Shore Leave

Shore Leave

Port towns are especially prone to churn, their fortunes swelling or sinking depending on the tides. But the city of New London, perched where the Thames River meets the western edge of the Block Island Sound, has plenty of anchors.

Following the ferry route along the waterfront, I first set my course for a place that specializes in an imported cuisine: the beloved Sri Lankan spot Cinnamon Grill. An apéritif of Elephant House ginger beer ($3.50) buzzed my tongue without alcohol, swirling between soothing and spicy. The Lumpia Rolls ($8.95 for six), wrapped and plated like petit corona cigars, snapped with shrimp, pork and taro, their savory funk cut by scallion and cilantro.

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In the time it took to share anecdotes with new acquaintances at the bar, the Lump Rice ($18.95) arrived. This steaming banana leaf parcel was almost as satisfying to unwrap as it was to eat. Bone-in goat, lean on its own, was softened in a curry stocked with chewy cashews and green banana, the latter the texture of a baked potato. Stir-fried onion and eggplant were sweet, cardamom pods aromatic. A round fish cake floated me out to sea, only to be brought back to shore by a boiled egg nestled in the dish.

Bearing that cargo—plus a pot of sweet, caffeinated Ceylon Tea ($5)—I headed upriver, to a place that opened when Sri Lanka was still a British colony: the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. Feeling from the outside like a neoclassical English country estate, the museum is an institution made possible in part by a New London whaling fortune. On its grounds, a sloop-like sculpture built and donated by the defunct Thames Valley Steel Corporation floats near driftwood assembled into a hull by artist Judy Cotton. Depending on your horizon, they merge into one vessel.

Circling stairs within the museum, I rose from the inky depths of Thomas F. Petersen’s seascapes to the water’s surface, wading past icebergs, tail breaches and harpoon throws. Through glass doors, three self-portraits contained within a single 1977 photo were a tidal shift. Nude with a hat, smiling in sport shorts and suited in white ready to disco, they depict what could be interpreted as id, ego and superego. This troika introduces Barkley L. Hendricks in New London, an exhibition of paintings, photographs, prints and ephemera created during the artists’ time living and teaching in the city.

“Best known for his expressive, large-scale portraits,” the museum says, “many from the 1970s, which present a powerful vision of modern Black identity,” Hendricks also made New London one of his subjects. Outside his State Street studio (a block from my own circa 2006), he observed and documented his neighbors, his haunts and Connecticut College, where he taught for nearly four decades. In 1983, a young Black man cradled a boombox on Huntington Avenue, allowing Hendricks to record all but the tunes playing from his cassette. Walking the same strip today, the cars parked curbside have changed but not much else.

Hendricks often ate lunch closer to his studio, at the Dutch Tavern, where he snapped a televised Michael Jordan speaking to reporters after the Chicago Bulls won their second straight championship in 1992. In the poster-sized print on view, an image of Jordan crowned with a “Back to Back” hat broadcasts from a television suspended next to a jackalope mount. Their eyes drift toward Hendricks’s camera, indifferent. More than 30 years later, you can perch on the same stool as Hendricks, stare at the same tin ceiling, unclip a bag of chips from its holder, read a newspaper, dip into a jar of pickled eggs, drink a beer, eat a hamburger. Only the pictures on screen will vary. On tap, Guinness ($5) comes from an island an ocean away, but you won’t have to travel for it.

Unless you forget cash.

Written and photographed by Ronnie Rysz. Image 1 features sculpture in situ outside the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. Image 2 features the Lump Rice, still wrapped, at Cinnamon Grill. Image 3 features paintings by Thomas F. Petersen. Image 4 features work by Barkley L. Hendricks. Image 5 features the Dutch Tavern.

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