary film and a traveling exhibit that will begin at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in 2008.

The two women will condense Mytinger’s two years “in country” down to seven weeks for their expedition, “Headhunt Revisited: Charting Cultural Change in Melanesia.” Traveling aboard a 72-foot dive ship with a local anthropologist, historian and documentary filmmakers, they’ll send back weekly Web updates as they gather material for a book and a traveling exhibit that will include their photos and Mytinger’s oil paintings and drawings.

Mytinger’s goal was to secure details of distinct indigenous people before they were forever changed by Western influence and intermarriage. Her paintings, largely unseen for 70 years until Westmorland and Huntt rooted them out, are time capsules with intricate detail of lost tradition.

When Westmorland showed them photos of some of Mytinger’s work, anthropologists and elders in Papua New Guinea grew excited at viewing the keloid scarification, tattoos and a complicated headdress that disappeared from the culture generations ago because of Western disapproval. Now there’s proof that live butterflies were indeed worn as ornamentation in some areas.

“I have never seen my people portrayed so beautifully and so proud,” a national, Peo Luke, told Westmorland last August.

Bold venture

Mytinger was young, unmarried and traveled without sponsors on her 1926-30 journey. Most of the $400 she and Margaret Warner carried with them was set aside to be used to ship their bodies home, if needed.

The two women tracing their route are both married and have financial and other responsibilities. Westmorland, a diver, is 55. Huntt is 48; she has the tug of two sons, 10 and 13.

Their journey will not be as dangerous, but it will be more complex.

For one thing, the expedition will cost about $670,000, much of it for the documentary film. And it has already cost the two photographers thousands of hours of research time before they knew whether Mytinger’s 25 spectacular oil portraits even still existed.

KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Local photographers Michele Westmorland, left, and Karen Huntt will head a seven-week expedition to Papua New Guinea this month, retracing the 1926-30 route of artist Mytinger, who painted and sketched portraits of natives.

Mytinger carefully documented details of who she was painting and their lives. As Westmorland and Huntt track how the cultures have changed, they say they won’t judge new generations, for example, if they happen to be wearing Nike T-shirts and baseball caps, but simply provide information of their ancestors’ history they might never see otherwise.

They are inspired by Mytinger’s work and daring, and they expect others will be inspired by her, too.

For them, as for Mytinger and Warner, taking chances is not as difficult as enduring routine. Both felt the stress that comes from having no control in former corporate careers.

There will be technical and physical hardships, Huntt said, but they will be solvable and exciting.

“Sitting in meetings day after day, week after week — that, to me, is far harder.”

A regular visitor

Westmorland has made a dozen trips to New Guinea in the past 14 years. At the Mill Creek office and home she shares with her photographer husband, she clicks through images of Mytinger’s life and work on her computer.

COURTESY OF THE MONTEREY MUSEUM OF ART

Caroline Mytinger, adventurer and artist.

Here is Sarli and his tattooed wife, handsome and dignified in Mytinger’s vivid colors. The wife died within weeks from what was believed to be influenza, brought in by foreigners, and Sarli died soon after.

Here’s a man wearing an elaborate feathered headdress. Each feather has meaning. Dame Carol Kidu, Minister of Social Welfare and Cultural Development in Papua New Guinea, was so excited to see this detail, thought to be lost, that she wants to see a new headdress become part of a living museum. Elders in the Pari Village will use Mytinger’s work to teach construction and significance to children.

This is a photo of Mytinger, taken in her 40s in her Monterey living room, some years after the expedition.

“She was stunningly beautiful, and she looks like she’s wealthy here,” Westmorland says. “She’s not. She didn’t have two cents to rub together.”

But Mytinger moved easily in well-to-do company.

Born in Sacramento in 1897, she was educated at what was then the Cleveland School of Arts in Ohio, and worked as a model to pick up skills as a painter from such notables as Charles Dana Gibson. She then earned her way painting portraits of prominent people, including the Weyerhaeusers, Nordhoffs, Pigotts and Blethens in the Pacific Northwest.

She was concerned about disappearing cultures and traveled to Haiti, Panama and Guatemala, and then studied anthropology and anatomy — dissecting cadavers to study facial bone structure — before taking off for Melanesia. With little more than a tin of paints, canvas and Warner, who could fix almost anything and entertained portrait subjects with her ukulele and guitar, she traveled by ship for a year.

Mytinger was not a woman who would take no for an answer, even from the elements.

She lost her easel and film in a hurricane. She lost her paints and canvas in a boat capsizing and then made do with boat paint and sailcloth until new supplies arrived from Australia.

Her two books — “Headhunting in the Solomon Islands” in 1942, and “New Guinea Headhunt” in 1946 — told of these incidents but with amusement and without complaint.

“She has a great spirit,” Huntt said. “It’s like, ‘Well, cockroaches the size of hummingbirds are chewing on my toenails today.’ There’s none of this kind of self-analyzing or self-absorption that you find in a lot of today’s travel writers. It’s about the experience and the people and what’s going on.”

It took Mytinger and Warner a year to get to the South Pacific by steamship. They spent the fourth year of their journey in Java, recovering from malaria. There, they had the paintings framed in bamboo.

When they returned in 1930, the American Museum of Natural History mounted a show under the direction of Margaret Mead. The 25 paintings traveled, stopping last at the Seattle Art Museum in 1935 and then seemed to disappear.

Inspired by book

Enter Westmorland and Huntt.

A dozen years ago, a family friend gave Westmorland Mytinger’s second book with the compliment, “I think Caroline is a bit of you.”

The more Westmorland researched Mytinger, the more interested and inspired she became. But she and her husband, Stuart, were on the road too often already with other projects. She enlisted Huntt’s help but with a major caveat.

“We had no project until No. 1, we knew where the paintings were,” Huntt says. “And No. 2, we knew what condition they were in and the quality.”

MICHELE WESTMORLAND

This boy and girl, 7 and 8, respectively, wear traditional Papua New Guinea dress.

They searched probate records and hired investigators with no luck. Then, two days before Christmas 2002, Westmorland searched the Internet for Mytinger’s name one more time and up popped a day-old Web site.

The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley had 23 of Mytinger’s paintings in its warehouse of 3 million artifacts.

“I was on the phone to Karen jumping up and down and screaming,” Westmorland recalls.

Six months later, they viewed the first 10 paintings, still in their bamboo frames, still a miracle of brush work considering Mytinger had to pick sand and flies off her fresh paint.

Since then, the museum has come up with an additional 39 sketches and a fruitful cigarette tin. Inside, the photographers found a love letter from Mytinger’s brief, early marriage in which her husband professed his undying love but released her to the world.

“You want to pull the arrow out of your heart,” Westmorland said.

The photographers found four scrapbooks, “gold mines,” at the Monterey Museum of Art, bequeathed by Mytinger, who died at 83 in 1980. And the women have interviewed friends and family, including Mytinger’s former yardman, who remembered: “She rolled a hell of a good cigarette with one hand.”

Whenever Westmorland and Huntt get bogged down in the massive paperwork and preparation, they go back and read Mytinger’s words.

And sometimes they feel they hear from her directly.

The actress Lauren Hutton will narrate the documentary. Like Mytinger, she has worked as a model to fund trips supporting endangered cultures. Meeting with Westmorland and Huntt in New York, she acknowledged in a husky voice: “This is a story that needs to be told!”

“And then,” Westmorland recalls, “she whips out a pouch and starts rolling a cigarette. We just looked at each other and went, ‘Whoa!’ ”

Sherry Stripling: sstripling@seattletimes.com